The theme that the United States is a ‘Nation of Immigrants’ was reaffirmed Wednesday at the State Capitol as 19 residents, including several from West Hartford, were honored.
By Bernard Kavaler and Ronni Newton
The ornate Old Judiciary Room at the Connecticut State Capitol was overflowing with proud immigrants and their friends and family, accompanied by high ranking state officials, as 19 individuals from across the state were recognized for their contributions to Connecticut on Immigrant Day.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal described the gathering as “a celebration of America,” stressing that “we are a nation of immigrants” and expressing appreciation to immigrants for sharing “your talents, your character, your courage, your example of giving back constantly.”
Nineteen immigrants to Connecticut from 16 countries were honored by the Connecticut Immigrant & Refugee Coalition (CIRC). The individuals, including many who have been in the state for decades and some more recent immigrants, came to the United States from Argentina, Belarus, Brazil, Egypt, Greece, India, Italy, Ivory Coast, Jamaica, Korea, Lithuania, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Sri Lanka, and Ukraine.
Three West Hartford residents were among those recognized Wednesday, as well as one former resident who was honored posthumously.
West Hartford resident Peter Barzach, vice president of operations for Data-Mail, was born in Lviv, Ukraine. He fled to the United States with his family amid an atmosphere of intense anti-Semitism which prohibited the practice of Judaism and restricted their education.
Together with his wife Amy – and an army of volunteers – Barzach cofounded the Jonathan’s Dream inclusive playground in West Hartford in 1996, in honor of the couple’s son, Jonathan, who was born in 1994 with the degenerative neuromuscular disorder Spinal Muscular Atrophy and died before his first birthday. The playground was rebuilt and rededicated in October 2017, with even greater accessibility providing the opportunity for children of all abilities to play together.
Barzach has also volunteered as a board member for both Jewish Family Services and the Hebrew Academy, organizations that assist the refugee Russian Jewish community.
A West Hartford resident for the past 45 years, Barzach graduated from Hebrew Academy in 1976 and Hall High School in 1979. He went on to earn a B.S. in computers and engineering from Trinity College, and an M.S. in engineering and MBA from RPI. He worked in the aerospace industry, including at United Technologies’ Pratt & Whitney and Hamilton divisions, and joined Data Mail in 1997.
Andrei Brel, a native of Belarus, was in his early 30s, married with two young children, when he moved to Connecticut in 1993. He was concerned about the future for his family if he stayed in Minsk.
He and his wife, Zhanna, and their two children settled in West Hartford in October 1993, and both were fortunate to find jobs. Brel went to work for the state’s Department of Social Services, and at the same time earned his master’s in social work at UConn and worked part time for Jewish Family Services as a youth counselor.
Brel founded Juniper Homecare in 1998, and since then has expanded the scope of service to assist the elderly age in place, and support their caregivers. His company employs many immigrants, and has provided thousands of free Thanksgiving meals to those in need.
Brel has also volunteered to assist with the assimilation and integration of refugees from the former Soviet Union. He also serves on the boards of West Hartford Community Television and Playhouse on Park, and is past president of the Connecticut Association of Adult Day Services.
Ada Ustjanauskas, the only child of Jacob Gens, was born in 1926 in Lithuania. Growing up in a mixed Roman Catholic and Jewish family she and her mother lived in a house right outside the Vilna ghetto while her father became the Jewish head of the ghetto police.
Fluent in French, Russian, German, English, Polish, Ukrainian, and other languages. Ustjanauskas was hired by the French army and commissioned as a lieutenant, working for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) out of their offices in Neuenburg, Germany.
She emigrated to Australia in 1949 where she worked for the immigration department until moving to the Connecticut in 1953 with her husband. At the time she had two children and a third on the way.
She and her husband, Anthony (Antanas) Ustjanauskas, helped organize the WWII Lithuanian-American immigrant community, an effort that was recognized by the Democratic Party led to an invitation to President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration activities. The couple later assisted Sen. Chris Dodd with facilitating U.S. and Soviet relations.
Ustjanauskas has also worked with the U.S. Department of Immigration on the processing of undocumented immigrants during President Reagan’s amnesty program, and has assisted the State Department on other projects.
Ustjanauskas speaks publicly as a witness to the Holocaust and World War II. She and her family own Cosmos International in West Hartford.
Abby Weiner, a former resident of West Hartford, was honored posthumously.
Weiner was devoted to sharing his Holocaust story with many schools throughout the state. He received an Honorary High School Diploma from Avon High School, which showed their love and devotion to him.
“Immigrants have always been – and continue to be – an abundant and enduring strength of our great nation,” said Robert Fishman, Executive Director of the Connecticut Immigrant & Refugee Coalition, which sponsored the 22nd Annual Connecticut Immigrant Day observance. “Connecticut is fortunate to have many remarkable individuals who have contributed tremendously to our state, and we are proud to honor them and their contributions to our shared community.”
The mission of CIRC, a coalition of about a dozen organizations across Connecticut, is to promote the rights and opportunities of immigrants and refugees in Connecticut and to foster their civic participation.
Attorney General William Tong, the first Asian American statewide office-holder in Connecticut and the first American in his family, highlighted the current struggles of immigrants in Connecticut due to shifting federal policies.
“Immigrants are part of the fabric of our lives and our economy,” Tong said, who “work every day and make sacrifices and struggle…[doing]many of the critical, vital jobs that we need here in our state in our businesses and our public institutions and we should see and recognize them,” Tong said.
“We are thankful,” said Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, saluting the “incredible perseverance and contributions of immigrants to our state,” and recalling her own family’s immigrant history. Blumenthal, Bysiewicz and Tong are children of immigrants. Merrill’s ancestors came here two generations ago.
Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz and State Sen. Derek Slap also spoke during the recognition ceremony.
The CIRC honorees are residents of 14 communities in Connecticut: Avon, Berlin, Bloomfield, Bristol, Danbury, Hartford, New Haven, Newington, North Haven, Norwalk, Orange, Simsbury, South Windsor. In addition to those from West Hartford, honors included:
- Fatma Antar, retired Prof. of Economics at Manchester Comm. College, on the boards of Muslim Coalition of CT and Islamic Assoc. of Greater Hartford; very involved with Interfaith understanding and resettlement of refugees.
- Darek Barcikowski, Honorary Consul of Poland in Connecticut; owner of White Eagle media which publishes Polish newspapers in eight states.
- Michael Chambers, an Electrical Engineer and contractor; established the Cricket Hall of Fame and coordinates scholarship, beauty and sports pageants and the West Indian Parade in Hartford every year.
- Peter Iosifides, a Plumbing contractor, has helped many churches in the state by providing materials, labor and workers, including for two Baptist churches in his community of Norwich. He has given in-kind and financial and mentoring support to the Hellenic Studies Paideia at UConn.
- Min Jung Kim, the CEO of the New Britain Museum of American Art. She worked at the Guggenheim Foundation and Eli Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University.
- Georges Annan Kingsley, an Artist and art teacher in Hartford and a radio host. He and his wife volunteer with Asylum Hill Neighborhood as community leaders who work toward acceptance and well-being of refugees and immigrants.
- Zdzislawa Lempicka, at the age of 16, joined the Polish Home Army (underground) and fought in some of the bloodiest engagements in the 1944 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. She has spent decades mentoring and educating young people in the Scouting movement.
- Dr. Mohammed Reza Mansoor, a Cardiologist at Starling Cardiology, is president of the Islamic Association of Greater Hartford, founding president of the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut, and past president of the Islamic Council of New England. He is the author of Stigmatized: From 9-11 to Trump and Beyond – An American Muslim Journey.
- Dr. Ezequiel Menendez, director of Music for the archdiocese of Hartford, is also the Chapel organist for Ethel Walker School. He co-founded Concerts for Charity and raised money to rebuild Sri Lanka and has assisted charities in Hartford.
- Dr. Priyamvada Natarajan is a theoretical astrophysicist at Yale. An enthusiastic advocate for science, she speaks in high schools, on the radio and TV on the importance of scientific literacy.
- Emanuela Palmares, editor and Partner of Tribuna Newspaper and chair and founder of the committee to plan Connecticut’s first International Children’s Museum.
- Carla Squatrito, founder of Carla’s Pasta, employing over 300 people from 21 different countries. She is a proud member of the National Women in Business Owners Corporation.
- Sorin Todeasa, a senior Software Engineer in financial technologies, has been a pillar of the Romanian community.
- Dr. Meera Viswanathan, head of the Ethel Walker School, has written extensively on transformative education.
In addition, Sue Ingall received the Myra M. Oliver Memorial Award, posthumously. The award is given to those who work above and beyond the call of duty to help refugees and immigrants, in memory of Myra M. Oliver’s lifetime of leadership and service. Ingall, who died in January, made immeasurable contributions to the work of the Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants. She brought “her passion for social justice, her activism, and her remarkable combination of imagination and execution” and led the way in the resettling of immigrants to Connecticut.
The Angela R. Andersen Memorial Award, created to honor students who demonstrate deep commitment to issues impacting refugees and immigrants, is named after an individual known for her dedication and passion for helping refugees and immigrants in Connecticut. The 2019 recipient is high school student Sophia Jacobs and the Weston High School Youth Group, for their creation and implementation of a Refugee Youth One-on-One Mentoring Program. The group was conceived by Jacobs, now a high school senior, and meets weekly, providing homework help and getting the students in grades 1-5 on their feet moving! The partnership fills a great need for refugee youth who can feel socially isolated, especially in the afterschool hours while parents are at work.
The Salma Khatoon Farid Award was presented for the first time to a teacher of longstanding who has made a significant contribution to understanding and awareness. The inaugural recipient was Hartford educator Nancy Caddigan. The award is named for Salma Khatoon Farid, born in India, who immigrated to the United States in 1981. She raised her family in Connecticut and played a fundamental role in nurturing a sense of generosity to the community while supporting the business aspirations of her children, including Tariq Farid, the founder of Edible Arrangements.
Lieutenant Governor Susan Bysiewicz, the presiding officer in the State Senate, spoke briefly while the Senate, meeting down the hall, took a brief pause in its afternoon session.
“You make us so proud,” Bysiewicz said, expressing appreciation to the immigrants to Connecticut for “your talents, your work ethic, and bringing your families to our state, we are so happy to have you. We welcome immigrants. Thank you for making our great state even better.”
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