Helping Young Haitian Immigrants

August 24, 2015
Flanbwayan founder and director Darnell Benoit and student member Pavarotti Absalon (Photo courtesy of Flanbwayan Haitian Literacy Project)

Flanbwayan founder and director Darnell Benoit and student member Pavarotti Absalon (Photo courtesy of Flanbwayan Haitian Literacy Project)

When 17-year-old Pavarotti Absalon came to New York City to visit his father last June, he had no idea that he would be staying permanently.

Absalon says that about two months into his summer stay, his father told him that he would not be returning to Haiti. Instead, he would start at a new high school in the fall and attend a program designed to help him make the transition.

“I was a little bit excited, but you know all of my friends are in Haiti and leaving them was not easy,” he said.

Every Wednesday for the rest of the summer, he went to the Flanbwayan Haitian Literacy Project in Flatbush, the heart of New York City’s Haitian community.

The small second-floor space on Parkside Avenue is where newcomers like Absalon go, not only to receive assistance with school enrollment and classes, but also to practice English, participate in leadership activities and prepare for standardized tests.

Flanbwayan founder and director, Darnell Benoit, went to the school enrollment office with Absalon to ensure that he was placed in a school with a bilingual education program that would fit his needs. The organization combines education, advocacy and cultural activities for young adult Haitian immigrant students between the age of 14 and 21.

“I would give it (Flanbwayan) a 10 out of 10 because I’m learning a lot of things. My English is getting very good and there are also many programs I get to participate in,” he explained.

Absalon now attends Emma Lazarus High School in Manhattan, which offers a curriculum specifically designed for students learning English as a second language. His father Patrick Absalon says, “Now everybody calls me from the school to tell me ‘Oh Pavarotti is doing good.’ Yes, I am proud.”

“To me if I didn’t have Flanbwayan it would be very hard for Pavarotti to do the transition. The organization Flanbwayan is the bridge between Pavarotti and the school,” he said.

The teenager is just one of more than 1,000 English Language Learners (ELLs) the Flanbwayan Haitian Literacy Project has helped over the last decade.

ELLs are identified as students who speak a language other than English at home and based on academic assessment are not yet proficient in English. Haitian Creole is among the top five languages spoken among that group in the city’s public schools.

Flanbwayan Haitian cultural event (Photo courtesy of the Flanbwayan Haitian Literacy Project)

Flanbwayan Haitian cultural event (Photo courtesy of Flanbwayan Haitian Literacy Project)

According to the latest New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) statistics, about one in seven of the city’s 1.1 million students are considered English Language Learners.

Although the overall graduation rate of city students was at 64 percent last year, of the most recent cohort of ELL students that entered high school in 2010, only 32.5 percent graduated in four years.

These students often face more difficulties than their peers. They require additional academic, emotional and in some instances legal support; particularly those who are older and may arrive in New York City with little or no formal schooling.

“When you’re in high school it’s a whole different world. These students are coming from their countries with different issues, different kinds of education. Some students didn’t go to school for a long time. Some started school and stopped, started, stopped. Some students just had bad education from home,” Benoit said.

“Then you come into this huge system with a new language and then you don’t have the support to begin with at home because your parents are newcomers also. They are not able to help you.”

Benoit says she was frustrated by what she described as inadequate information on school enrollment options and ongoing support for immigrant students in the city’s public schools. In 2005 she decided to start providing that information and resources to families from her native country of Haiti who now live in New York City.

Through partnerships with some bilingual schools and community-based immigrant organizations, Flanbwayan advocates for better school-based services for ELLs in an effort to close the achievement gap between immigrant students and their peers.

Flanbwayan is the name of a tree that grows throughout the island of Haiti. Benoit says its fiery red flowers make it stand out. She named the organization after this tree because it represents growth, beauty and strength. That’s what she sees in the students.

“She was like a second family,” said Joan Desir, a former student the organization assisted during its inaugural year. She smiled when she recalled that Benoit was the first person to give her school supplies, introduce to her to the library system and explain to her what the letter grades on her report card meant. She was used to seeing numbers.

“Some stuff you don’t know. They (the school) don’t know that you don’t know what it means. They don’t know that it’s different, that maybe back in your country it’s very different from them,” she remarked.

“When you’re an immigrant you need people who know you, where you come from and what you might need help with.” Desir is now a college graduate and is giving back by interning and serving as a mentor to teens and other young adults in the organization.

Flanbwayan Haitian Literacy Project celebrated its 10-year anniversary in April. With Haitian families calling from as far away as Florida for guidance, Benoit hopes to expand the services offered and ensure that the needs of all immigrant students remain a priority.

“To me the most important thing is first of all giving a voice to this community, not only for the Haitian students, but all immigrant students,” she said.