Arlette Dervil

Many families come to the United States for its educational opportunities. For Arlette Dervil, relocating from Haiti was an abrupt change with continuing aftershocks.

After the January 2010 earthquake that leveled much of the island country, Dervil, her mother and sister left Port-au-Prince. Their house, one of the oldest in the city, survived structurally intact, but the same couldn’t be said for an estimated 250,000 other homes. The 7.0 magnitude quake took tens of thousands of lives.

Picking up the pieces

“Right after the earthquake, like everywhere, it was a disaster. It smelled bad, and there were a lot of people who died,” Dervil remembers vividly. “My sister and I couldn’t physically, nor emotionally and mentally, handle it.” Her father, an accountant, stayed behind for his job and to help with the cleanup while the children started a new school in their mother’s hometown.

Three months later, the family reunited in the capital city. “School actually started back up, and we went back and just — it wasn’t as it was. It was very different and, I think, far from restoration. So, my parents both came to the conclusion that if we came to the United States, it would be better for my sister and me.”

In October 2010, Dervil’s mother, an attorney, took the girls to Massachusetts, where their uncle and grandmother were living. Their world changed dramatically.

“My father stayed back to support us financially, because obviously, my mother would have been unemployed,” Dervil says. The once well-to-do family wound up in public housing.

When her grandmother, who lived alone in Randolph, suffered three incapacitating strokes, they moved into her apartment so Dervil’s mother could fill the role of patient care assistant. “My uncle took care of us during that time,” Dervil adds.

That was only the first adjustment she’d have to make. “The main struggle was establishing what I wanted,” Dervil says. In Haiti, she’d been active in sports and dance classes, but here it was “very hard learning English and juggling schoolwork and wanting to participate in more.

“I always sort of knew English and could’ve worked my way around a conversation, but it was very hard for people to understand me. My accent was very heavy. People would just be like, ‘Hey, what? Can you repeat that?’ And it was very intimidating, so I refused to speak to people.”

For years, she remained withdrawn. “I was very afraid of what people would think of me, and I didn’t dress the best in middle school, so it was very frustrating,” she recalls.

By the time she started high school, the student was excited about moving to Brockton, “because then that would give me a second opportunity to grow and be out of my shell,” she says. “And when I went to CTE school, I kind of was like, ‘Hey, this is my opportunity to not be afraid’ — and I definitely had that.”

At Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical High School, in South Easton, Dervil studied medical assisting and joined SkillsUSA. Now, as a senior, she’s overcome her shyness and serves as state president of SkillsUSA Massachusetts. She plans to go to college for a physician’s assistant degree.

Sadly, Dervil says her father, who retired but remained in Haiti, died on the first day of her senior year. “The rest of my family and I are working hard to pick up the pieces.” Once again.