Wednesday, 20 Oct 2021

She Fled Sri Lanka When She Was 4. Now She’s a City Leader.

Eight years ago, Penny Abeywardena met with 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.

Ms. Abeywardena, 43, who is Sri Lankan American and is the first woman of color and immigrant to serve as commissioner of international affairs, also 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.

As the United Nations General Assembly convened last month, Ms. Abeywardena sat down with The New York Times to reflect on her tenure as she prepares to step down in December. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Q. What do you think has changed about the relationship between the city and the United Nations during your term?

A. United Nations employees are real people who live in our city for a number of years. I wanted them to feel like they belong here, as New Yorkers.

We issued the first Impact Report on how the U.N. brings in $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.

This is just my observation, but most of the diplomatic corps, including Secretary General António Guterres, stayed in the city during the initial months of the pandemic. I think that’s because of the relationships my office has worked to build.

What role has your office played during the pandemic?

I don’t think anybody thought that international affairs would be particularly important, but my team and I became procurement executives for foreign governments.

The U.N. donated 250,000 face masks to New York City. We also worked to get donations of ventilators, oxygen and other support from countries who saw us all struggling during that tough time.

We have held town halls over the last 20 months with the corps to walk them through the different phases of the pandemic, about safety precautions and how to get vaccinated.

What are you thinking about as your time in office wraps up?

I think a lot about how personally difficult it was during the Trump presidency. It felt like women like me, who were immigrants or who came from immigrant families, were being attacked by his administration.

My career has almost come full circle to where I am now. I get to be the ambassador for one of the greatest cities in the United States, one in which we take pride in our diversity and our inclusion. What’s very funny is that in my office, I have Rudy Giuliani’s old furniture.

You had been leading efforts for women and girls’ rights at the Clinton Global Initiative before City Hall. What led you to that and your current line of work?

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 Ronald Reagan’s Amnesty Act of 1986.

I grew up on the margins of the South Asian American community, so that sense of belonging I wanted the diplomatic corps to have is important.

When I was 16, my mom 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 really do matter, right? You get into so many theoretical conversations with people who are trying to empathize, as they should, which is great. But there’s something very visceral about fighting for women and girls when you’ve gone through those experiences yourself.

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