by Ashley Delma and Angela Ferraguto
*Name has been changed.
My writing partner, Ashley Delma, and I spent 5 months profiling an undocumented teen who immigrated from Haiti.
This is her story.
Rosalie puts on her Sabbath best and walks hand-in-hand with her little brother, to the Temple Adventiste de Brockton. Today, she is running the morning youth class. Rosalie has picked her favorite religious phrase, and she is excited to share it with her friends. She practices it in Creole with her brother, “Avan noun chache mange, rad pou nou mete sou nou, kote pou rete, premye man chache wayom Bondye (after that everything will follow after)” “Before you find clothes for you to put on you, a place to live, and food to eat, first thing you need to do is find faith in God and everything will fall into place.” She giggles when the three-year old tries to mimic his big sister.
Rosalie, whose name has been changed for her safety, manages to do what all Haitian parents would want from their teenagers. She steers away from boys and unsupervised house parties, goes to church every week, and strives for A’s and B’s. Rosalie is a model teenager, but there are many barriers that limit her ability to stand out. The 18-year-old needs to be invisible because she is an undocumented immigrant.
According to the Pew Research Center, she is among the 160,000 people in Massachusetts that live under the continuous threat of deportation. Some parents come to America with children in tow, leaving their kids with no choice but to spend their childhoods breaking the law. These children grow up isolated, unsure of who to trust and unable to reveal their predicament even to their closest friends.
On a sunny day on January 12, 2010, a boy in Rosalie’s class, told everyone he had a dream that something bad was going to happen. Rosalie remembers her 6th grade teacher trying to quiet him. Haitians are superstitious and the class was getting restless. Rosalie laid her head on her desk, looked out the window and then felt the school shake. Her classmates screamed. The first two floors were giving way, about to bury most of the students beneath Rosalie’s feet.
She saw her friends leap from the third story windows. She ran, fumbling past desks, took a breath, and jumped. Rosalie landed on hard, trembling ground as the elementary school, Lycée Carrefour-Feuille, crumbled behind her. When the shaking finally stopped, no one came to help.
“Everyone was crying, trying to find their families. The world changed,” Rosalie says. She walked two miles to what was left of her home. Her house on the outskirts of Port-Au-Prince had collapsed, killing her 9-year-old sister and breaking her mother’s hip. A 7.0 magnitude earthquake ended the lives of 45,000-50,000 Haitians, according to the Red Cross.
With the hospitals full, Rosalie and her mother moved to a soccer field, pitching a tent amongst other survivors. For six months, they lived outside without the simplest amenities. Like many students, Rosalie would not attend school for at least half that time.
Sometimes people would kick down tents for space, or falsely announce that water was coming. “They just stole people’s stuff. But, we didn’t have anything to steal,” Rosalie says. One day, she saw Americans helping nearby and prayed for a job with them. “My mom couldn’t work because she was injured. ‘All I want is to work, to help my family,’ I told God,” Rosalie says. By February 2011, her prayers were answered.
With a job with the American Red Cross, she was able to connect with Partners in Health, a Boston-based nonprofit that offers medical care to the poor around the world. Rosalie and her mother were offered a flight to America, where she could receive a hip replacement and proper treatment at Mass General Hospital.
In the wake of the tragedy, the Boston area became a safe haven for many injured and homeless Haitians. Richard Chacón, former Executive Director of the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants, was responsible for coordinating the state’s response.
“Governor Patrick was very committed and very vocal about wanting to make Massachusetts a welcoming place for the victims of the earthquake.” Chacón says. The Deval Patrick Administration organized supplies and support, and prepared local hospitals for the influx of patients.
“He did this in part because of his humanitarian sense but also because he knows in Massachusetts we have the third largest Haitian immigrant population in the country,” Chacón says. Haitian American residents were provided with special phone numbers to reach relatives in Haiti and access to food kitchens when they took in refugees.
“I remember when I was coming here, I didn’t even sleep that night,” Rosalie says, “I mean everyone in Haiti, we always talking about coming to America.” Rosalie’s mother’s hip healed and she gave birth to her brother. It was time to return to Haiti.
Her mother told her to pack her belongings. Her 7th grade teachers asked for her books back. Rosalie remembers crying, praying she would not have to go back. On the day that she was supposed to fly to Haiti, a doctor from Partners in Health took on the responsibility to feed, clothe, and house Rosalie and her family.
“I kept her. Where was she suppose to return to? What home? The one that fell on her during the earthquake?” Dr. Pascal asked, whose name has been changed for her protection.
Rosalie would remain in Brockton, where she struggled to learn English at Ashfield Middle School. She was not alone. According to the Massachusetts Department of Education, 33% of her middle school student body enrolled in English as a Second Language courses that year. As of 2014, over 30 languages were spoken at Brockton High.
Rosalie befriended other Haitian teens who speak Creole. “I think I could have more friends,” Rosalie says. “I’m scared to talk when other people are talking to me sometimes. I don’t want people to laugh at me.”
Rosalie is now fluent in English, but she is self-conscious of her accent and reliance on her native Creole. She sometimes pauses mid-speech, snapping her fingers while looking down at her shoes searching for the word in English.
She writes in her diary at night, right before bed. Writing has helped to build her language skills. It’s also her way to escape the crowded windowless bedroom that she shares with three other people. Dr. Pascal houses seven tenants, a tight squeeze for any teen who wants privacy.
“If they go to sleep at night, I have to sleep at night. If I want to watch movie or talk on the phone with my friends, my mom says go out or go in the bathroom to talk.” Rosalie explains. “I don’t really feel freedom in [my] home.”
Outside her home, the streets of Brockton are among the most violent in the state. In 2014, there were 14 murders, the highest number in 12 years, according to the Patriot Ledger newspaper. Several bomb threats in April 2015 would cost Rosalie three school days and an SAT prep class. In the last school year, 12% of Brockton High students were suspended.
Rosalie doesn’t need her mother to remind her to avoid trouble at school. She cannot afford to get involved in the fights and occasional drug use in the hallways.
“I always tell my friends, don’t get in fights because if you do, I’m not going to jump in for you” Rosalie says, “If you have a conflict with someone, they say we’re going to meet outside and they have a lot of friends, you never know what they are going to carry.”
Even flirting sets off her warning signals. When her crush, a tall, cute football player, finally approached her one day, Rosalie gave him attitude and sent him on his way. “I do want a boyfriend sometimes. But after I think of all my friends, what they’ve been through with boys…it doesn’t give me anything to want to have,” Rosalie says. “There’s a lot of teenagers who are pregnant and have babies.” She recalls peers who have been raped or had abortions. An unplanned pregnancy would be dangerous for her. “If this happens to me, I am done. I just want to stay focused….and people say he’s a player,” she adds with an eyeroll.
Boys and parties don’t offer much to Rosalie. She is happy running track after school, going to the movies with friends, and cooking Haitian food for her brother. Still, there are teenage rites Rosalie misses. Before moving to America, Rosalie assumed she could get work right away.
“I was so happy, I was thinking I’m going to go to school, meet people, and work, send money for my family in Haiti,” Rosalie says. “And when I come here, everything’s very different than I expect. They always call us to send money for them, and it’s really sad to say no to them. We don’t have it.” In the four years she’s been here, Rosalie hasn’t been able to send even a dime back to her family in Haiti.
As an undocumented immigrant, she doesn’t qualify for welfare, and cannot apply for a legal job. It also prevents her from getting a driver’s license. Many undocumented immigrants drive anyway, with potential to endanger others on the road because they haven’t been able to take the proper steps to become a safe driver. According to the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy coalition, 12 states have passed safe driving bills that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a license. The MIRA coalition has been advocating for a similar bill, H.3285, to be passed in Massachusetts. But, Governor Charlie Baker has publicly opposed it.
Rosalie doesn’t explain these laws to friends, including one who insists on applying to jobs together. “It’s really hard for me because I cannot tell her I am not a citizen, that I cannot work with her,” Rosalie says. “She wants to do the driving class, and she wants me to do it with her. Everything she’s doing she wants me to do it.”
“It’s not a proud thing,” she admits quietly. Only one friend knows her secret. “You never trust people. You never find someone that you tell everything. At the end of the day, if you’re not friend with that person, maybe they’re not going to tell everything but...maybe to take revenge or talk about you bad, you know. Because a good friend can turn into a bad one.”
Rosalie distracts her friends from asking questions about applying for jobs by studying for the SAT with them. “Three of us have plans to go to college together and have a good job together. Because of [my status] I might not go to the college that I want to go to.” When she and her friends discuss their grades and college options, one nagging question sits in the back of her mind — Can she apply at all?
The University of Massachusetts Boston is their collective dream school. Inspired by her time with the Red Cross and Dr. Pascal, Rosalie hopes to become a pediatrician. “It's always my dream to help people. I know it’s a good way I can help kids.” Rosalie can technically apply to UMass Boston because there is no definitive policy barring undocumented students access.
Governor Deval Patrick in 2012 signed DACA, the Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals policy to allow undocumented students access to in-state tuition, including UMass. But, the policy only applies to students who arrived before 2007, and Rosalie came to Massachusetts in 2011.
Last year, President Obama approved of MAVNI, Military Accessions in the National Interest that would create a pathway to citizenship through the military. Rosalie has considered enlisting. “I wouldn’t even mind to help the country, because they helped my mom and me. It’s because of them, my mom is walking.” But, citizens of Haiti are not on the MAVNI list.
Rosalie has few options, and she places her faith in God. She tries to exemplify a “shining light,” a phrase embedded in those growing up in a Seventh-Day Adventist home. Every Saturday, she sits in a crowded pew with her little brother for five or more hours, listening to sermon and song, all in Creole.
For an afternoon, she is back in Haiti again. She brightens up like stained glass on a sunny day. “I feel love. I feel happy. That’s where all my family is. That’s where I’m raised. That’s where I was born… One day Haiti will change you know. There will be better life...So I pray for Haiti.”