The year was 1991 in Haiti, the beautiful but historically troubled island nation originally colonized by former slaves. After the chaotic and despotic reign of dictators Papa Doc Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude, an uneasy peace was established. And in 1990, a former Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was democratically elected to the presidency; those hopes were dashed when a military-led coup d-état removed Aristide and violence again swept the island nation.
It was all too much for primary school teacher Jean Blain. While he was able to eke out a living in a village about 30 minutes from the capital, it was tough going: A typical classroom had 50 students, and he was expected to teach all subjects, sometimes for students ranging from preschool age all the way to seventh grade. The military began to act, imprisoning or killing its suspected enemies; school teachers were thought to teach anti-governmental politics, and rumor had it that he was about to become a target.
By 1992, Jean and his brother had packed up their few belongings, moving to Miami. They were immediately shocked to find that their few secondary-school English classes were proving almost useless. They couldn’t understand a word, or be understood—and Spanish speakers surrounded them. After a few weeks they moved to central New Jersey, settling down into hotel jobs where they could be attendants, making minimum wage. Over time, Jean married and became a father to three children. At home, he was comfortable—but on the street, and on the job, he was often helpless.
“I can still remember all the embarrassing times when my boss would tell me something, and I had to ask for a translator to understand what he was saying,” Jean says. “It was really, really hard—and I was determined to do something about it.”
What Jean did was to seek help from the only source he could afford: volunteers.
“I still remember like it was yesterday,” he says. “I had gone to the Trenton library to get books for my children. There was a poster on the wall advertising that Literacy New Jersey would give free help to anyone who needed it. I immediately turned around, went up to the desk clerk, and asked how to sign up.” The clerk directed him to Friday classes where he could be part of a group of four.
Soon he was referred for testing and assigned to his very own tutor—a kind and patient woman named Margaret Griffin who met, on average, twice a week with him for the next two years.
“She had retired from her job in order to help her husband, who was getting involved in politics—so she had time for me,” he remembers. “She was amazing, and made a huge difference for me.”
Today Jean is a full-time caregiver at Cranbury Manor, a nursing home in Monroe, NJ. “My English is so much better—it’s like a miracle!” he says. “English is my favorite subject, and I’m always happy to help any immigrants who need help.”
Jean has actually done a lot better than that. Haitian immigrants continue to pour into New Jersey—less because of political turmoil than because of desperate economic circumstances. In 2004, Tropical Storm Jeanne swept the country, devastating cities and towns. And the barely recovering nation was then hit in 2010 by an earthquake of 7.1 magnitude. The hundreds of Haitians in central New Jersey alone were enough for Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Hamilton to establish a Haitian apostolate – an arm of the church that provides special services in French and Creole for its Haitian worshippers. They are especially grateful for the language classes than Jean leads, twice a week, so that they can become as functional in English as he is now. Classes have as many as 18 adult students.
“I always use the model that Literacy New Jersey gave me: I always start the class by asking, 'What did you see or hear this week? What questions do you have for me?' And that way I can help individualize the learning. It’s wonderful to know that, whether it is about special expressions or grammar, I have what it takes to help them, so that the learning just keeps going on.”