We were inspired by the now famous declaration — “Immigrants, we get the job done” — from the musical “Hamilton,” to celebrate the dream of America in our own community.
Aren’t we all immigrants? Everyone. Whether the son, the daughter, the grandchild or great grandchild, we are nearly all from foreign soil. This diversity has made us, and continues to make us, strong.
But it is not easy to be in a new land. Barriers abound. Discrimination often haunts.
We thought, what a great time to celebrate and thank some of the new immigrants who help make the Capital Region strong.
I’m first generation Greek-American.
My father, Philip, came here in 1951, escaping the aftermath of the Greek Civil War. Born of a family with ancient Turkish roots, he hailed from a tiny village called Exohi, far north of Thessaloniki, landing in Clinton, Conn., working for the farm that sponsored him. Hard work — the theme of every immigrant story.
He had no family here. He moved to New Haven, where he met my mother, Mary, herself the child of immigrants from Mitilini on the island of Lesbos, the center of ouzo distilling.
We spoke English at home, at dad’s insistence, learning Greek from the church and mom’s family. The reality was we were way more Turks than Greeks genetically, as dad’s family were forced, by pogrom, from Asia Minor to northern Greece as the Ottoman Empire collapsed.
We still speak the language at home, we cook Greek and attend non-religious Greek social gatherings in the Capital Region. Heritage is important.
My father suffered here, too, many hostile events based on his dark looks and thick accent.
I remember how proud he was when he got his citizenship in 1961.
My father would weep at what our country says and does about immigrants today, from the separation of families to the detentions. He would say people should enter correctly, but he would want the fewest barriers to that process.
So many leaders in our community are recent immigrants.
My friends, the Bala brothers, from India, founded Vicarious Visions and now operate Velan Studios, in Troy. Ruth Mahoney, at KeyBank, comes from Ireland. Roger Ramsammy, a Trinidadian, heads Hudson Valley Community College.
Jean-Remy Monnay, who arrived in Brooklyn in 1982, grew up in Haiti, missing his mother, who was working at a New York factory, gathering funds to bring him north. His youth was spent under the Duvalier regime and he remembers being arrested at 16 — just because — by the Tonton Macoute.
Recently retired from a 30-year career in human resources for New York State, Jean-Remy is finally pursuing, full-time, his earliest dream, leading the Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate NY and creating artistic space for other actors of color.
He didn’t let the language hurdle stop him, despite the odd looks and downright abuse he suffered as a result of his pronounced kreyòl drawl.
At RISSE, in Albany, Rifat Filkins helps immigrant and refugee families navigate the difficult path of entering a new culture, leaving family behind and coping with inherent racism in schools, businesses and everyday life.
Rifat came from small town life, too — a missionary village, Martinpur, in Punjab, Pakistan.
Lucky to be educated in cities, she returned home and, as a school principal, saw attendance rise, over 11 years, from 35 students to 350.
She was contacted by RISSE in 2009 and offered a job stateside. It felt like a calling, but it didn’t make the transition any easier. She understands firsthand the true toil, the sideways glances and unique sense of both loss and opportunity familiar to every immigrant.
She is happy to help those in our community trying to make their own way on the journey, weaving our beautiful fabric, becoming Americans.
All politics really are local. And, locally, thousands of new immigrants are in our workforce, neighborhoods and community. There are nearly 11 million new immigrants who live and work in our country. They are part of what makes us strong.
At heart, it’s easy. It comes down to tolerance, understanding, empathy, compassion and love. It starts with conversation, working around the cultural and linguistic blocks and finding the common ground.
The Immigrants’ Ball is a step in that direction. A small step, but a step. Please consider joining us Sunday, Aug. 18, right after one of the matinees of “Hamilton,” to celebrate the differences that make us one.
We’ll have that conversation. We’ll have food and music and dance. All of us. Every one.
For more information about The Immigrants’ Ball, visit proctors.org
Philip Morris is the CEO of Proctors.
Immigrants’ Ball honorees:
- Oluwaseun (Seun) A. Adetayo MD, FACS, FAAP (Albany Medical Center) Nigeria
- Vikash & Vikram Agrawal (Levrx Technology Inc.) India
- Guha V. Bala and Karthik V. Bala (Velan Studios) India
- Isabel Lim Byon (NewsChannel 13 WNYT) South Korea
- Muhsin Celik (Global Foundries) Turkey
- Antonio Civitella (Transfinder) Italy
- Rifat Filkins (RISSE) Pakistan
- Jorge Gómez (Tiempo Libre & Alta Havana) Cuba
- Ruth Mahoney (KeyBank) Ireland
- Angelo & Jerry Menagias (Blue Ribbon Family Restaurant) Greece
- Jean-Remy Monnay (Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate NY) Haiti
- Steady H. Moono, ED.D. (SUNY Schenectady County Community College) Zambia
- Chef Yono Purnomo (Yono’s) Indonesia
- Roger A. Ramsammy, Ph.D. (Hudson Valley Community College) Trinidad
- Jennifer Clark Rao (Emma Willard School) Mexico
- Deryck Singh (Stewart’s Shops) Guyana
- Alex J. Tronco (Northwestern Mutual) Italy