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Tilden High students mourn loved ones lost in Haiti

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Both Denaud Harry-son, left, and Joseph Aurelien right were worried their family members had not survived the earthquake in Haiti. (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

By VADIM LAVRUSIK

Denaud Harry-son was sitting in social studies class at Samuel J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn, when his teacher broke the news: Haiti was struck by a devastating earthquake. Right away, Harry-son’s heart sank as he worried about his brothers and sisters, who still live in a town outside of Port-au-Prince.

Harry-son, a senior, immediately tried to call his siblings with no luck. Many lines were either down or jammed. He ran through scenarios in his head about why he couldn’t get reach them, but for two days he kept trying.

He was too distraught to go to school, and neither could most students at Tilden, where the majority of the 173 students and staff are Haitian. Like Harry-son, many have only been in the country for a few years and still have close family in Haiti. For the first couple of weeks following the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that killed an estimated 230,000 people and left hundreds of thousands injured and homeless, Tilden and other schools in the East Flatbush building were virtually shut down as students and faculty grieved for the loss of loved ones and the devastation of their homeland.

On the third day following the earthquake, Harry-son and his family in Brooklyn got a message from relatives in Florida that his siblings were safe, though their home was destroyed. Some of his extended family and friends weren’t as lucky. Friends at a college in Port-au-Prince and a cousin died when buildings collapsed on them.

Administrators from the three schools in the Tilden building set up a crisis intervention team that included guidance counselors and social workers. Each class had a meeting to discuss the support available for the students, and then the guidance counselors worked with teachers to identify students known to have immediate family members in Haiti who may have died in the tragedy, said Stevenson Petit, a guidance counselor at Tilden High School. The counselors also had open office hours for individual counseling sessions with students.

“Most of the students had a family member killed in the earthquake,” Petit said. “The entire school was paralyzed for a week and it was impossible to hold classes.”

Stevenson Petit, a guidance counselor at Tilden, helped organize a crisis intervention team to help counsel grieving students. (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

The school bought phone cards to help students reach their families in Haiti. In some cases, they were able to connect students with family or at least get news about their family’s well being.

It was two weeks before Joseph Aurelien, a senior at Tilden, heard that his mom and siblings were okay.

“I was really worried and had no idea if they were okay,” Aurelien said.

He said during that time, it was hard to focus on class. Coming to school was difficult because it was just another reminder of the tragedy since so many friends lost family members.
The school’s priority was identifying the most troubled of these students, Petit said.

In one instance, a student was so distraught because he heard his entire family had died in the earthquake that he told a teacher he had no reason to live anymore, and walked out to go to the bathroom. Staff were worried the student might hurt himself, Petit said and so they kept him under supervision.

“To them, Haiti wasn’t there anymore. They thought everyone was dead,” Petit said. “Students would be walking down the hall and would fall to the ground and burst into tears.”

Petit said that later that same student found out his parents were alive. Petit felt so relieved for the student, he said.

At another school in the Tilden building, It Takes a Village Academy, 130 of the 300 students are Haitian. The school brought in outside help from local community organizations to help with the counseling and is slowly beginning the healing process.

“It’s a long process and a big demand, but we’re doing what we’re doing,” Principal Marina Vinitskaya said.

Vinitskaya was surprised that the students still did so well on the Regents exams, which were given only a few weeks after the quake.

“I think that in some ways it motivated them and they saw that their academic success is even more important now,” she said.

At Tilden High School it was a similar attitude. Students started raising funds and clothing and anything they could to send back to aid their suffering country. Harry-son, wide receiver on the Tilden’s football team, said the team began a clothing drive.

“Everyone was trying to do what they could to help,” he said.

For many of the students who found community at Tilden after leaving Haiti, in a few months they will again be refugees adrift in the city’s school system. Samuel J. Tilden High School is closing in June and many of the remaining students who haven’t graduated will be sent to schools around the city.

Petula Libert, a teacher who helps tutor students after school, is worried about the students’ future because the school is being phased out for underperformance. Petit agreed, saying that the school is the only one that caters to Creole-speaking students.

“Here it’s a community, a comfort zone for them where the teachers understand their needs,” Petit said. “No other schools are going to be able to accommodate their needs.”

Libert said that this has motivated and given the students a sense of urgency about graduating. “What other option do they have?” she asked. “If you’re not an excellent student, you’re going to fall by the wayside.”

Jerome Edlet, left, was planning on going back to Haiti, but now plans to stay and build his future in the states.

At the same time both Tilden and It Takes A Village have taken on more students who have come from Haiti since the earthquake. Education administrator Soerette Fougere said a student who moved to New York from Haiti following the earthquake had what appeared to be a panic attack during a class lesson on Haiti to the point that she needed to be taken to the hospital.

Petit worries there will be more such incidents as students begin to understand what they’ve lost, but her focus is on helping them graduate.

Jerome Edlet, 20, was able to graduate in February from Tilden High School and has changed his outlook on the future. His family that is in Haiti is coming to America this summer. He had plans to go back to Haiti, but since the earthquake that’s all changed.

“There’s nothing to go back to. It’s all destroyed,” he said. “We’re going to stay here and make our future here.”

About Vadim:
Vadim Lavrusik is reporting on immigrant student issues and is embedded in Manhattan International High School in the Julia Richman Complex. He is an M.S. candidate at the Columbia Journalism School with a digital media concentration.
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