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American dreams start with English

Class for Haitians graduates 67

Nirva Sajous and Sara Joint attended the graduation ceremony at Boston Missionary Baptist Church in Roxbury yesterday. Nirva Sajous and Sara Joint attended the graduation ceremony at Boston Missionary Baptist Church in Roxbury yesterday. (Wendy Maeda/ Globe Staff)
By Vivian Yee
Globe Correspondent / July 28, 2011

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By the time Stephanie Estilet, her father, and two younger siblings arrived in Boston from Haiti earlier this year, they had endured political turmoil, hurricanes, and an earthquake that killed friends and relatives and demolished their home.

Now they were supposed to be safe. But Estilet’s father, knowing no English, could find no work. He soon returned to Haiti.

Estilet, who is 20, was determined to stay, and thrive. And in her new home, she knew, survival meant being able to speak English.

“I knew English and education open doors for life,’’ Estilet said.

The young woman had already spent months in Haiti fighting to earn her high school diploma, even after the earthquake struck and left her mired in severe depression. Here in Boston, she had a new challenge: She began English classes in January with a vocabulary so limited that she did not know how to answer a phone in English.

Yesterday, she was one of 67 students to receive diplomas from the English for Advancement program offered by Jewish Vocational Services, a local organization that pairs with local churches to prepare Haitians for jobs, training, or college.

She is preparing to enroll at Bunker Hill Community College, where she plans to spend two years before transferring to nursing school. To save up, she works at a hair salon as a receptionist and custodian.

“I’m ready to go to college,’’ Estilet said.

Dreams like Estilet’s were in abundance yesterday in the basement auditorium of Boston Missionary Baptist Church in Roxbury, where teachers conferred certificates on the graduates, the first class to complete the program. Most had fit classes into schedules already packed with jobs, vocational training, or taking care of their children.

Some are graduating to more advanced English classes next year. Others are ready for nursing courses. A few, like Estilet, are planning for college.

For many, it was a small but significant triumph: About 60 percent were survivors of the earthquake that ravaged Haiti last year.

“I’m not nervous when I speak on the phone any more, because my English is good,’’ Patrips Fleurival told his fellow graduates at the simple ceremony.

Jerry Rubin, the chief executive of Jewish Vocational Services, said that few of the Haitian refugees who wish to work or go to college have sufficient English skills. The organization’s classes focus on teaching English that will help the students meet specific career or educational goals.

So students interested in careers as nursing assistants - among the most popular vocations for Haitians here - start with the basics, learning to explain in English how to cut hair.

“The door of opportunity is closed to them unless they can strengthen their English,’’ Rubin said. Classes began in October, advertised through word of mouth and Haitian churches.

Like many other Haitians here, Nirva Sajous, 39, of Hyde Park, wants to become a full-fledged nurse. After more than four months of classes, she passed her nursing assistant licensing exam on her first try in February. Since then, she’s been working as a nurses’ assistant at the Hebrew SeniorLife and Compass on the Bay senior homes while continuing to take English classes.

Many of the students agree that of all the complexities of English, pronunciation is most difficult to master. Sajous said her 11-year-old son, who is enrolled in school here, helps her practice muting her Haitian Creole accent.

“I want to speak like American people,’’ Sajous said in her soft, Creole-inflected patter. “That’s my dream.’’

Sajous arrived in Boston in June 2010, five months after the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake. When it hit, she had been waiting for her nephew on a street in her hometown, Turgeau, outside the capital of Port-au-Prince. She fell on the rumbling ground, while some of those around her were crushed under walls. She could hear schoolchildren crying for help.

Her nephew, Sajous explained through tears, never came.

Estilet had been walking home from school with friends when the earthquake struck; only some survived. Her aunt was injured and eventually died. Her family spent months in a refugee camp before her grandmother, who lives in Boston, was able to bring them to the United States.

During the simple graduation ceremony, students dressed in suits and floral dresses bounded onstage to accept handshakes and homemade certificates from their teachers.

Against the back wall of the next room rested a white board with a vocabulary list: green, red, yellow, blue, it, kite (with a small cartoon kite). “Man = 1, men = 2 or more,’’ it explained.

Addressing the audience near the end of the ceremony, Jeanne YoYo enunciated carefully, “I am learning new words and expressions. I can hold conversations’’ - pronouncing the long word as if speaking Creole - “and even hold an argument with someone.’’

Vivian Yee can be reached at vyee@globe.com.