Haitian Children Find Homes In U.S. Schools

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Haitian Students

MIRAMAR, Fla. – Some of the children arrived with no school records at all, some with only the clothes on their backs. A few still bear scrapes and bruises. All carry terrible memories.

Nearly 1,000 youngsters who survived Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake have enrolled in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area’s public schools, joining the largest concentration of Haitians in the United States.

The influx is putting teachers, administrators and grief counselors to the test. Many of the children are struggling with the horrors they witnessed, while also trying to adjust to their new surroundings. Some lost friends or loved ones in the quake, along with their homes and schools. Some are anxious and fearful.

“I cry every night,” said Madjany Mouscardy, now a fifth-grader at Silver Shores Elementary.

Madjany had to dig herself out of the rubble after the Jan. 12 quake, spent days sleeping outdoors and saw swollen corpses in the street before she was finally flown to safety in the United States.

She arrived at Silver Shores with no academic records in hand, and shoes a size too small. The staff gave her a backpack and uniform. She is staying with her stepmother’s sister; her father and stepmother are still in Haiti. She still has a wound on her ankle.

The students have arrived on military planes and aboard private flights. Some were in the process of being adopted before the quake and were granted special permission to come to the U.S. after the disaster. Most have relatives living in the United States.

Seasoned from decades of hurricanes, the Florida school systems have mobilized quickly.

In the week after the quake, 1,000 counselors with the Miami-Dade schools were trained in cultural sensitivity, how to deal with grief-stricken students and how to help teachers identify signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some of the children “may have not experienced loss as far as a family member or physical being,” said Brendaliz Davila, a member of the Miami-Dade school district’s crisis team. “But they’re experiencing the loss of their home and their homeland.”

Teachers and counselors say the students have been remarkably resilient, though some are afraid of being indoors and worry about another earthquake. A few still think the ground is moving.

“Some students will randomly say, `Hey, did you feel that tremor?’” Davila said. “It comes and it goes.”

Because students’ academic records were destroyed or lost in the quake, teachers and other specialists must quickly decide which classes they need. To test language skills, Eleanor Ospina, a reading specialist at Silver Shores, shows students a book of images they are asked to identify in English: a stove with a boiling pot on a burner, two children under an umbrella in a storm.

Ospina said most of the students she has seen largely speak Creole. Because the Broward County district already has a large Haitian population — there are an estimated 177,000 Haitian-born people living in South Florida — the students can be paired with buddies who can help in class.

District officials are talking with federal authorities in hopes of securing additional funding for the new students.

Silver Shores Elementary is 18 miles north of Miami in a community of neatly paved streets, trimmed lawns and homes painted in pastel colors with patios and pools in the backyards. The school has received about a dozen students who survived the quake — their stories heartbreaking and, at times, uplifting.

Garvey Fils-Aime, an 11-year-old who lost his mother in the quake, has made fast friends with two brothers who also survived the disaster. He likes the houses here — they are stronger and less likely to crumble in a quake.

Five-year-old Yann Jean Baptiste reluctantly let go of his mother’s hand and attended his first day of kindergarten in Silver Shores.

He sat cross-legged on a rainbow-colored carpet, dressed in khaki pants and a white, collared shirt, as his teacher, Ahkeelah Lamb, introduced him to the other children as a new student from Haiti.

She gently asked him to come to the front of the classroom and teach them a word in Creole. But Yann stood silently, his hands in his pockets.

“You’re a little shy?” Lamb asked, allowing him to sit back down.

A few minutes later, the shyness vanished at recess as Yann climbed a jungle gym, laughing and shouting to the other children in English, Creole and French.

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