Guiding Immigrants Back to Professions

Marsha Enkerud of Fairfax County talks with Daniel Assefa Mekibib at the Rockville campus of Johns Hopkins University. Dozens of people attended a series of workshops for highly skilled immigrants last week.
Marsha Enkerud of Fairfax County talks with Daniel Assefa Mekibib at the Rockville campus of Johns Hopkins University. Dozens of people attended a series of workshops for highly skilled immigrants last week. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

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By Aruna Jain
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 3, 2006

Just a few years ago, Luis Chiliquinga was an arbitration judge in Ecuador. Now, he is a carpenter in Germantown.

For $9.45 an hour, Giovanna La Rosa works as a cash counter at a Target store in Virginia. She used to be a lawyer in Lima, Peru.

Ethiopia native Yoseph Haile earned a degree in electrical engineering from Addis Ababa University. He does odd jobs now, whatever he can find. But he wants to get back into engineering soon, before his skills diminish.

Along with dozens of other immigrants from around the Washington area, La Rosa, Haile and Chiliquinga spent a day at the Rockville campus of Johns Hopkins University last month for a series of workshops for highly skilled immigrants who want to get jobs better suited to their experience and education.

"It's not so easy when you come here to take a lawyer job," said La Rosa. "The legalese, the vocabulary is different. We are pushed to use our hands when we could use our minds."

"We want to get to know all the possibilities," said Angel Macias, who worked as a lawyer in Bolivia before coming to this country. "The thing is, we don't know the ways to find [out how] to get loans, scholarships. In the meantime, we are learning English and becoming familiar with America. The principal idea is to be useful to this country."

The event drew about 110 immigrants from places around the world -- Africa, Asia, Europe, and Central and South America. They had worked as doctors, lawyers, engineers and accountants in their home countries and now are cab drivers, restaurant employees, day-care workers, contractors, cashiers, hotel workers, repairmen and electricians.

According to the 2000 Census, 26.7 percent of Montgomery County residents are foreign-born. In 2004, the Census listed 13.2 percent of residents as being of Hispanic or Latino origin. Another 13 percent were from Asia.

It can be hard for immigrants to qualify for professional jobs in the United States. They face eligibility hurdles -- licensing, certification or citizenship status -- plus language barriers and the lack of a degree from a U.S. institution. Overcoming such obstacles requires a lot of information.

Recognizing that need, Lesley Kamenshine, a Montgomery College administrator by day, put on the event in her spare time.

The subject is her passion. In 2003, she wrote a book called "Career Guide and Directory for Immigrant Professionals."

"It's a huge waste of economic potential, of human potential, to not help these people," said Kamenshine, of Gaithersburg. "If we help them, they will contribute a whole lot more dollars to this economy. It's in the interest of our system to help them."


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