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Growing Up Haitian in America - 2002-11-13

English Feature #7-35015 Broadcast July 9, 2001

One in five young people currently in school in the United States is either an immigrant or the child of immigrants. Fabienne Doucet, herself a 27-year-old immigrant from Haiti, is part of a research team conducting a Harvard University project that studies the adaptation to American schools of young people of various immigrant groups. Her own particular focus is on the educational experiences of Haitian youth. Today on New American Voices, Dr. Doucet talks about growing up Haitian in America.

Young Haitian immigrants attending school in the United States face the common difficulties of children of all immigrant groups. But Fabienne Doucet, who studies Haitian high school students in the Boston area, says there are differences.

"Just like with any immigrant group, kids are always going to tease each other, and so there's always been a sort of medium level of ridicule that comes from, 'Well, you're from another country, and you speak with an accent! You're from this little country in the Caribbean and a lot of us have never heard of it!' -- so there's always been that, to a certain extent. But I don't think that's limited to Haitian kids, that's just one of those things that children experience. But in the last 20 years there's been a lot of propaganda about Haitians being AIDS carriers, and being boat people, and being from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and sort of these huge, overbearing, weighty perceptions and stereotypes that make the kids feel really marginalized."

Fabienne Doucet points out, however, that with the resilience of youth, most Haitian kids get over this initial hurdle of stereotyping and prejudice.

"Well, I think that a lot of them do. A lot of them do brilliantly, and get over it. A lot of them don't. A lot sort of internalize this belief that they're not sort of as good as other people."

Young Haitian immigrants face another reality that may affect their adaptation to school, and to life in the United States in general.

"In this country race is the tell-all, the way that people are measured. In this country it's not really distinguished what your cultural background is, it's really just the color of your skin. And so Haitian kids are caught in this sort of--'am I Haitian, am I African-American, am I just black, you know, what am I', and a lot of time it's hard for them to know how to identify. But by strangers they get treated as if they were just black Americans. And we all know about the legacy of racism in this country, so being treated as a black American is not necessarily a good thing."

Nevertheless, Dr. Doucet finds that many young immigrants from Haiti are helped by their positive outlook on the possibilities offered them by life in America.

"I think that in general the children who are coming from Haiti still have that really positive attitude that 'I'm here, and I'm going to make the best of it and I'm going to have a great experience'. They think that this IS a land of opportunity, and many do very well for themselves. I think it's a little bit tougher for the second generation. For them it's more important to have the right motivation, and be in the right setting."

Dr. Doucet has found that whether for the first or second generation of Haitian youth in this country, success depends on a number of factors.

"I think the Haitian kids who succeed are those who have a really wonderful balance of opportunities: internal motivation, they have an environment where they have resources available for them, and where they are supported - it doesn't necessarily have to be support at home, it can be support at school, it can be support from an older peer who says, you know, you can do this - it's sort of a combination of factors."

Fabienne Doucet, who recently earned her Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of North Carolina, came to this country from Haiti when she was ten years old. From the beginning, she had the right combination of factors to strive to succeed in whatever she chose to do. She had the support of her mother and extended family, and, along the way, several mentors who encouraged her academic interests and played an important role in her progress. But she feels that being Haitian was important, as well.

"For me it's always worked to my advantage, in a way. Feeling different - at first I hated it, and then I loved it. Feeling like I had something unique. I came from a different country, and I had different experiences, and I knew a lot of things that my peers didn't because they didn't have to make adaptations from one culture to another, and sort of realizing that that was an asset, that I had more to draw from, because I knew two cultures very, very well, and that set me up to feel special."

Next week on this program you'll meet a young Baha'i refugee from Iran who lives and works in America's entertainment and gambling capital, Las Vegas.