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'Byenvenu a New York'

Haiti, March 4, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Michael Rizzo for Mercy Corps  </span>
    A student in the after school program at the New York Action Center colors the Statue of Liberty on the front of a welcome pack the children prepared for children who have been relocated from Haiti to NYC after the earthquake. Photo: Michael Rizzo for Mercy Corps

Ten-year-old Georgia Greenleaf sat on the floor of the Action Center to End World Hunger, painstakingly choosing the right shades of brown and green for an outline of the Statue of Liberty she colored on a simple paper packet in front of her. As she worked, she started thinking out loud about just what the statue meant to her and what it will mean for children from Haiti en route to make a new home in New York.

“New York might be called the Empire State, but the Empire State Building doesn’t really stand for New York. The Statue of Liberty does — way more than anything else. When we see her and she welcomes us, we know there’s freedom here and that anything is possible.” said Georgia, who lives in a neighborhood along Manhattan’s south edge, where Lady Liberty looms large in the distance from a park along the bank of the Hudson River.

Georgia and 20 other students from schools in the neighborhood, who participate in the Action Center’s after school program, will soon meet children from Haiti transplanted to New York with their families in the wake of the January 12’s devastating earthquake. In preparation, the kids spent a recent Tuesday afternoon at the Action Center making welcome packets that just might make the new arrivals feel at home in the meantime.

On the cover of the guide the Action Center kids put together, the Statue of Liberty greets the new arrivals along with “Welcome to New York!” — "Byenvenu a New York!" in Creole — just like she’s greeted millions of immigrants who’ve arrived in New York City for more than a century.

The short packet also includes pictures drawn by the Action Center kids of their favorite places around the city and a student-produced guide of useful English phrases the children relocating to New York can use when they start school. That guide will help them join games on the playground and learn how to ask for things in the cafeteria.

“It’s really important that they can understand it. Their own language will help them feel comfortable,” said Georgia.

The guide will be part of a welcome kit put together by kids for kids, including handmade puzzles of New York City landmarks. The students spent a couple hours carefully cutting up postcards of the Empire State Building bought at neighborhood souvenir shops.

Georgia and the students at the Action Center belong to the Hang Out for Change program, where 20 students in 3rd-5th grades attend a weekly session where they learn about the causes behind hunger and poverty around the world. The group has been using Haiti as an example and learning about how Mercy Corps helps in places devastated by emergencies or chronic poverty.

The Action Center education team is working with Brooklyn-based CAMBA, an agency that serves vulnerable populations in New York City and runs several after school programs, to make it happen. If all goes as planned, the kids from the Action Center will get to say "Byenvenu a New York!" in person sometime in the late Spring.