The Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest NJ is assisting Haitian immigrants whose family and friends died or are suffering in the wake of the island nation’s devastating earthquake.
Some 90 Haitian immigrants were enrolled in JVS English language classes when the quake struck on Jan. 12.
First and foremost, JVS says it is helping these immigrants become part of the workforce so they can earn money for their desperate relatives — many of whom were left homeless and grieving.
In addition, JVS officials are offering counseling and helping the Haitians deal with changes in immigration rules that will make their lives in New Jersey a bit easier.
“We are offering on an as-needed basis mental health rehabilitation counseling and referrals for legal assistance,” JVS executive director Leonard Schneider told NJ Jewish News.
On Jan. 25, at JVS headquarters in East Orange, English-as-a-second-language teacher Merrill Silver informed her class that the agency was there to help.
“If anyone needs to talk to someone professionally, we will have people here to help,” said Silver. “If they get depressed, if they need a hug, if they need to cry, we will provide a professional counselor and an interpreter.”
In halting English, but mainly in their native Creole, members of the ESL class spoke about the fates of family members.
Luxy Lereau of Orange has a seven-year-old daughter in Haiti.
“She is alive but the hospital near her was destroyed,” he said through an interpreter. “The person she was living with is going to Miami, and I don’t know what will happen to my daughter. I don’t know if my daughter will have a place to live. It is really destroying me and playing with my mind. My mother and father’s house was also destroyed, but everyone is alive.”
Rodeline Michel-Georges of Irvington said her brother and his two children survived the quake.
“However, their house was destroyed. I heard from them and they are all right,” she said. “My heart is breaking because I am here and I know they are struggling in Haiti. I am not working myself and so I am not able to send money or things to them.”
Translator Judith Celestin, a Haitian American who directs the Adult Learning Center at Essex County Community College, explained the pressures on Michel-Georges.
“Her family in Haiti is not as well off as she is,” said Celestin. “In the United States she is not doing too well, but she is doing much better than they are. She needs to stay here and learn English so she can provide for them.”
Celestin’s own family has also been ravaged by the quake. “Their homes were destroyed, which is minimal compared to the death we’ve had,” she said. “We’ve had six people who were crushed to death.”
Rose Caithe Vil-Pierre Paul of Orange said, “Everyone in my family is OK, but their house was destroyed. My sister, who is taking care of my son, went to Port-au-Prince just to go shopping. My sister was injured and my son is staying with a friend. I am worried about them.”
Jean Duquesne of Orange has had no contact with his mother, father, and siblings in Haiti, but, he said, “I heard through the Internet I had two cousins who passed.”
Germaine Philippe of West Orange is still awaiting word about her parents, a sister, and an uncle.
“When I try to call them, nobody picks up the phone,” she said. “My aunt had two of her children die. My cousin had four who died. They have not found the rest of the family.
“Next month I will be going to Haiti — but not now I can’t.”
Since the earthquake, the United States Department of Homeland Security has granted Haitian immigrants what it calls “temporary protected status.” It allows those who have been living in America without legal documents to remain in the country and obtain work permits for the next 18 months.
“I would like the class to know we have been talking to immigration officials,” said Nancy Fisher, the assistant JVS executive director in charge of education and training. “If anybody in the class or anybody in the class who has relatives or friends who do not have permission to work, we are getting information on how to fill out papers so you can stay and work here.
“We have connections and partnerships that can get them legal assistance,” said Fisher. “We are trying to listen to people and direct them to the appropriate agencies.”
JVS, a partner agency of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, serves clients on a nonsectarian basis. Schneider said his agency’s stepped-up efforts to aid Haitian immigrants in the MetroWest area are part of a larger responsibility.
“We are pleased to have the resources to respond to the crisis in this way,” he said. “It is consistent with our core Jewish values and our mission of tikun olam.”