May 2023 - George Mason University honored Diane Portnoy with the conferral of a Doctor of Humane Letters, given in recognition of her extraordinary contribution to society and decades of service in support of immigrants and refugees.
Portnoy’s work with and support of Mason’s Institute for Immigration Research is an extension of her commitment through The Immigration Learning Center to help more Americans understand the true picture of what immigrants and immigration means for our country.
“It’s not about me,” said Diane Portnoy, educator, philanthropist, founder and CEO of The Immigrant Learning Center (ILC), and lead donor to George Mason University’s Institute for Immigration Research (IIR).
But Portnoy’s humble demurral belies an incredible story, equally horrific as it is inspirational. And to understand Portnoy’s life is to better appreciate the impact she has had on thousands of immigrants to America and, importantly, the need for the work she supports at Mason through the IIR.
The IIR is a leading hub of scholarly research on the contributions of immigrants to the United States. Its operation, however, relies on the generosity of donors to operate. “I hope it can survive because so much depends on funding,” said Portnoy. “I hope we find more significant funders to support the institute because it is vital to what is going on today.”
Portnoy’s story starts with her parents, who lived in the ghetto of Kalisz, Poland. Her father was one of 30 Jewish men who were arrested the day in August 1939  when the German army invaded the city. A Polish guard let him escape. He recognized her father because, of all things, he was a well-known ping-pong player in the town.
“My father went home and said to my mother, ‘Pack your bags. We are leaving on the next train out of here,’” recalled Portnoy. Her parents, just 19 and 20 years old at the time, quickly said goodbye to their family and their entire life, and left, jumping from city to city eastward in Poland, staying ahead of the Nazis.
Eventually, Portnoy’s parents wound up in Siberia, together at least, for two to three years, working as slave laborers for the Russians. How they spent the last year of the war is vague—memories too heavy to be shared.
“I do not know they spent the last year of the war. There was very little discussion…they did not want to talk about it; they did not want to remember it. It was all in the past,” said Portnoy.
When the war ended in 1945, Portnoy’s parents returned to Kalisz, only to find the same thing many other survivors would discover—home was no longer there, just rubble and loss.
“My parents were Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust, but in the process lost their entire families, which included from my mother six brothers and sisters, and from my father two sisters and a brother,” said Portnoy.
Though the war might have been over, the struggle to survive remained. By 1946, Portnoy’s parents resettled in Russia-controlled East Germany, where anti-Jewish sentiment remained strong. So strong that when the doctor delivering Portnoy found out they were Jewish, her father had to go to great lengths to ensure that he continued assisting her birth.
“My father, this gentle man who had survived some pretty horrible things, pulled out a gun and said, ‘If anything happens to this woman and child, I am going to kill you,’” said Portnoy. “And that is the world into which I was born.”
Portnoy’s parents escaped into West Germany, into the American zone. They paid a truck driver to smuggle them across the border during the night—hidden in a secret compartment underneath the truck that went undetected in searches by guards.
A few years later, they obtained American visas through the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. At three and a half years old, Portnoy boarded a converted American battleship with her family and set sail for America.
Portnoy barely survived the voyage, coming down with whooping cough. As they reached Ellis Island, her parents were terrified that the United States would not let her enter. After a week-long quarantine with her mother and a name change (Dina to Diane), the family boarded a bus for Malden, Massachusetts, where they settled along with other Holocaust survivors.
Portnoy's parents went on to create a life that seemed to embody the American dream. Along with many of their friends in the community, they bought homes, created businesses (her father opened a sweater store), and sent their children to college. Portnoy saw firsthand that as her immigrant community took part in the American experience, they were also growing their town. Immigrants were building the local economy, contributing to society and culture in their neighborhoods, and creating a new generation of children that would grow up and do the same.
Still, it wasn’t easy.
“Nobody spoke English. Nobody could afford to take English classes,” said Portnoy. “Think about it, many of them, including my parents, had no family, no money, no language, no knowledge of the culture.
“I saw what immigrants go through; it was part of my upbringing.”
Becoming an entrepreneur like her father, Portnoy honored the challenges her parents had faced and opened The ILC (Immigrant Learning Center) on November 9, 1992, in Malden to provide free English classes for immigrants and adult refugees.
Now, she sees that same exponential impact of immigrant success in the more than 11,000 graduates of The ILC, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary.
“I hear the same success story over and over again,” said Portnoy about ILC students. “Whenever I see them—I try and visit every class—I thank them, of course, for coming, but I especially thank them for their children because that’s the real gift to this country.”
Portnoy saw the positive impact of immigrants on the economy and understood that highlighting that message was a way to combat hostility toward them. She approached Mason with an idea.
“She wanted the institute to focus on the positive economic contributions of immigrants,” said Jim Witte, professor of sociology and director of the IIR (Institute for Immigration Research). “She said people still don’t get it and view immigrants as having a negative impact on the country. But immigrants have always helped build the United States, and that is continuing to happen today.”
A joint venture between The ILC and Mason, the IIR was established in 2012 with funding from Portnoy, who has donated more than $3 million in support since its inception.
“I had done some research and decided Mason would be a great place for this institute,” explained Portnoy. “It was already a very diverse community, and it was a place where you could get a great education without much money. A lot of immigrants and children of immigrants have gotten degrees there.”
Over the first decade, the institute has produced scholarly research that shows the positive impact of immigrants on the U.S. economy. The IIR’s work has influenced immigration policy on a national level, has been cited in academic publications, and has been featured by media outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Forbes, and more.
One of the institute's premier capabilities is its Immigration Data on Demand program, or iDod. This service connects people–anyone from academics to policymakers to the general public– with accurate data on immigrants. Anyone can request an iDod; the service is free and is personalized to the location and research data. The program has completed over 300 requests from educational institutions, government programs, and from as far away as Alaska.
“In just ten years, the Institute for Immigration Research has become an important contributor to the work of policymakers, local jurisdictions, and government at all levels. Its body of work is as diverse as the immigrants whose stories they bring forward. What Diane has done in establishing both The ILC and the IIR is exemplary; we are all in her debt for helping immigrants be at home and welcome in our country,” noted College of Humanities and Social Sciences dean Ann Ardis.
In recent years, the institute has expanded, looking at the cultural, social, and intellectual benefits immigrants provide. For example, a recent study considers the impact of foreign-born athletes, a diverse population usually supported during athletic competitions. The IIR’s research considers how highlighting immigrant athlete stories and contributions might reach a broad spectrum of Americans—especially within the diverse community of sports fans who represent a wide range of political beliefs, cultures, age, and gender.
Portnoy sees the benefit of looking at all the contributions of immigrants in the new research. She hopes it will continue to help offer even more reasons to celebrate the immigrant community, and she hopes the impact of the IIR will continue through new funding.
Portnoy's work has not gone unnoticed. She has been recognized with the Massachusetts Literacy Champion Award and the Ellis Island Medal of Honor for her lifetime achievement working with immigrants and refugees.
“Diane has provided decades of service to immigrants and the United States, by aiding immigrants in establishing a new life and making vital contributions in their new home,” said Witte. “In addition to her inspiring personal story, she is a tremendously successful educator, and is remarkably generous in support of immigrants and refugees.”
But again, Portnoy keeps the focus elsewhere.
“It’s not about me,” she reaffirmed. To her, the message is more important. That message is about the positive effect immigrants have on America, how supporting them supports our collective future, and how that impact pays off exponentially, generation after generation.
It is, of course, also about the immigrants themselves, said Portnoy, “and the people that are looking for that second chance or third chance, and the hope this country still represents to them."
Diane Portnoy, founder and CEO of The Immigrant Learning Center (ILC), with attendees of The ILC's 30th anniversary gala.
July 06, 2023