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Once an immigrant, now she helps others

The Immigrant Learning Center Inc.
In 1992, Diane Portnoy founded the Immigrant Learning Center to teach English to adult immigrants.

Meeting Diane Portnoy, who speaks perfect English, you’d never guess how closely her life resembles the experience faced by the immigrants she helps today.

Born in 1946 in Poland, Portnoy was a child when her Jewish parents paid someone to help them escape.

After arriving at Ellis Island, the family was sent to live in Malden to start a new life.

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“I guess you could say I was undocumented,” said Portnoy.

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“Think about it, here’s my parents, on a boat, passing the Statue of Liberty. You have no money, no friends, no family, you don’t know the culture, you have no language. And you’re starting over.

“I see that all the time here. And I understand it. I also know how special these people are. The kind of drive and courage it takes; how they overcome these obstacles. They do it for their children.”

Her parents were fluent in Polish, Yiddish, German, and Russian, but they spoke no English. They got jobs in local factories. Portnoy and her younger brother learned English and eventually went to college.

But the immigrant experience always stayed with her.

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In 1992, Portnoy founded the Immigrant Learning Center to teach English to adult immigrants. She started small with three classes, three teachers, and a guidance counselor.

Today, the center employs 31 and offers 22 classes. At any given time, about 425 students are enrolled. The wait list runs between 700 and 800.

Last year, 855 students from 66 countries attended, the top five countries being Haiti, China, Morocco, El Salvador, and Brazil.

“It’s a very intensive program,” Portnoy said. “We give them 12 to 15 hours a week of free instruction. Nothing costs anything. We give them paper, pencils, notebooks. Everything. I feel very adamant about that.”

Since its inception, the center has helped more than 9,000 immigrants from 35 cities in Massachusetts who emigrated from 118 countries.

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Over the years, the center’s mission expanded to include educating the public (media, schools, police, religious leaders, elected officials) through its Public Education Institute, founded after Sept. 11, 2001, to inform Americans about the economic and social contributions of immigrants.

The ripple effect of teaching immigrants English is staggering, said Portnoy.

“Think about it: Now you can talk to your kids’ teacher, get a job, take public transportation, go to the library and use a computer, start a business,” she said.

“So many people are professionals in their native countries. And [here] they’re driving taxicabs and working in liquor stores. We need to find a way for these people to transfer their skills to this country. Because it’s such a waste of talent. One of the ways is to get them to learn English.”

Kathy Shiels Tully can be reached at kathy@kathyshielstully.com.