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Bridging borders

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By Michael Easterbrook

The image of newcomers has taken a beating in recent months as the national debate on immigration drags on.

A goal of the new executive director of the International Center in New York is to spread the message that the vast majority of immigrants are good for the U.S.

“Immigrants are people who come to this country because they want to do well and they want their children to do well,” says Joanne Heyman, 44, who became director of the International Center in June.

“One of my goals is to play an active role in advocacy,” she says, “to demonstrate through our program how important immigrants continue to be for this country.”

The Manhattan-based center, created in 1961, provides English-language instruction to immigrants from more than 85 countries.

With a budget of $1.9 million, it also strives to teach immigrants about culture and life in the U.S., a task Heyman says is badly needed these days with anti-American sentiment running high in many parts of the world.

“I think it’s important that the rest of the world understand who we really are,” Heyman says. “We’ve been a little tarnished recently.”

Working with people from other parts of the globe is second-nature to Heyman, who grew up in the multicultural world of Northern Virginia outside Washington D.C.

At age 18, she cashed in her savings bonds to spend time in Switzerland and Ireland.

After she graduated from college, Heyman’s parents gave her 35,000 frequent-flier miles, which she used to travel across Brazil studying Portugese.

She has also traveled throughout Europe and the former Soviet Union, and earned a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University in New York City.

Joanne Heyman

Job: Executive director, International Center of New York

Born: 1962, Alexandria, Va.

Family: Husband, Lewis Heyman; daughters Hannah, 12 and Emmanuelle, 10

Career: Managing director, Financial Services Volunteer Corps; consultant on international grantmaking, Goldman Sachs Foundation; vice president, Yaddo, artists colony, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Currently reading: “The Emperor’s Children,” by Claire Messud

Favorite place to travel: France

Inspiration: Grandmother, Clarice Victor. “She was bold, affectionate, hard-working, funny and had a wonderful sense of style.”

Even though career and family don’t allow her to travel as much now, she says, she still suffers from wanderlust. As director of the International Center, she’ll lead a staff of 14 full-time and 15 part-time employees. The center also relies on the services of roughly 1,000 volunteers to help teach 2,500 immigrants annually, most of them in one-on-one sessions. The immigrants they teach include students, diplomats, workers, business people, asylum seekers and tourists.Heyman says the often-vitriolic debate surrounding immigration has helped mobilize many nonprofit leaders, convincing them of the need to take a stronger and more visible stance in defense of immigrants.

“I think it has made it incumbent upon leaders …to demonstrate why immigration is a positive thing,” she says.

In addition to advocating for immigrants, Heyman says, she would like to see the center extend its reach throughout New York and maybe one day beyond the city.

“This is an organization that represents the best of New York and the best of the United States,” she says. “The issues we address and the way we address them are more relevant now than ever.”

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