For Immigrants, Nonprofit Provides Help on Path to American Dream

Beth Fitzgerald | April 25, 2012 | More Issues
Latin jazz artist embodies work of International Institute of New Jersey

Cuban-born jazz artist Paquito D’Rivera was a child in the ‘50s and musical prodigy when his father played “Benny Goodman Live at Carnegie Hall” for him. Listening to the famous American clarinetist instilled D’Rivera’s lifelong dream to come to New York to be a musician.

“That was my American dream,” he said.

The alto saxophonist and clarinetist defected to the United States from Cuba in 1980, realizing a career that has reached icon status in American jazz circles.

On Thursday, he will be among three immigrants honored by the Jersey City-based International Institute of New Jersey, a nonprofit founded in 1918 to help immigrants adjust to life in the United States. The institute provides newcomers with English classes, legal assistance, job training and job placement, and also provides training in cultural competency to other community service agencies that serve diverse populations.

“To be an immigrant is always difficult, even when you have a lot of support,” said D’Rivera, a 11-time Grammy Award winner who in recent years has served as artist-in-residence at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. “It takes a lot to make it in a foreign country, but America is a very generous place,”

D’Rivera, who lives in North Bergen, is receiving the institute’s American Dream Award along with Shazi Visram of Jersey City, who was born in Canada to parents who were born in Pakistan and Tanzania. She is the founder of HappyFamily Brands, a producer of organic baby food. Also being honored is Kashmir native Farooq Kathwari, chief executive of Ethan Allen Interiors, the home furnishing manufacturer and retailer.

“America is the country of my dreams, and to be recognized by the Institute is very rewarding,” said D’Rivera said. “They are a very humanitarian, wonderful organization, and I am proud to be selected by them.”

Institute Executive Director Catherine Tansey said the nonprofit helps about 400 documented immigrants start new lives in the U.S., and most choose to remain in New Jersey.

The awards honor immigrants “who have gone through ups and downs in their lives and but have found their path to what they want to do with their lives and have also given back to the community,” Tansey said. This is the optimistic — but realistic — view of the difficulties that immigrant can expect in the U.S. that the institute seeks to present to its clients.

“It is important to show our clients that it is not a straight line to integrate into the a new community, but in the U.S. they will have the opportunity to creatively find what is best suited for them and start walking down that path to success.”

The institute’s $1.4 million budget is funded by the state and federal government and by grants from private foundations, and has about a dozen full and part-time workers, and about 14 AmeriCorps volunteers who are funded by a federal grant.

The immigrants served by the institute include a woman who was born in a refugee camp in Nepal. “If you have spent 18 or 20 years in a camp, life is not going to be easy, even if you do manage to get to the U.S.,” Tansey said. “You have to keep trying and keep being persistent.”