FALMOUTH — When Atsuko Fish first moved to Massachusetts from Japan in 1983, she had a tough time finding a job. She went to schools in her native country and had a successful career, but without credentials nobody hired her.
Out of desperation, she said, she reached out to then-Gov. Michael Dukakis and suggested that Massachusetts develop a trade and business partnership with Japan. They exchanged correspondence and she provided a proposal. After an hourlong interview, Dukakis hired her on the spot as a U.S.-Japan cross-cultural consultant and provided her with an assistant and a budget.
That experience inspired her philanthropic work on immigration.
“I was absolutely moved,” Atsuko said. “This is America where the dream can come true. I am nobody, but if I have a vision, if I have a strategy [and am] ready to work hard, this country works.”
“This is a country where an immigrant can shine,” she said.
Atsuko and her husband, Larry Fish, received a service award from the Rian Immigrant Center in Boston on Thursday for their work supporting immigrant families through their Fish Family Foundation. The longtime Falmouth residents most recently raised and donated more than $3 million to support immigrant families affected by COVID-19 in Massachusetts.
“Larry and Atsuko have been very generous,” said Ronnie Millar, executive director of the Rian Immigrant Center, which serves as a welcome center for immigrant families and provides them with different services. “They’ve become a focal point for emergency relief across all of Massachusetts.”
The couple started the foundation in 1999 to provide support to thousands of immigrants on their path toward citizenship through other nonprofit organizations. Initially started as a way to get their children interested in giving back, the foundation focuses on immigration, female empowerment in Japan and youth with proven risk, such as those who have experienced trauma, been incarcerated or have physical and mental disabilities, Larry said.
Larry, former chairman and CEO of Citizens Financial Group, currently serves as chairman of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the largest educational publishing company in the U.S. Locally, he serves on the board of directors at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Atsuko, a first-generation immigrant, has a long history in philanthropy. She established the Japanese Disaster Relief Fund — Boston after an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in 2011. The White House named Atsuko a recipient of the Champion of Change Award in 2013 for her efforts to empower women in the United States and Japan. In 2018, the emperor of Japan awarded her the Order of the Rising Sun, which Larry said is the equivalent of knighthood in Japan.
On the Cape, the couple has been involved in the Falmouth Fund, which is part of the Cape Cod Foundation, the Falmouth Service Center, the Buzzards Bay Coalition and some faith-based organizations.
Larry and Atsuko have focused their philanthropy on immigration partly because of Atsuko’s background, but also because there is a lack of government support for immigrants.
Many immigrants are not eligible for any government support, Larry said. Undocumented families, of which there are many on the Cape, are not eligible for unemployment insurance, Medicaid or Medicare and many other government programs others often take for granted, he said.
Many immigrants work frontline jobs, he said, cleaning homes and working in food service, sanitation, hospitals and construction.
“Not only do they not have the social support,” he said, “they are also more likely to be affected by the COVID crisis.”
Of the more than $3 million the foundation provided to nonprofits during the pandemic, $50,000 went to Health Imperatives, which provides sexual and reproductive health services, nutrition services and violence intervention and prevention services to vulnerable families in Southeastern Massachusetts. The funding provides assistance for immigrant families in need, said Julia Kehoe, the organization’s president and chief executive officer.
Health Imperatives used those funds to help about 75 families affected by the pandemic, providing each with about $500 to help with costs such as food and rent, Kehoe said.
“I can’t tell you how many people got the funding and cried, saying this has saved their life,” Kehoe said. “I can’t even tell you what an impact it’s had. It’s just been unbelievable.”
Immigrant families on the Cape face additional challenges, such as the region’s seasonal economy and high cost of housing, Kehoe said. Those conditions have left manyimmigrants unemployed during COVID-19 and struggling to pay rent. They also struggle to find adequate health care, as many do not have insurance, she said.
One family of four that the organization helped had an especially difficult time, she said. The husband was diagnosed with cancer before COVID-19 hit, and their doctor told his wife to stop working in the hospitality industry because he was immunocompromised. As a result, the family lost income and did not have adequate health care coverage, she said.
Kehoe said for those receiving funding from the foundation, the realization that there are strangers that care about them “has as much an impact as the cash, believe it or not.”
The Fish Family Foundation also helped the Immigrant Family Services Institute. Based in Roslindale, the institute serves families all over Massachusetts, including on Cape Cod. Larry and Atsuko helped provide cash assistance to families in need, Executive Director Geralde V. Gabeau said.
Immigrant families were the first to be hit really hard by COVID-19, she said.
Many lack a network of support, especially those who do not speak English, Gabeau said. Many immigrant families also live in crowded spaces, with nine or 10 people to an apartment, she said, making it hard for families to social distance. The children also need access to online education, she said.
Mental health is also a big challenge, she said, as feelings of helplessness about their situation and lack of support can create panic.
“So many immigrant families were on the brink of distress,” she said. “They didn’t have any money. With (Larry and Atsuko’s) assistance we were able to quickly serve and help those families.
Undocumented immigrants also cannot obtain a driver’s license in Massachusetts, and Larry and Atsuko are working to get that changed, as many states have already done, Larry said. On a national level, the couple hopes to help reverse some of the regressive steps taken on immigration in recent years.
“Locally we’re going to continue doing what we do,” Larry said, addressing issues such as food insecurity, fair labor practices and English as a second language.
Follow Jessica Hill on Twitter: @jess_hillyeah.