Milford group chooses Thanksgiving week to honor the service of immigrants

David Duffner, chairman of the Immigration Committee of Milford Speaks Out, fourth from right, with state Rep. Pamela Staneski and Milford Mayor Ben Blake, far right, congratulates Joseph Garbus as one of several immigrants honored for service to the community. Also honored were, from left, Terrance Copeland, Eeva Copeland, Nadia Bajrakterevic and Wendy Safyre.

David Duffner, chairman of the Immigration Committee of Milford Speaks Out, fourth from right, with state Rep. Pamela Staneski and Milford Mayor Ben Blake, far right, congratulates Joseph Garbus as one of several immigrants honored for service to the community. Also honored were, from left, Terrance Copeland, Eeva Copeland, Nadia Bajrakterevic and Wendy Safyre.

On the week of Thanksgiving when America celebrates the original feast of 1621 between America’s first immigrants — the pilgrims — and Native Americans, seven local people from foreign countries were recognized for making a difference in the city or broader community.

The first annual “Thanks for Coming!” awards were given at City Hall by activist group “Milford Speaks Out.”

Those chosen for the award, the group decided, have made the area a better place in diverse ways, including feeding the hungry, revitalizing neighborhoods, restoring historic homes, assisting immigrants new to America, helping the sick and protecting the environment.

“This country couldn’t function without immigrants,” including migrant workers, said Lesley Mills, one of the recipients.

Mills said she’s honored to be among the honorees, and added, “The award itself is a nice gesture, but unfortunately, in today’s climate, immigrants aren’t talked about in reverent terms.”

This group of immigrants certainly was spoken about with reverence at a City Hall ceremony at which Mayor Ben Blake proclaimed it “Immigration Day” in Milford, noting America is a “nation of immigrants,” who come here for freedom or liberty or pursuit of happiness and have made great contributions.

The proclamation from Blake says in part: “The innovations from first generation immigrants to the United States brought us blue jeans, the hotdog, Google, YouTube, and many other cultural American staples ... The cultures, foods and religious beliefs transplanted from around the globe enhance the American experience and enrich the lives of all Americans.”

The honorees are: Joseph Garbus, originally from Russia; Lesley Mills and Wendy Safyre, both from England; Nadia Bajrakterevic, from Bosnia; Moe Elhelw, originally from Egypt; Terrance Copeland, who hails from Canada, and his wife, Eeva Copeland, from Finland.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3 , was not at the ceremony, but praised the concept of the awards, saying immigrants make the country “stronger” and it’s “vital” to recognize that.

“The Milford Speaks Out’s awards celebrating immigrants’ contributions to our communities are exactly the type of thing we need more of across the country,” said DeLauro, the daughter of an immigrant. “Their journeys remind us of the importance of remaining an open and free society that welcomes others to our shores.”

Dave Duffner, a member of the Milford Speaks Out immigration committee, has said the award is “an effort to create a unifying approach.” His group sought nominations from the community and this first year most were nominated by Milford Speaks Out members, he said.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who reflected on the awards after being contacted by a reporter, said the Thanksgiving holiday “is a poignant reminder of the values that keep our country strong: freedoms to speak, worship, and love as we please without the fear of retribution.”

“This Thanksgiving Day, we remember that America is a nation founded, sustained, and strengthened by immigrants,” he said.

Joseph Garbus and his family arrived in New York City in 1951 after a 10-day ship ride from Germany after World War II. The family had been arrested in Russia for being spies — in other words, they were Jewish, he said — and had been forced to a prison “work camp” in Siberia that was much like the concentration camps in Germany. About to turn 11 when they arrived in America, Garbus said he literally kissed the ground. “I was more than grateful. It was a great thing to survive,” he said. Garbus has served as a city alderman; was longtime president of the Walnut Beach Association; spearheaded revitalization of the Walnut Beach neighborhood, including bringing in the arts component for which the area is now known and he worked tirelessly and successfully to reconnect Milford neighborhoods to Silver Sands, including through a boardwalk.

Lesley Mills and her family came here from England after bombs during World War II decimated their neighborhood. Before leaving England, the family built a house from rubble — as many others did — and she remembers having to chip the mortar off each brick to ready them to be used for rebuilding. It took eight years to build the house and they lived in it for four years before heading here. That experience gave Mills a passion for restoring houses — she’s particularly fond of brick — and since coming here she has restored many historic properties piece by piece, including three in Milford. She is currently hands-on restoring the historic Sanford Bristol house, buying it to save it. Her general hopes for the properties she’s saved from developers is to break even by selling or renting the properties, as it’s not about making money, but a “passion,” she said. That time building the house in England was a “good” one for the family and she believes it made her “a very results-oriented person.” Mills, owner of “Griswold Homecare,” which helps seniors age in place, is known for her overall philanthropy. “My father always believed this was the land of opportunity,” she said.

Nadia Bajrakterevic came to the United States from Bosnia some 50 years ago to learn English and “never went back.” Later, when more people began to arrive from the country that became war-torn and strife filled, Bajrakterevic spent many years helping them upon arriving in the United States and has been an election poll worker. Ten years ago, she was named “Woman of the Year” by Girl Scouts of America. Bajrakterevic said she was “shocked” to both be nominated for and bestowed with the “Thanks for Coming!” award. “How did they find me?” she wonders. She said it’s a great time of year to receive the honor because, at Thanksgiving, “you’re grateful for everything.”

Moe Elhelw, who received his award earlier in the week because he could not attend the ceremony, came here from Egypt in the 1980s by himself as a young man. Elhelw, owner of Milford Diner, and years before that owner of Something’s Cooking, earned a degree in accounting, but always goes back to food as a career, he said. He has supported cancer research, provided transportation for people in need of medical therapies and improved neighborhoods.

Wendy Safyre came here from England on the Queen Mary 53 years ago on what was supposed to be a vacation. The trip was a 21st birthday gift from her father. She traveled to 18 states in 12 months, met the man she would marry and never moved back. After receiving an associate degree from a community college, Safyre got into Yale University on a scholarship at age 62, but later transferred to Fairfield University. Her work in communities goes deep and far back. She started a movement in the early 1980s to create a homeless shelter in Fairfield — it turned into a successful major undertaking later to be called “Project Hope”; she arranged with a big-box store for regular truckloads of warm clothes and other items to be shipped to poverty-ridden Native American reservations in North and South Dakota, she cooks for the homeless and serves at a soup kitchen.

Terrance Copeland, who hails from Canada, moved to the United States with his wife, Eeva Copeland, many years ago because of his career. Copeland, now retired, was vice-president of a specialty chemical company. Eeva Copeland, also an awardee, is from Finland and met her husband when her family moved to Canada. He was formerly on the city’s Planning and Zoning Board, has worked on behalf of environmental protection, and was a baseball coach when they lived abroad. Eeva Copeland — who announcers joked at the ceremony has a much longer list of volunteer accomplishments than her husband, has served as a museum docent; volunteer teacher of English to immigrants; a volunteer decorator at Osborne Homestead Museum & Kellogg Environmental Center in Derby; volunteers at the senior center and at the Boys & Girls Club; and collects supplies for the needy.