Haitian refugee in Palo Alto seeks to rebuild his country

Peterson Joseph, 19, studies at Foothill College but needs sponsors

Nineteen-year-old Haitian refugee Peterson Joseph's sunny disposition spread across his face this week as he spoke about his dreams of a college education. As he chatted in a Palo Alto church, his cheeks dimpled deeply and his eyes twinkled. But they darkened as he talked about the still-dire situation in Haiti.

"The dream that we had -- everything changed. It was collapsed," he said, recalling the devastating January 2010 earthquake that destroyed 80 percent of the island's housing. "Everyone was living in a tent city in Port-au-Prince. Nobody wanted to live inside."

Things are not much better a year and a half later. The water supply is still not fixed; his mother, two sisters and brother still live in the tent city, he said.

"Haiti is a very poor country. To (rebuild) would require to start from the ground up. It's not like the U.S., where if you have an education, you can have a place in society. There you can't. There is a lot of corruption. They do not take care of youth," he said.

Joseph came to Palo Alto in spring 2010 with a Lucile Packard Children's Hospital nurse he'd met while working as a translator in Delmas, a Port-au-Prince suburb.

But while his entry into the U.S. seemed like a miracle, staying in this country has come with certain challenges. He was learning English at Language Pacifica in Menlo Park last July when his sponsor said she could no longer help him. Suddenly, Joseph faced losing the roof over his head for the second time since the earthquake.

Help, however, was not far off. Riding his bicycle down Middlefield Road in south Palo Alto one Sunday morning that July, he passed church row -- a line of many churches between Loma Verde Avenue and East Meadow Drive. Joseph was looking for a place to worship that day.

He turned his bicycle into the horseshoe-shaped parking lot behind The Father's House Church at 3585 Middlefield Road, where Pastor Glen Coulter was tending to the flowers. Joseph asked if there were any services, and Coulter invited him in to worship, he said.

When church members learned about his situation, they decided to sponsor him and support his education, Coulter said.

Joseph has been living at the church ever since. But costs are high for international students, even at Foothill College, where Joseph is a full-time student. Coulter estimated expenses run about $1,000 per month.

The church is seeking additional sponsors to help Joseph complete his education and has started a fund for that purpose, he said.

Joseph needs at least two years to finish his associate's degree. He is hoping to continue at a university to get a bachelor's degree in business. One way or another, the church remains committed to at least the first two years of sponsorship, he said.

"The money is not the important part; the important part is to educate a mind that wants to do something. You can send all the money to Haiti, but it doesn't always get into the right hands. If we send money there, the government gets it. We decided to invest in the young man," Coulter said.

Coulter thinks Joseph can get a scholarship to a university. The teenager has top grades, he said.

Joseph wants to return to Haiti to help his family and his country, and he wants to change the system that keeps the country poor, he said.

The earthquake caused thousands of children to drop out of school and live on the streets in Port-au-Prince. The long-term consequences of extreme poverty will be felt for decades, he said.

"We will have this problem for three more generations because this generation is not going to school now," he said.

Education is crucial to developing the island nation, he added. "I believe there is an opportunity for change. We have resources available but we don't know how to use them well."

Joseph turned the earthquake into an opportunity to fulfill his dream, he said. He volunteered for Sean Penn's J/P Haitian Relief Organization during the quake's immediate aftermath; he saw so many injured people with broken limbs on the streets.

He was eventually paid to work for the medical team, translating from Creole and French to English. He saved his money, and he began talking to the nurse, who arrived with Palo Alto's Enoch Choi Foundation as part of the relief effort. He told her about his dreams. The nurse agreed to sponsor him, and Joseph gave her his money to help pay for his sponsorship and student visa to the United States, he said.

On the Peninsula, the nurse arranged a 75 percent tuition reduction at Language Pacifica. School officials were impressed by his drive, they said.

"Peterson quickly established himself as a diligent student. Unlike other students of his age playing video games or watching something on YouTube, Peterson spent his lunch and break time buried in his books, consulting his teachers and doing his homework," Language Pacifica founder Gerald Brett said.

"It's not that he wasn't like his fun-loving peers; it was plain that he had a different mission than they did. His goal was to acquire knowledge and professional training in a skill he would eventually take back to Haiti to help his country."

In January, Joseph became a full-time student at Foothill College. He is trying to get his GED, since his high school education was cut short by the earthquake. He is studying marketing and business, math and English, he said.

"With a bachelor's degree, I could get a job in Haiti in government," he said. He also wants to open orphanages for the many street children.

In addition, he wants to work with venture capitalists to fund some of his business ideas, which he believes can be highly profitable, he said.

Joseph said he could start a construction company to rehabilitate the ravaged city. He could improve agricultural infrastructure so that Haiti won't have to import most of its food, or build solar power in the tropical country, he said.

For now, he spends most of his time reading and studying. Coulter and his wife are Joseph's American mom and dad, and they have cared for him "with honor," he said.

Coulter looked approvingly at the teen. "Sometimes there is a divine appointment," he said. "I believe this is an appointment for us."

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