Dorchester earlier this month played host to several Eastern Europeans taking part in a US State Department program that offers organizers and interns an up-close look at American democracy.
The initiative involves people from Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary, and Albania, countries known for a history of oppressive governments.
“They’re trying hard to rebuild their civic societies under not-deal conditions,” said Lew Finfer, a community organizer and Dorchester resident who hosted one of the interns.
The program, which has been around for more than a decade, is unique in that it focuses on social services and community organizing along with other topics that focus on government and business leaders.
For Finfer, the program is personal: One of his grandparents was from Hungary, which he has visited three times since his organization, Dorchester-based Massachusetts Communities Action Network (MCAN), began participating in the program. Overrall, 10 Eastern European organizers have come to the US in the last decade, with a hiatus in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic.
MCAN helps find homes and host families for the organizers during their month-long stay. Finfer himself hosted Zsuzsanna Guthahr, who focused on ballot initiatives, and on increasing unemployment benefits in particular.
While living in Dorchester, Guthahr was drawn to the Red Line’s trolley run from Ashmont Station in Dorchester to Mattapan Square. She wrote an article for a Hungarian publication that likening the nearly 100-year-old trolley line to a “kind of street museum,” a living piece of history that entranced her.
Albania’s Elona Xhema, who focused on election and government corruption issues in her home country, also stayed in Dorchester, with Sydney Hanlon, the former Dorchester District Court and state Appeals Court judge, and Pamela Pierce. Xhema worked with Mark Wolf, the federal judge in Boston.
Another program participant, Romania’s Loredana Pana, focused on environmental issues. She was placed with the Environmental League of Massachusetts, an advocacy group, and Dorchester’s Diane Gantman and Bob Weiss were her host family.
Pana had a chance to check out the “Dorchfest” music festival, an event that saw 45 bands playing to crowds across 25 porches in the Ashmont-Adams neighborhood on the eve of Dorchester Day.
“We don’t have that in Romania, so it was a unique experience to have in the neighborhood,” she said.
In her free time, she played the tourist role, one trip being a visit to New York City during Memorial Day weekend. “It was like in the movies,” she said.
From left, Zsuzanna Gutjahr, Loredana Pana, and Elona Xhepa outside Lew Finfer’s home in Dorchester.
As for Boston, Pana said, “The Europeans think Boston is the most European city of the US. I don’t know exactly why. I had a familiar feeling when I arrived here. People walking, people using their bikes. The city is so green and nice.”
Turning to her work with the Environmental League of Massachusetts (ELM), she said she liked the group’s concept of environmentalism intersecting with affordable housing and voting issues.
Pana visited ELM’s offices three times a week as part of a hybrid work system due to the pandemic. She also met with officials from other similarly inclined organizations, such as Livable Streets and the Mystic River Watershed Association.
“All of the problems are connected,” she said. “To have this perspective of finding common solutions, I think we need that in East Europe. Because we are a poor country and a smaller one also. We don’t talk that much about environmental justice communities in Romania.”