Kevin Cullen

No longer a world apart

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / August 30, 2009

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As the great and the good gathered on Mission Hill to dispatch Ted Kennedy from this world, Amine Saasaa was 2 miles away, sitting behind a desk on Jones Hill, where Ted Kennedy first entered this world.

Amine Saasaa is a 23-year-old Moroccan immigrant who works as a security guard at the building in Dorchester where Edward Moore Kennedy was born 77 years ago, when it was St. Margaret’s Hospital.

They closed the hospital 16 years ago, and now the three brick buildings on top of Jones Hill are just St. Mary’s, a place that takes in and takes care of poor women and their kids.

“I didn’t know he was born here,’’ Amine Saasaa said. “This is my second day on the job.’’

Growing up in Casablanca, Amine Saasaa had a vague idea of what the Kennedy name meant.

“We heard of JFK,’’ he said.

In 1848, Patrick Kennedy surveyed the barren landscape of Dunganstown in County Wexford, littered with dead potatoes and dead neighbors, and he decided it had to be better in America. One hundred and fifty-five years later, Amine Saasaa’s father, Mahmoud, looked around the arid vistas of Morocco and came to the same conclusion.

“One day, he said, ‘We’re going to America,’ ’’ Saasaa said. “When your father says go, you go.’’

The Saasaas moved here six years ago. At first, they lived in Dorchester. Amine Saasaa didn’t speak a word of English when he entered English High School.

“I just picked it up with my ear, mostly,’’ he said. “I listened. Then later I’d try to say what I heard other people say.’’

Today, his English is impeccable. He thinks it should be better.

He was still at English High when his father said they were moving again. “Moline, Illinois,’’ he said. “I never heard of it. My mother and father worked for Tyson. The chicken company.’’

And so the Saasaas moved to Moline, Ill. There were more Moroccans there, working for Tyson, but they missed Boston.

“It was boring,’’ Saasaa said. “I don’t want to be mean. But it was boring in Moline.’’

And so they came back to Boston and Amine graduated from English High.

He worked at Logan International Airport as a ticket agent for Aer Lingus for a couple of years, but he never made it to Ireland. “I’d like to go,’’ he said. “I heard it’s beautiful.’’

He went to Gibbs College for a while, but he’s been working as a security guard for the last couple of years, the last two days at St. Mary’s. He makes $13.25 an hour, and it would be a lot less if not for Ted Kennedy, who pushed the minimum wage up higher than anyone. In the six years they’ve been here, every member of the Saasaa family has held a minimum-wage job at one time or another.

It’s quite likely that the Saasaa family wouldn’t be here without Ted Kennedy, who worked to open immigration to others, including Moroccans.

Like the first-generation Kennedys, who found themselves thrown into the melting pot of East Boston, the Saasaas are a work in progress. Mahmoud, the patriarch, is looking for work right now. His wife, Fatima, works at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Brookline. The kids are looking for the next rung up. Loubna, the oldest at 24 and the only daughter, is studying to be an architect. Ismail, who is 21 and whom everybody calls Izzy, works for a limo company. Mohamed is 17, a high school student. And Amine sits at the security desk at St. Mary’s.

Yesterday, Amine Saasaa was sitting just a few feet from a photo that shows Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley talking with a young woman who lived at St. Mary’s. On the television, Cardinal Sean was offering prayers over Ted Kennedy’s casket.

Amine Saasaa said he doesn’t know much of anything about Ted Kennedy, about the role Kennedy played in immigration reform, or the minimum wage, or helping the sort of women who live in the building he was guarding.

He looked to the TV, then to the bank of screens showing images from the security cameras. A young woman sat in a sheltered area outside, smoking.

“It’s sad when anyone dies,’’ he said.

A while back, the Saasaas moved to Brookline, to a house not far from the house at 83 Beals St., where Jack Kennedy was born, 15 years before Rose Kennedy was driven up Jones Hill to St. Margaret’s, where she gave birth to the last of her nine children and named him Edward. Ted Kennedy visited 83 Beals St. every year, without fail and without fanfare, to pray for a brother and a nation’s innocence lost.

“I’ll have to check it out,’’ Amine Saasaa said. “I can walk there in five minutes.’’

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at