U.S.A. - Irish International Immigrant Center Celebrates 25th Anniversary

The Irish International Immigrant Center (IIIC) honored Sr Lena Deevy, LSA, at its annual Solas Awards Celebration at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel. Named from the Gaelic word for “light,” IIIC’s Solas Awards recognize the good work of inspirational leaders. 2014 is a special year for the IIIC, marking the 25th anniversary of providing legal, wellness, and education services to thousands of low-income immigrant families from Ireland and across the world each year, and promoting leadership development opportunities for men and women from the island of Ireland. 
 
Lena, IIIC’s Executive Director Emerita, has worked tirelessly to promote the welfare of immigrants during her 24 years of leadership at the IIIC. Her efforts to promote solidarity, peace, and justice are global in scale, benefiting people in Ireland, Central and South America, Haiti, Uganda and the Middle East. The following are excerpts of Lena’s reflections on receiving the Solas Award.
 
I am grateful for the opportunity to share with you the gratitude in my heart and the spirit of these 25 years that we cultivated together in the Irish International Immigrant Center.
 
 
A few key ‘markers’ from these years
 
1990: The fall of 1990 was the beginning of an exciting time for IIIC. We received our first annual grant from the Irish Government enabling us to hire 2 part time staff, myself and David Mooney, and it was also the year the Diversity/Morrison Visa legislation came into being. This brought hope and excitement to the thousands of undocumented Irish immigrants in the US. As a volunteer organization our members were very much part of that excitement and together we helped thousands of immigrants in the following years apply for the Morrison Visa. 
 
The numbers of people seeking our help, at times, almost overwhelmed us. But everyone rolled up their sleeves and worked long hours. It was immigrant helping immigrant, learning on the job, under the guidance of pro-bono attorneys. We held workshops in many parts of the State of Massachusetts which were attended by hundreds of hopeful immigrants. All the hard work paid off as thousands of applicants were successful, and were able to commence living lives that had been put on hold. And indeed some of us, including myself, would not be here today except for the Morrison Visa! 
 
1995: I was invited to speak at the opening of the Montserrat Aspirers Hall on St Patrick’s Day, Montserrat’s National Holiday. This introduced me to an aspect of the Irish Diaspora which was fascinating. Montserrat is a British overseas territory located in the Caribbean. It was wonderful to learn about the historical Irish connections with Montserrat, “the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean”. This relationship blossomed into the annual Black & Green in Boston and other programs. Black & Green was established as a way to foster trust, healing and friendship between communities in Boston. Today, Black & Green brings together many different cultures for an afternoon of friendly cultural exchange, great food, music, and discussion.
 
1996: We honored the first female president of Ireland, her Excellency Mary Robinson, with our Solas Award.
 
2000: We commenced our first Peace & Reconciliation Program for Northern Ireland and the border counties, (known as WVP). Young adults came to Boston for up to three years on this program to gain work skills and learn how to live in a diverse society.
 
2010: IIIC responded to the Haitian Earthquake by expanding our immigration legal services to focus on the needs of the Haitians so devastated by this disaster.
 
This is just a sampling of the amazing things we have accomplished and continue to accomplish. Today many talk about adaptability as a characteristic of an innovative non-profit and I think this is part of IIIC’s DNA. 

What motivated me to do this work?
 
Recently a friend asked me how I became involved in this ministry and my motivation for doing so. I thought immediately of the immigrants who inspired me and continue to do so on a daily basis.
 
I thought of the Little Sisters of the Assumption and our mission to help create a world which is just, equitable, loving, and inclusive particularly to those on the margins.
 
I also reflected back to my youth. As a young shy woman of 18 growing up on a farm in Crettyard, Co. Laois, which is between Castlecomer and Carlow (50 miles SW of Dublin), I went to England to train as a nurse and this experience gave me empathy with immigrants firsthand. It was lonely and I was constantly teased about my accent and often chided for the way I pronounced my words. A slight hearing impairment leading to an inability to distinguish tones made me avoid any occasions where this might happen as my English pronunciation was often corrected in the presence of others. And to add to that, people from Laois do not pronounce their ’ths’ – so imagine being asked to pronounce “Thirty-Three Thousand Thundering Trombones……! Even to this day those experiences affect me when speaking publicly. 
 
I originally came to Boston from the Irish Province for two years as a Masters student at Harvard School of Education. Three experiences in particular shaped my decision to dedicate myself to immigrant issues in Boston, especially those involving people faced with the challenge of integrating successfully into US society. 
 
FIRST: Shortly after I arrived in the US, Anne Daly, a radio reporter from Ireland invited me to join her in Haiti. This was a life changing and traumatic experience in witnessing the dire poverty and the sheer desperation in the faces of the crowds of Haitians who faced us as we landed at the airport. It left me with so many questions and a realization of why many immigrants take such risks to be here. Like all of us they want to give their children a better life – they have the same ache and love in their hearts and want a better life for their families.
 
SECOND: My conversations with many undocumented Irish immigrants as part of my research project touched me deeply. It was the first time I got a real sense of what it was like living on the ‘edge’ of society in an underground existence. It was heartbreaking to listen to their stories; they became so real for me since I knew some of their families back home. I knew of their grief when they could not return home to Ireland for funerals of loved ones and other important events in their families. 
 
THIRD: I owe my attraction to and passion for the work of the IIIC to conversations with a small group of Irish women in 1988 who were working out of a basement office in Dorchester. What they shared spoke to my heart. Through a confidential hot line we provided practical assistance to abused, underpaid, uninsured nannies, laborers and other workers who needed help with housing, jobs and legal advice. These women were ‘experts’ in attracting pro-bono attorneys to deal with many complex cases and developed partnerships with a variety of organizations for referrals, like the Immigrant Workers Center. I will be forever grateful to Rena Cody, Odette Harrington and Teresa O’Hara for their invitation to be part of their team. From the beginning, these women created a cultural foundation in the IIIC that proclaims that there is more than one kind of Irish. 
 
That belief has led us to a philosophy of respect and care for all people from the island of Ireland and beyond, no matter what their immigration status, their ethnic background, gender, economic status or sexual orientation. Every immigrant story is the story of a real person, and every person is a ‘gift’.
 
These women also believed passionately in the talents of all immigrants and invited people like Lew Finfer, a community organizer, to provide leadership training, skills building, anti-discrimination and ’know your rights’ workshops and other forms of training to empower immigrants to be leaders and advocates. 
 
Challenges for the Future
 
I want to leave you pondering on the greatness of the United States as a nation of immigrants and how we as a nation can rise to the great challenges today. Our country is divided on the undocumented immigrant ‘challenge’.
 
The one thing I am certain of is that we are all brothers and sisters and we are all part of this beautiful world. We are interdependent but sometimes we are afraid of one another and what will be asked of us in order to include others in our tent. 
My wish is that we continue the conversations and listen to one another. The US as a nation of immigrants is well equipped to resolve the differences that divide us in the immigration debate. We cannot continue to leave 11 million of our global brothers and sisters who reside in the US living in fear of deportation because they are undocumented. We have a broken immigration system. We can and we must find a way to develop fair and just immigration policies. My fervent hope and prayer is that we will have Comprehensive Immigration Reform soon. 

In Conclusion
 
The test of the strength of an organization is how it develops after a long term leader has stepped down. IIIC is in very good hands under the excellent leadership of Ronnie Millar, Executive Director and his team of staff, volunteers along with a committed Board of Directors. 
 
I want to give special recognition to the Irish Government who have faithfully funded IIIC annually and Irish organizations providing services for its citizens overseas.
 
Finally, I am excited, and at the same time slightly nervous, to be moving on to my own homeland with new pastures and new opportunities in continuing the mission of the LSA in new ways. I am looking forward to the next phase of my life made richer by my 25 years in the Boston area.
 
Lena, LSA
 
The Little Sisters in the U.S. Territory are extremely grateful to Lena for her leadership in work of Immigration Reform and in the many ways she has collaborated, advocated and networked with others to this end on the local, national and international level. We will miss her presence among us, especially in the Dorchester community, and wish her abundant blessings as she returns to Ireland. We can only imagine that wherever Lena is missioned she will always be about the work of social justice for immigrants. We thank the Irish Province for sharing her with the USA during these years!
 
 
Boston Celtics “Heroes Among Us” Award 1999
with Team Captains Antoine Walker of the Celtics and Derek Martin of LA Clippers
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Traditional Irish Music at the
Solas Awards Celebration was a treat for all!
22/01/2015
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