Mural unveiled in Astoria advocates for clean earth

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The health of the world is a pretty big responsibility for anyone to tackle, but it’s not too heavy a burden for five young immigrant women who displayed their global environmental message in Astoria this week.

“We can do work together. One person cannot do anything,” said Rubab Ali, 16, of Woodside, as she showed off a mural she painted with four others that was unveiled Monday night during a ceremony at Arrow Park on 35th Street. “We all want to live in a clean place.”

The five young environmentalists are part of a group of 15 borough students who devoted their summer to public service as members of the Newcomers Youth Organization Program, a project sponsored by the Citizens Committee for New York City and the Latin American Cultural Center of Queens designed to teach recent immigrants ways to improve their communities.

“At the Citizens Committee, we’re all about trying to help people become part of the solution to problems in their neighborho­ods,” said the organization’s president, Michael Clark, in his opening remarks during the mural unveiling.

“Stand together and take action to preserve the environment,” the mural reads in bold black letters across the top. An image of the globe floats in the center, surrounded by rounded arrows depicting the three R's of waste management: reduce, reuse, recycle. The border of the canvas is lined with an array of flags representing different parts of the world, while the bottom bears a message that rings true from Corona to Colombia: “The world is in our hands. We can make a difference.”

“They really put their heart and souls into it,” said Kaleila Pufolkes, 19, an adviser who helped guide the team from brainstorm through finishing touches. “They didn’t really want to stop until it was finished.”

Before they were faced with the duty of educating their neighbors about how to care for the environment, the five young women from different countries had never really thought of themselves as artists. In fact, some of them had never before heard the word “mural.”

“We didn’t know what we were doing,” said Fatima Ali, 14, who emigrated with her sister Rubab from Pakistan only last year. She recalled her reaction when Pufolkes first suggested they paint a mural to get their message across. “A mural, what is that?” she had asked.

“I thought it was going to be colored pencils and a poster,” said Alixon Bernal, 13, of Corona, a native of Colombia.

“I never thought it would come out like this.”

The summer-long program sorted the 15 students into three groups assigned to distinct community organizing projects. While their peers were orchestrating anti-racism workshops and operating food pantries, the five who joined the environmental action group started with plans to clean up a park.

But the day they visited Flushing Meadows Corona Park to tackle some litter, the girls apparently had just missed a clean-up crew that had already swept the grounds. Suddenly they realized their task of cleaning and protecting the environment was a challenge that required help from everyone, and they changed their job from that of cleaner to teacher.

“If you do a mural, they pay more attention,” Bernal said. “We cannot clean up for everyone.”

Their approach proved effective even before they had a chance to put the mural on display.

The five spent a week in August creating the mural out in Astoria’s Rainey Park, where park-goers would often lean their heads over the project while the students were still painting. One man who only moments earlier had violated one of their most basic tenets — having dropped some litter on the ground — immediately turned over a new leaf.

“He picked it up and threw it in the garbage,” said Angie Bernal, Alixon’s 12-year-old sister, with the glint of pride beaming from her eyes. Zeeshan Manzoor, the fifth student, could not attend Monday’s ceremony.

The anonymous man wasn’t the only one who learned a lesson from their project.

“I used to throw papers — I’d just throw it on the street,” Alixon Bernal admitted.

“They succeeded in such a way that they could not believe it themselves,” said Nayibe Nuñez-Berger, the president of the Latin American Cultural Center of Queens. “This promotes a lot of self-esteem and a better knowledge of themselves.”

For the students who worked on other projects, the impact was just as strong. Aditya Venkat, a 14-year-old immigrant from India who lives in East Elmhurst, has been visiting community centers with his team to enlighten people about racism and the ways it affects how people perceive and treat one another.

“We get to teach other people and improve their lives,” Venkat said. “That was kind of cool.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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