By From the Lowell Sun
LOWELL -- Chanra Chhean likes to reach for the sky.
He's a pole vaulter at Lowell High School, and some day, he would like his workplace to be high in the sky, where he could address the people behind him with, "Ladies and gentlemen, we'll be reaching a cruising altitude of about 32,000 feet..."
And Marty Meehan, the former 5th District congressman and current UMass Lowell chancellor, helped Chhean and other recent immigrants soar toward residency and citizenship.
Meehan will be honored Wednesday with the Lamp of Liberty Award for his fight "for the rights of new immigrants, ensuring them access to such basic necessities as education, employment, health care and social justice."
The evening gala feting Meehan will be at Stonehedge Inn in Tyngsboro, scheduled from 6 to 9.
The Lowell Community Health Center and the International Institute of Lowell, which present the award, benefit from the evening's proceeds.
"I've worked with both organizations on immigration issues and I think they're both outstanding," said Meehan yesterday. "Obviously, I'm honored and flattered and look forward to a successful fundraising event."
Chhean, 16, is a senior at Lowell High, vice president of his class and a member of the National Honor Society. He is captain of the boys' varsity gymnastics and outdoor track teams, and works part time at Lowell Community Health Center as a peer counselor.
Chhean, who arrived in the U.S. with his parents from Cambodia in the spring of 2002, says Meehan's office helped him navigate the process toward becoming a legal resident.
Chhean received his green card Sept. 19, the day after his 16th birthday.
"It was the best present I could ever receive," he said yesterday in a lunchtime interview at the high school. "It was a huge process."
It has not been easy. Chhean now lives with his grandmother. His parents divorced since arriving here, and his father returned to Cambodia and his mother now lives in Pennsylvania.
"The great thing about here is that I was able to go to school, to obtain health insurance while I was waiting for my green card. If I couldn't go to school I would probably just be home."
As his senior year approached, Chhean began to fret.
"I thought it was not going anywhere. I want to go to a good university, and you cannot do that without a green card. And I don't have the money to go as an exchange student. I felt upset and helpless, but I had to keep pushing on."
Meehan remembers "a young man with enormous potential, smart, and frustrated.
"Since 9/11, the process has become more difficult and frankly, there have been more problems in terms of processing. They're understaffed, and it shouldn't be that you have to go to your congressional office for help." But, Meehan, added, there is a "maze of bureaucracy."
Meehan's immigration aide "gave me good advice," said Chhean. "I got more involved and I asked and he gave me some different alternatives."
Once he received his green card, says Chhean, it started the clock toward citizenship. In four years, he would be eligible to apply for citizenship.
Chhean's work as a peer counselor at Lowell Community Health Center began his freshman year with training. Now, as a peer counselor with the Cambodian Youth Development Program, he discusses with Cambodian teenagers the perils of teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, substance abuse and violence. He also discusses "ways they can come out of their shell and be who they. Some kids are not comfortable speaking with other people, so they hide themselves. I am there to talk to them and help them. It keeps me busy. Though his work schedule usually includes just Monday and Wednesday afternoons, he's usually there two other days, too. And he takes an art class Wednesday evenings.
"It keeps me busy."
He also says he knew community work "might help with my paperwork, and I wanted to get into a good college, and that would help my resume. I try to do community service as much as I can. I will take any opportunity they give me."
He's not sure where he'll attend college next year, but Chhean plans to major in engineering, and then "join the Air Force to fly. I have a passion for flying."
For now, he appreciates the city, its diversity and its opportunities.
"You have the opportunity to do anything. And you don't have to be born here to do all that stuff. You just have to be committed."
Tickets for the Lamp of Liberty Award gala are $85 (includes international wines, hors d'ouevres, music and dancing), and are available by calling 978-459-9031, ext. 31, or by e-mail, at firstname.lastname@example.org