It’s a traditional Haitian greeting and for about 40 middle school students who are Haitian, of Haitian descent or who have an interest in Haitian culture, this phrase punctuates every lesson and workshop offered through a mentorship program developed and run by FIU students in the Haitian Student Organization (HSO).
The intensive, two-week program intended to help these children reconnect or in some cases connect for the first time with their Haitian roots is the latest example of how FIU students are striving to make an impact on South Florida before they graduate.
“We focus on their identity because for a lot of Haitian children growing up here, we tend to be marginalized,” said Taisha Gauthier, the director and founder of the mentorship program. “We don’t fit in with the Haitian culture because Haitians see us as people of privilege. We don’t fit in American culture because of various stigmas and stereotypes associated with being Haitian.”
Roughly 436,000 of Florida’s 19 million residents are Haitian or are of Haitian descent according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 data estimates.
Many, according to Gauthier, are just like her – either born in the United States or have lived here long enough to have assimilated into American culture never having learned much about Haitian culture or what it means to be Haitian.
As it turned out, there was a strong desire among these middle school students to join the mentorship program, which is supported by the university’s Office of Global Learning Initiatives and the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center.
“When we went to the Upward Bound program and explained to the children what we wanted to do and that it was voluntary, everyone raised their hand,” said Gauthier, who developed the program while she served as president HSO.
In classrooms across the Biscayne Bay Campus students have learned about Haiti’s ties to African culture, its history and even recent diplomatic developments with the Dominican Republic.
They also had a chance to practice speaking, writing and singing in Creole.
“When I was a kid, it wasn’t cool to be Haitian. Nobody ever said they were Haitian,” said Addi Casseus, who was brought in to lead several workshops. “The truth is, a person without culture is like a tree with no roots. We’re helping them become better equipped to be successful and to be confident.”
Samuel Gabelus, 12, spent a recent morning working Creole words into a poem he would later place on the back of a construction paper African mask.
“I wanted to learn more about Haitian culture because my grandmother taught me a lot, but I wanted to learn new things so I could teach her,” Samuel said, citing facts about the creation of the first Haitian-Creole dictionary in the 1970s.
Samuel and his classmates also took part in playing the drums while singing a rendition of “Ti Zwazo” (Little Bird), a Haitian folklore song that is well known by children in Haiti, said Floriza Fils-Aime, who is working toward a master’s in social work and who volunteered through HSO to help run the mentorship program.
The song, however, was new to Hendy Marcellus, 11.
“Even me, I’m from Haiti and I don’t know much about Haitian culture,” said Hendy, who was raised in Orlando and now Miami. “I like it because every time you learn about your culture, you can be a part of it, you can fit in.”
Ultimately, they learned more than just how to fit in.
“Once you know who you are, it has a domino effect on your life,” said Mwai Osahar, the co-director of the mentorship program, who is enrolled in an accelerated bachelor’s and master’s program in public administration. “You can stand strong and be proud of who you are.”