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Recovery, Mental Health and Immigration Status

How are the 3 connected?

Images from both the 2010 earthquake of Haiti and the barren streets of NYC during Hurricane Sandy

When interviewing earthquake survivor Giovanni Roy, he seemed to be indifferent to speaking about his experiences. No part of him was reluctant to share information, but no part of him spoke as if he wanted to relive it.

Giovanni came here almost 10 years ago in early February on a cold NYC winter day, with nothing but a jean jacket after having to pass through the Dominican Republic and Miami, Florida. Not to mention, he came in the middle of the academic school year.10 years later, he is a 24-year-old student at Hunter College living under TPS (Temporary Protected Status). Giovanni is a member of the Haitian Student Association of Hunter College and has been for a few years now. Many of his peers refer to him as “Gio” and he is usually known for his boastfulness and pride in beating anyone at dominoes and his love for food. To the naked eye, it seems that he has successfully transitioned into living in the United States, but what is hidden is his experience of living through a disaster.

Giovanni, his uncle, cousin and elder sister pictured celebrating New Years Eve

The earthquake of Haiti in 2010, was a life-changing event for Gio. He was around 14 at the time when he said that the second floor of his building became the first. When interviewing him, I asked how he was doing because I think not many people get asked that question enough with serious intent. He replied: I feel amazing and I’m in a lovely relationship. That cheery attitude soon diminished when I started asking questions about his trauma with the incident.

“I didn’t believe it until I saw the people that I knew that were dead, I was just crying”

The issue of PTSD and other forms of trauma are not the only issues victims face but are the most talked-about issue. Varying forms of trauma may or may not be easily identifiable depending on the person. When I asked if he had taken any measures to seek help in processing his trauma his view on it was negative, but I don’t blame him because it is what he truly felt. He said “That would change nothing. It happened. They aren’t coming back to life are they?” Giovanni explained to me that the entirety of the disaster felt unreal, like a dream. He said he only began to understand things when he saw the dead bodies of loved ones.

This feeling of disconnecting completely from the disaster itself is a form of disassociation.

This is “a psychological experience in which people feel disconnected from their sensory experience, sense of self, or personal history. … Dissociation often occurs in response to trauma and seems to have a protective aspect in that it allows people to feel disconnected from traumatic events.”

https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-dissociation-22201

Not only is trauma and issue that Giovanni has to face. Another problem for him is his immigration status. He is under something called “Temporary Protective Status” others refer to it as being under asylum. “It’s biased, the wait is long, almost a year long.” He explains that maintaining employment in the period that it takes to get it is long and difficult, and he could be let go at any moment. He also explained that as a college student, this status didn’t provide him with any sort of Financial aid to fund his studies. Now in 2019, Giovanni works full time, over 40 hours a week and is a part-time student who also has to pay rent.

As a New Yorker, I only had a small taste of what a disaster was when Hurricane Sandy hit. I only realized the gravity of this disaster when I learned the next week at school that my earth science teacher, Jennifer Rondello-Dixon’s house was completely destroyed. Not only did this teacher go through such a grave disaster for where she lives but she had to continue coming to school to teach every single day without showing that she was struggling back home.

Jennifer sent a photo marking how high the water had reached in her house showing over a foot of flooding

Jennifer was born and raised in Queens, NY and had moved to Far Rockaway in later years. When I had Mrs. Dixon as a teacher she was then known as Ms. Rondello. I was her student during her transition from fiancee to wife. When asked about how her daily routine was before Sandy hit she simply stated: “My daily routine is still the same as it was when sandy hit 7 years ago… I wake up and go to work as a science teacher before coming home, cooking, cleaning and sleeping (though now I also have tyler to take care of.)” Though my interview with her was short and brief over Facebook messenger, I had a feeling she was typing this with the positive, warming smile that I knew her to always have.

Jennifer made it clear to me that her mental health was also taken into consideration. “Mental health is super important” she stated. I have known her to be one of the few teachers that students spoke to her about their personal lives and have even confided in her with my own self so this is almost an understatement in her terms. “Unlike Giovanni, Jennifer had a therapist but the natural disaster wasn’t something they discussed. “I leaned mostly on family and friends,” she said, stating that they were her main source of support during the recovery and relief efforts.

Photos of the relief efforts provided to Jennifer and others by neighbors and friends

One thing that struck me the most was the photos Jennifer had sent me. There were tons of pictures fo her earth science books, regents preparation books and etc. I knew that Jennifer was a passionate teacher so I’m sure that these books had sentimental value to her.

In Jennifer’s case, she stated that her mindset on life had changed. Though she did struggle a bit, she was able to make a big decision with her now-husband. I asked her how this disaster has changed her family dynamic and received such a beautiful answer. Jennifer said, “Sandy definitely affected my family dynamic because we decided to have Tyler (her son) after we bought our home because we realized how fragile life is.”

In a sense, Jennifer was able to see the positive of this event and start her family. She was able to come out of this situation with her family, friends, and neighbors by her side.


2 Comments

  1. This is a really great post, with good use of multimedia. Choosing two interviewees was ambitious (!) but you did a great job. However, I think you need to add one last paragraph to connect the two stories so that it doesn’t seem like two separate ones. What can we learn about mental health by looking at these two together? Also, you could place some links for folks wanting to learn more about each specific disaster context, and the political debates around temporary status etc.

  2. I think its really cool that you incorporated two people’s stories into your piece. I am also very interested in the photos you’ve selected for each person. I also commend you for bringing mental health into the discussion, its really important that we continue to normalize it.

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