By Jonathan Greig

Nestled on a small peninsula in the Bronx, SUNY Maritime is well-known for its top-of-the-line nautical educational facilities and deep international ties. 

This summer, the school decided to expand its footprint all the way to Haiti, bringing 20 Haitian professionals to New York City for a three-week language course.

The program, named the Sustainable Village and Learning Community (SVLC) Project’s Language and Leadership Program. The program involved hours of English-language training, leadership building and an immersive New York experience that involved everything from the Bronx Zoo to tours of Harlem.

Longtime SUNY Maritime Professor Dr. Karen Markoe served as the Project Director and adjunct professor Nancy Karabeyoglu managed the day-to-day schedule of all 20 men and women, who came from cities and towns across Haiti. 

From July 14 to August 3, the students practiced English and learned other ‘soft skills’ like presentation skills, public speaking and teamwork. Funding for the program was provided by The W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

“The Institute also has a historical and cultural component—exposure to American culture and government, for example– half and full day trips in the metropolitan area. These several weekly theme-based trips to iconic NYC landmarks fuel language production and provide experiential learning, which helps develop leadership and teamwork skills,” Karabeyoglu told The Haitian Times.

“Our program also focuses on the Haitian presence in NYC. Maritime tours also provide a broader understanding of the NYC immigrant experience: historical entry points of NYC, its harbors and waterways. Upon completion of the Program, participants are expected to possess A strengthened command of the English language in speaking, writing, and reading.”

Most of the program’s participants were between 20 and 30 years old and worked in a variety of jobs ranging from government positions to pastors and community workers. Many said they were overjoyed to stay in New York City but were determined to take what they learned here and bring it back to Haiti.

During their time in New York, the participants got to visit the Metropolitan of Art, NY Historical Society, the Tenement Museum, the Schomburg Center, South Street Seaport, Brooklyn’s Little Haiti and the Metropolitan Museum Of Art.

“English is a commercial language that can help the community. I like the welcoming aspects of it. They made us feel important and were ready to help us with everything we needed and wanted to learn,” said 23-year-old Ilene Louk from Cap Soleil. Louk works for a non-profit in her neighborhood and does community work.

“This has inspired me to do a lot more in my community using the English I learned. I have been inspired to give back to the community. I’ve learned a lot in 3 weeks.”

Ricardo, a 24-year-old youth pastor from Port-Au-Prince, echoed what Louk said, adding that his goal was to help his community using the tools he learned during his time here in New York City.

“I appreciated the program. We need more programs like this so that young people can be inspired to work and give back to their community,” he told The Haitian Times.

“I’m very happy that I came and took part in this program. It has brought so many changes to my life. I have benefited from the program and would love to come back. I’d love for other youths to join this program so they can benefit too.”

Markoe said the program was extremely gratifying for her personally and found working with the students an absolute delight.

“We always hear the negative [about Haiti] here. But they are so hard working and hopeful. These are workers in their various community organizations; they’re teachers and they all spoke about how they would share what they learned,” she said. 

“If we do this again, that is what will bring us back. The positive, hardworking attitude of the people who came to learn from us.” 

At the end of the program, Markoe and her staff held a large ceremony to honor all 20 participants and thank them for their efforts. Guetary Roche, the Cultural Attache from the Haitian Consulate in New York City, came to the event and joined other SUNY officials. 

Some of the participants had family members living in New York City who came to the ceremony. Markoe said the group sang the Haitian national anthem and a few participants performed songs on the guitar and saxophone. They also had a chance to share what they learned with the audience and get in a bit more English practice. 

Markoe said her experience with the 20 men and women changed her perception of Haiti and gave her hope for the future.

“We were sorry to see them go. They had made quite an impression on us. Whoever chose the participants did well,” she said. 

“I have great hope for Haiti. We all know that Haiti is struggling. But what I learned is that people like this are so enthusiastic and so bright that. Haiti has a good future. I’m sure this was just a taste of what the country has to offer.”

Jonathan Greig is a journalist based in New York City working as a contributing writer for CBS Interactive. He recently returned to the United States after reporting from South Africa, Jordan, and Cambodia since 2013.

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