MALDEN – In another time and another place, Dina Katz and her parents would have been called “illegals,” and the truck driver who hid them beneath a tarp as they rumbled across the border of their homeland would have been called a “coyote.”
But this was not Honduras or Guatemala. It was Europe in the throes of the devastation wrought by World War II, and 3-year-old Dina was lucky to be escaping East Germany, which at the time was part of Poland. Jews and other ethnic minorities were scrambling to leave the country. Anti-Semitism was rampant and they needed to get out. No extended family members of Dina’s parents, Simon and Sylvia Katz, survived the Holocaust.
Under President Truman’s Displaced Persons Act of 1948, Dina’s parents were among the 190,000 visas allocated to Jews.
“How my parents survived the war, I don’t know,” said Diane (Americanized from Dina) Portnoy. She heard of some of the atrocities they witnessed, but they didn’t speak much about it, wanting to protect her.
The family came from Europe on a converted U.S. battleship, arriving at Ellis Island in 1949. They were put on a bus filled with refugees headed for Malden, and settled in the Suffolk Square section where “everybody was a Holocaust survivor and everybody spoke Yiddish,” said Portnoy.
As the refugees began to learn English and to assimilate, Jewish businesses began to flourish. Among them was Diane’s parents’ shop, Sylvia’s Sweater Outfit on Shirley Avenue in Revere, where Portnoy worked growing up.
Deeply imbued with the immigrant experience, Portnoy became an entrepreneur herself – but for a nonprofit. After earning her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction at Cornell University, and raising her children, she founded the Immigrant Learning Center in Malden.
Portnoy knows what it’s like to be a “displaced person” in a harsh, foreign culture. Her life’s work has been to ease the suffering of immigrants and to give them a voice. As founder and CEO of the Immigrant Learning Center, Portnoy has won the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, has been given the keys to the city of Malden, has authored “Immigrant Struggles, Immigrant Gifts,” and shows no signs of slowing down.
“I had always wanted to have my own program,” said Portnoy. “I had been working in a program that offered four hours of English as a Second Language a week – a standard curriculum. But I had my own ideas.”
With start-up funding from family and friends in 1992, she opened the Immigrant Learning Center on Pleasant Street in Malden.
“Because of my background, I saw a need,” she said. “I wanted to give immigrants a voice. I started with three morning classes. I hired three teachers and a receptionist – five rooms. I evaluated students and wrote proposals for funding. I took out the Yellow Pages and made lists of every organization, church, and synagogue. I sent out 300 letters. I called, I spoke at temples and community centers. I walked up and down the streets of Malden with fliers.
“The first day, 60 students showed up. We were totally enrolled and had a waiting list of 80. Since then, it has skyrocketed,” said Portnoy. A year later, the ILC moved around the corner to a five-story office building at 442 Main St., where it occupies four floors.
All levels of English are taught, including three levels in a literacy program that educates people who arrive from their native countries with no reading or writing skills. In its 28 years, ILC has educated 10,500 immigrants from over 100 countries.
There is a Next Steps Career Planning program, which includes students meeting with career counselors; a writing class; a senior citizen conversational class; and citizenship classes.
On a recent day, people moved through ILC with a sense of purpose. In a classroom stood Jeantilus Gedeus, a graduate of the center. He arrived here from Haiti in 2007, and now teaches a class of high-level learners.
“I attended school here for nine months,” said Gedeus. “Then I volunteered.” After that, he became a certified ESL teacher and has been teaching there since 2011.
A musician and vocalist, Gedeus takes center stage every year at the citizenship swearing in celebration at Malden City Hall, where his rich, deep voice leads the new Americans in a heartfelt rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.”