De Blasio’s senior staffer recalls her journey from Sri Lanka to the American Dream

Penny Abeywardena, second from the left, at the launch of the Voluntary Local Review Declaration during the 2019 United Nations General Assembly. Photo by: Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, City of New York

A 43-year old Sri Lankan American, whose family fled the civil war in Sri Lanka when she was just four and who lived undocumented for over a decade in Los Angeles, is set to step down at the end of her tenure yearend as the first woman of color and immigrant to become New York City’s Commissioner for International Affairs.

Eight years ago, Penny Abeywardena met New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on the front porch of Gracie Mansion to discuss revamping the city’s Office of International Affairs, which, up to that point, she said, had been known for social events and managing parking tickets.

Abeywardena set out to diversify her office and make it more accessible. To that end, she established the NYC Junior Ambassadors program, which introduces middle schoolers to the United Nations and encourages them to put their knowledge to use in their neighborhoods.

“I’m a 1980s version of a Dreamer, and it’s something I think about now a lot as I get ready to leave office. My family fled the civil war in Sri Lanka when I was 4 years old by overstaying our tourist visas. I was living undocumented for more than a decade in the Los Angeles Sri Lankan community. The only reason I got a path to citizenship was (then US president) Ronald Reagan’s Amnesty Act of 1986,” she told New York Times in an interview.

Abeywardena grew up on the margins of the South Asian American community and, when she was 16, her mother became a single mom.

“My brother, mom and I are domestic abuse survivors. We were poor, but she was a hustler, working seven days a week to support us. I even started work at 14 to help.

“It sounds kind of trite, but lived experiences do matter, right? There’s something very visceral about fighting for women and girls when you’ve gone through those experiences yourself,” she said.

Abeywardena says during her tenure she issued the first Impact Report on how the UN brings in USD 3 billion in revenue to the city, “so New Yorkers can see it’s more than just a building on sovereign land east of First Avenue”.

During the worst days of the pandemic in NYC, she and her team became procurement executives for foreign governments.

The UN donated 250,000 face masks to the city. “We also worked to get donations of ventilators, oxygen and other support from countries who saw us all struggling during that tough time,” Abeywardena said.




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