Category: Archive

A new chapter

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

On May 27, she began work as the Irish Immigration Center’s new executive director, beginning a new era for the organization founded a decade ago by Tom Conaghan to serve the needs of the community in the Greater Philadelphia area.
Back on March 17, the Chamber’s president Jim McLaughlin introduced her to John O’Malley, a member of the new board of the Upper Darby-based Center. She mentioned to O’Malley in passing that she’d worked for the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin for two years. Within weeks, she had given up her job as director of communications and foundation relations for the World Affairs Council in Philadelphia.
Lyons has set herself the goals of expanding services and of making the Irish Immigration Center “more of a hub in the community than it already is.”
“Siobh_n has got some good ideas. She’s going to be a great resource for the center,”” said Connaghan, who will continue as director of immigration services on a voluntary basis. “She’ll bring it to the next level.”
Liam Hegarty, the chairman of the 10-person board, agreed: “I think she’ll bring a new perspective to the center.”
Lyons intends also to promote Philadelphia as a point of destination for young Irish people who are planning to work in United States.
She believes the city’s affordability is just one reason why young people, such as those with J1 visas, should seriously consider it as an option.
“It’s a great city. It’s historic. I love the fact that I can walk around it,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun. It reminds me of Ireland, of Dublin in particular. And it’s a great food city.”
She added: “There’s great sense of good will towards Ireland and the Irish community.”
Lyons’s recommendation carries some weight as she’s been traveling the world since her earliest days. Her father was an Irish diplomat who served in Nairobi, Washington DC, London and Riyadh before she even began college
He now lives and works in Malaysia, while her two brothers are based in Singapore. Only her younger sister, a college student, and her grandmother live in Ireland. (Her mother is deceased and her father is remarried.)
During the family’s years in the Middle East, she developed an interest in Arabic and decided to study the language for her degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
She continued to travel the world after graduation, but it was marriage to a Canadian that brought her to the United States five years ago. The couple lived for two years in Princeton, N.J. before his job brought them to Philadelphia. After they divorced, she decided to stay on in the city.
Lyons used to walk to work at the World Affairs Council. Nowadays she commutes on the El to just outside the city. Upper Darby, with about 30 percent of its more than 80,000 citizens claiming ancestry, is arguably one of the most Irish places in the U.S.
But it’s for another reason that she feels she could be back in Dublin: she’s dealing with many of the same problems on the phone that she handled at the Department of Foreign Affairs.
The center helps people with green-card applications and other visa issues. It also assists American-born people with citizen applications.
“I’d like to see everyone who wants to get their Irish passport come through our doors,” she said.
Her training in Ireland will be an advantage with the sorts of cases that require coordination with the New York-based Consulate
“So, for example, if someone gets arrested we can help liaise with the family. We can help with prison visits. We can recommend attorneys,” she said. “We can talk to the family, because we’re there, about what’s going to happen in — say, a deportation case — and how long it would take.”
Sometimes callers just want someone to talk to. “When they’re faced with the whole bureaucracy, they just want somebody to care about their story,” Lyons said.
“Often there is nothing the center can do, but we help talk you through it to understand what’s going on.”
Before it expands, the Irish Immigration Center plans to conduct a community survey in order to determine where the gaps in service are. It hopes to work with and have the cooperation of the wide range of Irish organizations in the Philadelphia area.
“We have an aging Irish-born immigrant population. So one of the focuses, much like in New York, is going to be on the elderly — to see what needs they have,” Lyons said.
“The center organizes a seniors women’s lunch held every Wednesday,” she said. “That’s a lot of fun.”
She was in New York last week to see if the senior hotline operating there is a model for Philadelphia.
She met with Siobhan Dennehy of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, the Boston-based Sheila Gleeson of the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers and other community advocates on her New York trip.
“Siobhan and Sheila have been fantastic,” she said.
She said that the other centers are in a position to provide technical and other expertise to Philadelphia. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” she said.
Cooperation is important generally because of the current political and economic climate. The downturn has meant that the undocumented are feeling somewhat isolated.
“To have comprehensive immigration reform, you really need the support of the people,” Lyons said. “But if they feel that their jobs are being threatened, it’s hard to sell it.
“Even though immigration tends to create jobs, it’s a very emotive issue,” she added.
Said Conaghan: “These are difficult times. The picture is not good right now.”
He cited the drivers’ license issue as one that’s particularly worrying for many in the Irish community.
Lyons said: “People are disheartened because of the failure of the last reform process.”
If the economy picks up soon, though, the mood will change. In the meantime the Irish Immigration Center will do what it can to help.
“It’s a relatively new board, and they’re all very excited,” Lyons said.
About 15 people worked full-time in her last office. Now she works with four volunteers as the sole employee.
“It feels like a start up. I’ve a lot more autonomy,” Lyons said. “I didn’t realize quite how important that was to me.”
To contact the Irish Immigration Center, call 610-789-6355 or email siobhan@icphila.org.

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