Twins easing into a new life with hope
Haitian students adapt to schools, culture in America
On Jan. 12, David Baron was visiting a school in Port-au-Prince when student Steeve Simbert asked him for help revising an essay.
In a split second, they found themselves holding each other as the earth shook.
Today, the student and teacher, safely in the United States, are closer than ever, bonded by their survival after an earthquake that upended buildings and uprooted thousands of children in and around the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.
“Even though we don’t see each other every day, I feel like we’re mentally connected,” said Baron, a 59-year-old Caribbean art dealer and writer who lives in New Orleans.
“When you go through something like that with somebody else, it’s like we’re soldiers.”
Simbert eventually reached his twin brother, Ally, 10 hours after the quake via cell phone and told him that he was alive. After a week, the twins reached the United States together.
The Simbert brothers are just two of more than 2,300 Haitian students – kindergarteners to high school seniors – who have ended up in Broward and Miami-Dade schools.
Six months after the quake, the students still are adjusting to a new country – and a strange lifestyle that includes blue jeans and rap rather than starched dresses and church hymns.
Instead of being taunted and given dirty looks as an earlier generation of Haitian immigrant children had to endure, the current refugees are being welcomed to South Florida with open arms, especially at schools.
In Miami-Dade County, 1,137 Haitian children were enrolled as of June 30. They have mostly settled in North Miami and western Miami-Dade, according to school records.
The greatest concentration is at North Miami Senior High School with 88 students. Felix Varela Senior High and North Miami Middle follow. Each has 48.
In Broward County, 1,200 Haitian students enrolled in the school system after the earthquake. However, there is no breakdown of how many attend each school.
A recent graduate of North Miami Beach Senior High School, Steeve Simbert, 18, recalls the horrors that he and Baron encountered that day.
Simbert and Baron, who was tutoring him at New American School, were “violently thrown on the ground when the earthquake began to shake the building that (they) were in.”
“I simply thought it was a dream, maybe some kind of horror movie, even more terrifying, the apocalypse,” Simbert said.
Immediately after the earthquake, the U.S. Embassy would not let Baron bring Simbert to Miami.
“The Embassy lady said that only Americans could leave,’’ Simbert said.
He couldn’t help but cry the entire car ride home.
“I felt vulnerable to the chaos surrounding me,’’ Simbert said, adding that after the writer left, “it felt as if my sanity left with him.”
Baron, a former journalist, had arrived in Haiti two days before the earthquake to visit New American School, where he taught for many years.
“(Simbert) had the subtle grammar issues that any native French speaker would have when first learning the language. But he’s an amazing writer,” Baron said.
Of the earthquake, Baron recalls the scene as if it were yesterday.
“It was 4:53 pm. I was helping Steeve with his SAT essay when the ground started shaking. It was as serious as a heart attack,” he said. “I was a movie critic for many years, and this was much scarier than any movie I ever saw.
“We still talk almost every day.”
Ally Simbert, Steeve’s twin brother, also recalls his whereabouts the day of the quake.
“I was in school, on my way home, and I was on the bus with my friends, and this catastrophe just happened on us,” he said.
“I was shocked because I didn’t know what was happening. I just wanted to jump off the bus.”
Ally Simbert wandered the streets, searching for family and friends.
“Even though you’re on the street, you’re scared because people might kill you, like, for food, for money,” he said. “You cannot stay home, because if you stay home, you might get killed because of so many aftershocks.”
Ally Simbert finally got a call from his brother and the two reunited in the streets.
“I went to the embassy, and I got inside for three days. At the end, they told me that I had an appointment, but I didn’t show up,” Ally Simbert said.
“Then, they told me ‘I’m sorry, you cannot go anymore’ after waiting three days there. It was heartbreaking. I had to go back home with my luggage after sleeping on the floor and everything.”
Frustrated, Simbert returned home, only to receive a phone call the next day from the embassy that a small plane was leaving for Miami and that he was granted permission to leave.
“I got the call, and I said ‘I’m coming with Steeve, OK?’ So, it was the both of us.”
Both appreciate their new lives in South Florida. They also are grateful for lessons learned, no matter how painful.
“It has led me to realize that in times of crisis one has to be optimistic and perform heroic actions,’’ Steeve Simbert said.
“And I have learned that the Good Lord will reward that person millions of times. I have already started to be rewarded.”