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School in Queens, New York Hit Hard by Earthquake in Haiti

A class in earthquake science at Saints Joachim and Anne School in New York
A class in earthquake science at Saints Joachim and Anne School in New York

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About 250,000 Haitians and Haitian-Americans live in the New York area, many of them first-generation immigrants or their children. When the earthquake hit Haiti on January 12, it also struck at those New Yorkers, uprooting or killing family members and destroying landmarks and homes where generations had lived.  At Saints Joachim and Anne School, a Catholic school in Queens where 80 percent of students are from immigrant Haitian families, the destruction is deep. Almost everyone lost family members in the earthquake.

Nine-year-old Joshua Nelson Joseph was in Haiti visiting family when the earthquake hit. “We were shaking and shaking,” Joshua recalled recently. “I had my little cousin and she was crying. And we were walking and walking. And then and this house was about to fall on us, and this person came and holded the house so that it doesn't fall on us. Everyone says that God was with us.”

Relatives of vicar Rev. Jean-Moise Delva were eventually all found alive, though their homes were destroyed. He is concerned now with helping children, both those at his school and in Haiti. “[Especially] those who are orphans back home in Haiti,” he said. “Right now they do they need our prayer, and prayer is the answer, I think, at this moment.”

The school is selling t-shirts to families and friends to raise money for victims in Haiti. The first child to receive his shirt one day recently was six-year-old Michael Constant, whose own father died in the quake.  Michael’s mother recently left for Haiti to bury her husband. Other children have lost cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents.  “Every single one of them has lost someone,” said school principal Linda Freebes, including Haitian-born teachers and staff. “People are missing nine, ten people at a time.”

She said that the school is trying to help with the immediate trauma through charity projects for Haiti and grief counseling, religious lessons, and memorial Masses in the church next door. Another way of coping is through science classes in plate tectonics, where students are learning about why the earthquake happened, and how it caused so much destruction.

“Disasters happen in the world, and we know that from history, but it doesn't mean that God doesn't love us,” Freebes said. “We meet every morning and we discuss what we're going to do to sacrifice for Haiti. We talk about it, and tomorrow the children are going to bring in cans of food for the food pantry.” Just being in school is also a help, she added. “It’s a way of not thinking about [their loss] for a while, even if in their hearts they have it.”

But she said that even the best education and counseling can’t reverse the grief and anger of those touched by the earthquake. Only time can do that. “Many of the children go to Haiti at Christmas, and on vacation in the summer, and when they see it on television -- those are places they have been to. They see the streets that they’ve walked on. Their country is in ruins. And every single one of them looks at it, and says, ‘This is where my mom, dad grew up. And look at it.’”

“I think as time goes on, we will see more and more of the anger showing through. Or the quiet,” Freebes said. “That's what one of the children said to me: ‘I don't know when it's worse: when my grandmother cries, or when she doesn't say anything.’”

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