- The Washington Times - Friday, May 19, 2006

Rabia Aslam has lived in the United States only four years, but already the petite multilingual student is poised to graduate from Alexandria’s Langston High School this spring, receive her emergency medical technician certificate and pursue her American dream.

“In this country, I just want to be a gynecologist,” the 18-year-old Pakistani immigrant said Tuesday during an after-school class for immigrant youths. “Liberty’s Promise is helping us because we are immigrants so in the future we will be able to help other immigrants. It’s like ‘pay it forward.’”

Liberty’s Promise is an Alexandria-based nonprofit that helps low-income legal immigrants in Northern Virginia ages 15 to 21 become politically active in America through internships and civics classes. Students born in the U.S. to immigrant parents also are eligible.

Executive Director Robert M. Ponichtera said he created the group in response to the growing immigrant population in the U.S.

“If you look at the [countries with the highest] amount of legal immigrants coming here, you will find that they are countries that do not have a history of participatory democracy,” he said, indicating Vietnam and China. “People who come from those countries are eager to learn the American way of life.”

So Liberty’s Promise helps students assimilate by teaching them how the U.S. government works, as well as the importance of voting, community involvement and local politics.

Students learn resume-building and interview skills through job-training workshops. Civics classes take field trips to universities and meet police, firefighters, judges, elected officials and successful immigrants in the community.

There are eight- to 10-week paid internships in a wide range of sectors such as hotel management, banking and engineering, which provide a start for many immigrant students who are new to the concepts of networking and internships.

Though the program’s goal is not job placement, organizers said about 33 percent of internships have led to permanent positions.

Habib Bangura, a George Mason University student who emigrated from Sierra Leone at 13 and plans to become a high school counselor, said Liberty’s Promise armed him with connections he wouldn’t have been able to forge otherwise.

“America puts so much emphasis on getting experience early … whereas in Africa you really don’t start working until after you graduate from college,” said Mr. Bangura, 21, who works with troubled teens through an internship at the Alexandria Court Services Unit. “A lot of people I work with get internships through their parents, but [for] immigrants [whose] families do janitorial jobs … it’s pretty limited.”

Students say the civics class is a godsend because it addresses cultural differences. For example, police in some Latin American or African countries only serve rich people who can afford to pay bribes.

“There are many immigrants [who are afraid to call the police] because they don’t know their rights or how the [U.S.] system works,” said 17-year-old Deanitza Pena, a Bolivian immigrant who said she and her sister share what they learn with their parents and friends.

Betzaida Silva, an intern at the Herndon Dulles Chamber of Commerce, says working with her supervisor earlier this month during Herndon town council elections inspired her to register to vote. “It helped me inform myself more about the whole issue of immigration, [which] a couple years ago I didn’t know anything about.”

The U.S.-born daughter of Colombian immigrants said she plans to pursue a doctorate in psychology. “Sometimes [Hispanics] think we can only work in restaurants, and [Liberty’s Promise] shows us different job fields … and helps us look further than a restaurant position.”

The program will expand to Maryland this summer, but Mr. Ponichtera said he would like to take the program nationwide because “this isn’t a D.C. metro problem; this is a national problem.”

“We really feel we’ve hit upon a program that’s palatable to everyone,” he said. “How can you not like it? We’re, in essence, helping young people become good Americans.”


Founded: 2003

Employees: Two full time, one volunteer

Description: Liberty’s Promise is an Alexandria-based nonprofit that encourages young, low-income legal immigrants to become politically active in the United States through internships and civics classes. The program has placed 24 students in internships and connected 25 to civics classes and job-skill workshops during the past year.

Address: 1010 Pendleton St., Alexandria, VA 22314-1837

Contact: Robert M. Ponichtera, executive director, 703/549-9950.

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