[Homestead] More Haiti

Tvoivozhd tvoivozd at infionline.net
Wed Sep 29 00:54:00 EDT 2004


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  Reaching Out To Haitian Students

    Group helps immigrants adjust



By Martin C. Evans

November 14, 2002

When Haitian children call out "diri" to make fun of the broken English, 
awkward fashions and back-home habits of their newly arrived peers, it 
cuts like a knife.

The word - which means "rice" in Haitian Creole - connotes "country 
bumpkin" among new immigrants in Uniondale, Westbury and other Long 
Island communities where Haitians have settled.

The hazing hurts so much that young newcomers often isolate themselves, 
making it harder for them to adjust to life in America.

"It means you don't know anything," said Geralda Brevette, 17, a 
Westbury High School senior who emigrated from Haiti three years ago. 
"Some of the others think they are better than us."

Although Haitian-American communities are quickly growing on Long Island 
- state education department figures point to Baldwin, Central Islip, 
Hempstead, Roosevelt, Uniondale and Westbury among them - the needs of 
immigrant children remain below the radar of school districts and other 
service providers, say social workers with the nonprofit group Haitian 
American Family of Long Island.

"You have children who are 12 or 13 who have never been to school, or 
you have parents who are not used to asking teachers for help for their 
children," said Georges Fouron, chairman of the sociology department at 
SUNY Stony Brook.

"And you have teachers who harbor prejudicial attitudes," said Fouron, 
who also is a member of the Haitian-American group's board. "All these 
things make it hard for children to get the help they need."

To help students struggling to assimilate in Westbury and Uniondale, two 
school districts with high numbers of Haitian immigrant children, the 
group sends social workers into schools there.

The counselors advocate on behalf of children and parents, who are often 
unfamiliar with available services, academic requirements and other 
school operations, and help overwhelmed school officials understand the 
challenges Haitian immigrants face.

Chantal Bazelais, a Westbury guidance counselor who emigrated from Haiti 
in the 1960s, said only three teachers speak Creole at the high school, 
where 117 students have arrived from Haiti in the past three years alone.

"One of the first problems they must overcome is the need to be 
understood," Bazelais said. "And in Haiti, the teacher is the authority 
and so there is not much questioning by parents."

Fouron, who is from the Caribbean nation, said Haitian families here are 
often burdened with extraordinary needs.

Because 80 percent of Haiti's 7 million people live in poverty - Haiti 
is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere - many Haitians living 
here feel responsible for sharing income with relatives back home. High 
rates of illiteracy there - only 45 percent of Haiti's adult population 
can read or write - mean immigrant parents here sometimes are unable to 
help with their children's homework.

And because many Haitian immigrants arrive with plans to return to Haiti 
after building a nest egg, they are sometimes less likely to become 
involved in their children's schools, Fouron said.

Conversely, parents who are committed to staying here often pressure 
their children to climb the socioeconomic ladder by going into medicine 
or other professions.

That often has children feeling a need to put their Haitian roots behind 
them, leaving them culturally adrift.

"When I taught in the city, some kids would tell me, 'Don't say anything 
to me in Creole, because I don't want anyone to know I'm Haitian,'" 
Fouron said.

To help them cope, Carole Laplanche, a social worker with Haitian 
American Family of Long Island, gathers about 15 Haitian students once a 
week at Westbury High School for voluntary counseling.

She encourages the students to talk about everything ranging from 
problems with parents to frictions between Haitian immigrants and their 
American-born peers.

Last week, Laplanche sat among a dozen students at an informal gathering 
in the school library. Soon, they were chatting animatedly about the 
cliques that sometimes divide Haitian-born students from 
Haitian-Americans born here.

"I really love this group because before I couldn't communicate with a 
lot of Haitians," said Judith Jacques, 15, who was born in Westbury to 
Haitian immigrant parents. "But the group lets you have your own 
opinion. They let you talk it out."

The students also talked about the pressures of being reared in America 
by parents who still hold to traditions formed in the Caribbean.

"They want us to be raised the same way they were," said Scott Imbert, 
15, a Westbury student whose parents emigrated from Haiti before he was 
born. "I try to understand how hard it was for them. The group has 
helped us talk to our parents and tell them how different it is for us."

The program began two years ago, hiring a part-time counselor with a 
$20,000 one-time grant from Catholic Health Services. Since then, 
Haitian American Family of Long Island has continued its work with 
students on a shoestring, scrounging donations where they can.

The program has counseled about 75 high school students per year. In 
addition, it provides twice-a-week English tutoring for about 15 
children in Uniondale.

"There are more in need, but we can't answer to them yet," said Haitian 
American Family program director Maryse Garcy. "It's so essential. We 
hope we can keep it going."

Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc. <http://www.newsday.com>

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