Children of the Quake: Young survivors learn in a new land

By 
Tara W. Merrigan, Special to the Reporter
Jul. 21, 2010

Children of the Quake: Sherline Gustave, 18, survived Haiti’s Jan. 12 earthquake and joined family to live in Boston in February. She is one of many Haitian nationals now learning English through a special Boston Public School program. She is pictured above in a classroom at Hyde Park High School. 	Photo by Tara MerriganChildren of the Quake: Sherline Gustave, 18, survived Haiti’s Jan. 12 earthquake and joined family to live in Boston in February. She is one of many Haitian nationals now learning English through a special Boston Public School program. She is pictured above in a classroom at Hyde Park High School. Photo by Tara Merrigan

Sherline Gustave, 18, slept on the streets of Port-au-Prince for weeks after January’s earthquake leveled her family’s home.

“I felt the house shaking and it crumbled just as my family and I got outside,” said Gustave in her native Haitian Creole—translated to English by her teacher, Evelyn Prophete. “We [Gustave and her family members] were sleeping out in the street in the sun and even in the rain.

Hoping to find a better life, Gustave and her sisters emigrated from Haiti to Boston in February. Gustave, who resides in Brighton, is one of 159 students who have entered the Boston Public Schools (BPS) system since the earthquake devastated Haiti on Jan. 12. They are among the thousands of Haitian nationals who have either traveled to the U.S. since the disaster or who moved here in the months prior to the quake and have been granted temporary protected status (TPS) by the U.S. government.

Like many of these students, Gustave knew very little English and was placed in one of BPS’s English Language Learners programs. Gustave was assigned to the SIFE.(pronounced sif) program. Since its establishment in the 1990s, SIFE has been helping foreign students improve their skill in English and native language. In the past six months, it has eased adjustment to America for many of Haiti’s earthquake victims.

SIFE, which stands for Students with Interrupted Formal Education, is a literacy program that serves students who have recently emigrated and lack formal education in their native language; therefore, teachers instruct their students not only in English but also in their native tongue.

“These students are not special ed[ucation] students. Many just have not had the opportunity to enter a building called a school before they came to America,” said SIFE. teacher Evelyn Prophete. “I’ve seen children who are nine years-old at a kindergarten level of development because they have not had a chance to have an education.”

Due to their students’ lack of formal schooling, teachers must use visual aids, such as pictures and other creative methods to teach. The program serves individuals ages 9 through 21. BPS also offers SIFE programs in Spanish, Cape Verdean Creole, Somali, Vietnamese, and low occurrence languages.

Prophete, who teaches fourth and fifth graders in the Haitian Creole SIFE program at the Thomas Kenney School in Dorchester during the academic year, showed The Reporter some of the notebooks belonging to one of her students, a 9 year-old who could not read or write in her native Haitian Creole or English when she started the SIFE program. Her first entry in her notebook was nearly illegible, her letters shaky. By the end of school year, the student could write short essays in English.

“Sometimes there will be 16 or 17 that are functioning at an elementary school level,” says SIFE director Lunine Pierre-Jerome. “In two years, teachers will have them functioning at their grade level. It’s like a miracle.”

Prophete currently teaches Gustave and her 13 classmates, three of whom came to Boston after the earthquake, at Hyde Park High this summer. They come from varying educational backgrounds. Some learned English while others did not. A few speak French.

Prophete conducts the class primarily in Hatian Creole, but sprinkles in English vocabulary. At the beginning of one lesson, students did not know the English words for “police station” or “post office”, but by the end of class they could read both words and many others off the whiteboard.

After a few months in the program, the teenagers can hold light conversation in English. Several students, such as Marie Ivelyn Amazan, say these conversational skills have helped them adjust to Boston.

Amazan, who lives in Dorchester, came to Boston last April to live with her grandmother. She says that even simple everyday tasks, like taking the bus, are much easier now.

“When I came I couldn’t say a word in English,” says Berly Sabine Marc, who came to America on Christmas Eve last year. “When I opened my mouth all the other students laughed, but the SIFE teacher encouraged me to try new words.”

These students have big hopes for their futures and are excited about the educational opportunities America will provide them.

“I came here because in Haiti couldn’t go to school,” says Dorchester resident Mylove Damitie, who lived in the Delmar region of Port-au-Prince and emigrated last December. “Here I can learn something and go to school and then to college. I can learn a skill here.”

Many of the students want to pursue careers in medicine. Others would like to be lawyers or teachers. Mattapan resident Widlyne Jean Paul, who arrived here in January, would like to be an accountant.

Both the students who witnessed the earthquake first-hand and those who watched it from afar in America say that they want to return to Haiti after finishing to help their homeland.

Angella Antoine, who was cooking at her stove when the earthquake hit, says she would like to become a nurse and heal Haiti’s sick.  Sanon Clemente, who emigrated from Haiti in June 2009, would like to become an engineer so he can help rebuild his native country.

Clemente and his classmates are likely to be joined by other Haitian-born students in the coming months. Last week, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — the federal agency which sets the nation’s immigration policies — extended the deadline for Haitian nationals who intend to apply for TPS designation. The deadline — originally set to expire last week— has been extended by six months. Those granted TPS will be allowed to stay in the US for at least 18 months.

The USCIS director Alejandro Mayorkas also announced last week that the government may move to expedite pre-approved visas in an attempt to reunify families impacted by the quake. According to the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, as many as 55,000 Haitian nationals could enter the United States if this humanitarian parole is granted.

The SIFE students say that like Boston, especially the shopping it offers, but they nevertheless intend to return to Haiti.

“I like Boston,” notes Amazan. “It’s nice here, but after college I need to return to my country for the people. I need to become a doctor so I can help them.”