Connecticut’s Immigrant Heritage Hall of Fame inducts four outstanding individuals for its ‘Year of the Woman’ – Hartford Courant

Aida Mansoor is a chaplain who builds bridges between people of different faiths. Judith Altman is a Holocaust survivor who teaches children how to respect and appreciate each other. Dr. Radenka Maric is a director of research at UConn who serves as interim president. Marilda Gandara is a lawyer who oversaw Aetna’s grants program.

The women were inducted into the Immigrant Heritage Hall of Fame on Thursday in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf Club in Southington. The Hall of Fame is a creation of the National Immigrant Heritage Center, Inc., based in Farmington. Since 2013, the center has inducted Connecticut residents into the Hall of Fame who have made outstanding contributions to business, industry, the arts, the state and their own communities.

The “Year of the Woman” was postponed from 2020, when the ceremony was canceled due to the pandemic. The annual induction ceremony was also canceled last year.

“We were going to do this event to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, which happened in 1920,” said Demetrios Giannaros, president of the National Immigrant Heritage Center. “We can finally induct women this year.”

Each winner is remarkable in her own right and is grateful that immigration has helped make her who she is today.

Altman, now 97, was born in Yasina, Czechoslovakia. In 1944, she was separated from her parents in Auschwitz and never saw them again. Her father’s last words to her were “Judy, you will live.” She was then transferred to a labor camp, then to Bergen-Belsen. “It was my father’s words that got me through my last days as a prisoner,” she said.

His father’s words were prophetic. Twenty-four members of her family died in the camps, but she survived, sick and starving, but alive. After liberation, she emigrated to Sweden and then to the United States, eventually settling in Stamford. She dedicated her life to telling children what happened to her, to guiding them towards kindness and tolerance. Daniel Cohen, rabbi of Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford, called her a “woman on a mission.”

His mission was a success, said Peter Lilienthal, president of the Fairfield County Jewish Historical Society. “She touched many generations, even those that are not here yet,” he said in a tribute video. “The legacy will go very far, from one generation to the next.”

Altman did not attend the ceremony. Lilienthal accepted the award on his behalf. He said that during her career in public education, Altman had spoken to a total of about 100,000 students. At 97, she still goes there, doing five Zoom meetings with students in the past week. “His lifelong mantra is to live, to tell the story, to tell the world,” Lilienthal said.

Marilda Gandara grew up in Cuba at the time of the revolution. After fleeing, the family settled in New Jersey, then moved to Connecticut when she attended UConn Law School. In Hartford, Gandara’s parents opened a shop on Park Street and became community leaders. Their daughter became a corporate lawyer at Aetna and then president of the Aetna Foundation.

Managing Aetna’s $25 million grant program, Gandara has imitated her parents, directing the money to countless initiatives in Hartford in the arts, education, community services and social justice. . One of his greatest accomplishments was the resurrection of the city’s Veterans Day Parade, which had been dormant for years.

Each admirer of Gandara remembers a particular aspect of his patronage. “Thanks to Marilda’s foresight and insight, we have been able to sponsor playwrights of color, to give them the opportunity to express their voices…voices that may or may not have had the opportunity through traditional means “, Floyd Green, retired vice president of community affairs at Aetna, said in video testimony.

Gandara said that emigrating to the United States means one thing above all else: freedom.

“Here there is wealth and opportunity, but more than anything else, freedom is what my parents came here for, coming from a communist country,” she said. “My father told me when we arrived here that I should never hesitate to speak out against injustice and the lack of freedom. He said, “If you don’t talk, you might as well go back to Cuba because you won’t be allowed to talk there either.”

Aida Mansoor, born in London to parents from Sri Lanka, first studied biochemistry and physiology. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 changed its orientation. After experiencing unexpected kindness from a community member concerned about Islamophobia at the time, Mansoor changed course and became a chaplain specializing in Islamic studies.

She has since become a mainstay in the interfaith community from her post at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace (formerly Hartford Seminary). It focuses on compassion for people of other faiths, as well as understanding and respecting different beliefs.

The university’s Katy O’Leary praised Mansoor. “She’s really a connector and she really demonstrates and strongly believes in the importance of coming together, building relationships, building friendships, so that there’s the right environment for the type of curiosity that we must have,” O’Leary said.

Mansoor said immigrating from London in 1992 gave her and her new husband “new life.

“It gave us a clean slate. It gave both of us a chance to build our lives in a positive way. The work ethic here is so important. It gave us that much more chance than other places, I think, to be successful,” said Mansoor, who lives in Berlin. “Coming to America and being part of the Muslim community, and seeing its diversity, is very unique. There is real richness in diversity.

Radenka Maric was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina, then part of Yugoslavia. Her family’s trauma from World War II and the Civil War that broke out in Yugoslavia taught her that the most important thing was kindness, which led to her lifelong interest in empowerment. others.

Maric earned degrees in materials science and energy from Serbian and Japanese universities, ultimately focusing on clean energy and sustainability. She has worked in industry and research in Japan, Canada and the United States. She started as an instructor and teacher at UConn in 2010 and this year was named interim president of the university.

In her work, she is guided by the conviction that “every citizen matters”.

Pamir Alpay, Maric’s colleague at UConn, in the Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship department, said of Maric, “His enthusiasm permeates the entire university. It’s something you see immediately when you meet her – the passion, the enthusiasm she has for everything she does. … Radenka improves everyone around her. It is a quality that few people possess. She inspires.

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Maric said she moved to the United States because “it’s a land of opportunity.

“I really believe that this is the only country, if you work hard, if you do your best, that you can succeed,” she said. “It’s a country of immigrants. It’s still a young country, compared to other countries, but here, whatever your race or faith, if you work hard, you can succeed.

With the induction of women, now 35 Connecticut residents are in the Immigrant Heritage Hall of Fame. Giannaros said the goal is to eventually take the Immigrant Heritage Center and Hall of Fame nationwide to honor immigrants across the country.

Previous winners include senior aviation executive Igor Sikorsky, born in Ukraine; Brazilian-born pianist Luis Carlos de Moura Castro; Tariq Farid, founder of Edible Arrangements, born in Pakistan; Cuban-born poet Bessy Reyna; the former mayor of New Britain, Lucian Pawlak, born in Belgium; medical examiner Dr. Henry C. Lee, born in China; and CCSU President Dr. Zulma R. Toro, born in Puerto Rico.

In the gala’s keynote, UConn music professor Angelina Gadeliya — who was born in Georgia, immigrated to Ukraine at age 6 and then to the United States at age 11 — pointed out that 15% of Connecticut residents and a out of six workers are immigrants. “Our nation is so much richer with you,” Gadeliya said.

“In us immigrants, there is always a tug of war between wanting to assimilate and wanting to preserve our heritage,” she said. “Celebrating our individual cultures makes us better and stronger as a whole.”

Susan Dunne can be contacted at [email protected].

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