Haitian student in New York

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Since the earthquake in Haiti, thousands of Haitians have arrived in the US. Many of them are young people who were in the middle of high school back in Haiti. One grassroots organization in Brooklyn, New York, helps such students finds places at schools over here. The World's Alex Gallafent has this story in our series ?Learning in two languages'.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. Since the earthquake in Haiti, thousands of Haitians have arrived in the US. Many of them are young people who were in the middle of high school back in Haiti. One grassroots organization in Brooklyn, New York, helps such students find a place in American schools. The World's Alex Gallafent has this next report in our series Learning in Two Languages.

ALEX GALLAFENT: Darnell Benoit has a message for the young Haitian immigrants she meets.

DARNELL BENOIT: I just always tell young people okay you're 17, you're 16, you come here. You don't go to school, you don't study English, you don't do anything. And you're here for another 40 years, you don't go back home. What's going to happen to you? Where you going to be?

GALLAFENT: Benoit runs the Flanbwayan Haitian Literacy Project here in New York. It's named after a tree that flourishes wherever it sets root. Flanbwayan concentrates on Haitian immigrants between the ages of 14 and 21. Before the quake Benoit and her staff were seeing one or two new faces each month. But since then the numbers have rocketed up. That means a bigger workload for Benoit, but a bigger community too.

BENOIT: When young people see other young people going through the same things that they're going through, like the struggles in adjusting to a new life, learning a new language, going to school. When they see other youth that have done it, then of course that's super right there because they can see themselves


GALLAFENT: Jardonna Constant, 18 years old, and, until this past spring, living her life in Haiti.


JARDONNA CONSTANT: After the earthquake I started going to school under a tent. Then without any warning, my aunt called me to tell me I was coming to the States. She was sending for me.

GALLAFENT: Jardonna left Haiti, leaving behind family and friends. She headed to Brooklyn. That's where New York's Haitian community is concentrated. It's where her aunt lives and it's where she found Flanbwayan. These past months, Darnell Benoit has been getting Jardonna ready for an American school. And it's not only about improving her English.

BENOIT: You also have to understand your environment, you also have to be able to use a computer, you also have to be able to analyze something to have a conversation, to have a discussion. All that builds up literacy. So we do that.

GALLAFENT: And Benoit says there's a real need for that kind of broadening experience ahead of high school, especially since Haitian communities tend to keep to themselves.

BENOIT: We've had students who've been here two years and they have never been to Manhattan. They're just here in Brooklyn.

GALLAFENT: But Jardonna Constant isn't like that. The 18-year-old is on track with her studies. She was in her last year of high school back in Haiti and she's got plans for the future.


CONSTANT: Before, I wanted to be a flight attendant, but I realized over the years that I wanted to be a nurse.

GALLAFENT: That's some way off, but in the meantime Constant found herself a casual summer job.


CONSTANT: On Flatbush Avenue in the neighborhood, a clothes shop, helping people choose what they want.

GALLAFENT: Not a Haitian shop, either.

CONSTANT: Jewish shop

GALLAFENT: Jewish shop?


BENOIT: The more you try new things, then your life with be transformed by it.

GALLAFENT: Darnell Benoit wishes she saw that more often.

BENOIT: As an immigrant, that's not an excuse. ?Oh, I'm an immigrant, I'm an immigrant.? Yeah, what does that mean, you're an immigrant? So is everybody else here. They are immigrants. Everybody's finding their way. I'm an immigrant and I found my way. So everybody has to do it. You can't just sit on the side and do nothing.

GALLAFENT: Benoit has high hopes for her model student. Over the summer, Jardonna won a place at one of New York's best public high schools for immigrant students.

CONSTANT: Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School.

GALLAFENT: It's a school that specializes in helping immigrant students with their English, without slowing down their achievements in other areas. She starts there this week. But while public high schools enroll students regardless of immigration status, that's not true for, say, college. Like countless Haitians who came to the US after the earthquake, Jardonna Constant is here on a tourist visa. And, sooner or later, even if she can extend it, it's going to expire. Constant says she's confident things will work out. She'd much rather go to college here than in Haiti. But even if she can't, she's staying. Darnell Benoit.

BENOIT: Everybody's staying, there's nobody here for the moment. So, there's nobody here for the moment, no one. Everybody's staying here.

GALLAFENT: And so Benoit knows that however well Jardonna Constant does at her new high school, when she leaves she may end up like so many other immigrants. Undocumented and invisible. For The World, I'm Alex Gallafent in Brooklyn, New York.