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Haitian sisters don't let quake halt their studies

May 12, 2010|By JANET HEIM
  • Hilarie Joubert, right, and Katie Miller confer during class at Boonsboro High School.
By Kevin G. Gilbert, Staff Photographer

While the world watched in horror as the news of the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti unfolded, three sisters with a local connection were waiting it out near their Port-au-Prince home.

Rama, Naika and Hilarie Joubert and their parents, Romuald and Oceana, were lucky compared to many Haitians. They were not hurt during the earthquake and the cracks to their home seemed relatively minor.

The cracks in the walls were enough of a concern, though, that the family was sleeping outside. If they needed something inside, one of them would run inside, grab it and quickly return to safety outside.

It didn't take long to see, though, that it would be a long time before schools would be up and running. Faced with that reality, the Jouberts made the decision to separate their family, sending their daughters to stay with Romuald's brother, Cito Joubert and his wife, Lamercie, near Boonsboro.

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"There wasn't any way for them to go to school ... At least the children can come here and continue their education," Lamercie Joubert said.

She said the girls had visas and passports, because the family made summer visits to see family in the United States, including Florida and New York.

Cito and Lamercie Joubert have a Hagerstown address, but live in the Boonsboro school district, so the sisters began attending Boonsboro High School when they arrived in the United States on Feb. 5.

"This is their first semester. Being immersed in another language and coming from Haiti, it's a traumatic experience," said Ayako Shiga, who teaches English Language Learners (ELL) and Japanese at Boonsboro High.

With the limited English they learned in school in Haiti, the sisters - whose native language is French - were kept together for their English class, even though Hilarie is a freshman, Naika is a sophomore and Rama is a junior.

The girls are taking different levels of math. Hilarie is taking earth/space science and orchestra; Naika and Rama are taking French and physical education.

Rama said it is strange being in the same school and classes, because in Haiti, the girls were in three different schools. They said they are glad to have the opportunity to continue their education here.

They work with Spanish teacher Sharon Hoppes twice a week after school for extra help with their language skills.

"I have thoroughly enjoyed working with Rama, Naika and Hilarie. They are hardworking students who are making a concerted effort to improve their English communication skills," Hoppes wrote in an e-mail. "In spite of what they have been through, they are exuberant girls who always maintain a positive attitude. There is a strong family bond which unites them and has made this transition an easier process for them."

"I'm glad I'm here. I don't think I could see all the destruction," Naika said.

She said some of her friends and some cousins of her father and uncle died in the disaster.

Cito Joubert helps the girls when they have questions with their homework and his 27-year-old daughter, who is a graduate student at George Washington University, has been a big help to her cousins, Lamercie Joubert said.

"If you can help someone ... I don't think about myself. We help each other," Lamercie Joubert said.

The girls said their father is working in Haiti and they will get to see their parents this summer. They weren't sure whether they'll be going back to Haiti after the summer.

Paula Moore, supervisor of ELL and World Languages for Washington County Public Schools, said she translated their transcripts and their grades were "exceptional."

Other ELL students at Boonsboro High come from Russia, Vietnam, Mexico, El Salvador, Zimbabwe, Thailand and the Ivory Coast, Shiga said.

She said it takes two to four years to learn skills for casual/conversational language in a social setting. It can take five to seven years to have the language skills to be "truly academically successful," Shiga said..

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