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28188: Hermantin(News)Group struggles to help peers (fwd)

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

Posted on Sun, Mar. 26, 2006

Group struggles to help peers
Haitian college students have united to help others navigate immigration, work and education.

Ralph Cheriza, president of the Haitian Students Foundation, understands firsthand the people he hopes to help: academically motivated students trying to navigate a time-consuming maze of immigration cases and complicated work permit renewals while seeking higher education.

''Because my work permit was expired, I lost my job,'' said Cheriza, 34. ``I don't work, I don't have the money to go and pay for classes, and that's the situation for many students.''

He said he had sent the renewal application in on time, but went back and forth with immigration for about eight months before finally receiving the new permit in August.

Cheriza has taken courses off and on at Palm Beach Community College since 1999 and has been applying for a green card since 1997. In 2004, to assist peers constrained by immigration-related and other financial woes, Cheriza helped found the Haitian Students Foundation, a nonprofit organization created by students to raise funds and distribute need-based scholarships to other students.

''The thing with this organization is that most of us, we've been there,'' Cheriza said.

Students with pending immigration cases and work permits can register for classes but are ineligible to receive governmental financial aid, he explained.

''We should support those who have a desire to go to school,'' he said.

Cheriza hopes to help students who juggle working full-time and attending school full-time and have both their education and jobs interrupted by immigration hassles.

''At one point, they cannot take it anymore, and they just drop out,'' he said.

Cheriza works as a family advocate with Hugs for Kids, an organization that strives to prevent child abuse, and he hopes to begin classes at Florida International University later this year.

Haitian Students Foundation has about 15 members -- students and recent graduates from colleges across the state, including the University of Central Florida, University of Florida, Valencia Community College, Palm Beach Community College, Florida Atlantic University, Broward Community College and Barry University.

To help establish the fledgling foundation's credibility, members are not allowed to apply for the scholarships and donors are mailed a financial report detailing how funds are raised and allocated.

Despite receiving more than $2,000 in pledges for 2005, the Haitian Students Foundation only managed to collect $1,000 to split equally between two scholarship winners.

Cheriza said HSF is working on setting up a matching funds program with PBCC to double the scholarship and is exploring the possibility of a matching funds program with other colleges.

Last year's fundraising efforts did not come close to the organization's $20,000 goal.

Event coordinator Malie Moreau, a nursing student at Barry University, attributes the shortcoming in part to interference by the tumultuous hurricane season.

A July fundraising dinner at the Ramada Resort in Sunny Isles Beach had to be rescheduled because of a storm, which resulted in decreased attendance.

According to Moreau, the Haitian Students Foundation has also faced a challenge in its initial reception by the community.

In addition to paying their dues, $20 for students and $50 for nonstudents, members have made personal sacrifices to keep the fledgling foundation going and establish its credibility.

''We paid out of pocket for a lot of things,'' Moreau said. Cheriza estimates that the members spent more than $2,500 paying the organization's expenses for the Sunny Isles dinner and another fundraising dinner held last January in Palm Beach.

Cheriza associates the challenges faced by Haitians to the challenges generally faced by African Americans and other minority groups.

''There is not enough effort to bring in more minorities to colleges and universities,'' Cheriza said. ``I think we need to come up with a strategy where we ally ourselves with other minorities who have been affected by those policies.''

Micaelle Jean, the foundation's secretary and a graduate of Barry University, hopes to see the Haitian Students Foundation serve as a role model for young Haitian students confronting prejudice.

''We're hoping that they can feel some sense of pride for us,'' she said. ``See what they can achieve, they can have a college education.''

Jean remembers facing discrimination at school when she moved to the United States from Haiti as an 11-year-old. ''Whenever I'd be on the bus, kids would push me around,'' she said. ``I used to have a very difficult time going to school and not being able to speak the language and having kids teasing me and calling me names, derogatory names, racial slurs.''

She believes that Haitian children may grow up ashamed of their heritage because Haitians are often represented as poor and illiterate in the media. ''There's never any form of recognition per se of what the Haitian community has achieved in South Florida,'' she said.

``Of us bringing our culture, our language, our music and so many other things. There's a lot of richness in the Haitian community that society and other groups are not aware of.''