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Kris Drach, board president at the Literacy Council of Southwestern Pennsylvania, and Getro Bernabe, lead an English class for Haitian refugees in Charleroi.

CHARLEROI – Corruption and gun violence caused Getro Bernabe to fear for his safety as a police officer in Haiti.

“Anybody can kill anybody,” Bernabe said.

“If you go out you are not sure you are going to get back home,” added the 45-year-old Haitian refugee who has relocated to Charleroi.

“All bad people consider you an enemy.”

He is among an estimated 300 Haitian refugees who have moved to Charleroi where housing is affordable and work is available at meat packing companies.

Most were part of Haiti’s middle- or upper-middle class society, said Kris Drach, board president of the Literacy Council of Southwestern Pennsylvania in Washington.

She and Bernabe have been holding large classes to teach the refugees the English language.

Many of the refugees have heartbreaking stories about gang-led extortion and attempted murders, Drach said.

Some of the people in this room have been shot at, Drach said a week ago while leading an English as a second language class attended by 38 Haitian students.

Bernabe said he has been trained several times in this country by the U.S. military, and that he also is an English teacher.

Drach said Bernabe, who came to Charleroi in October, is popular with the refugees, and that he personally enrolled 58 people into the ESL classes.

“Life is easier here,” Bernabe said.

The Haitians are in Washington County legally, and they recently celebrated the reversing of policy on Haitian refugee deportations by President Joe Biden’s administration.

The administration extended its asylum protection status until November 2022, Drach said.

The refugees began signing up for ESL classes two years ago. There are now about 70 students.

They are slowly getting working papers, Drach said.

The Haitians have mostly gone unnoticed in the Mon Valley, especially during the pandemic when many people stayed home to avoid contracting COVID-19.

“They are hiding in plain sight,” she said.

It’s difficult for the refugees to communicate to bus drivers and others about where they want to go or what they need, Bernabe said.

The demand for ESL classes has left the literacy council desperate for volunteer tutors, Drach said.

Staff Writer

Scott Beveridge is a North Charleroi native who has lived most of his life in nearby Rostraver Township. He is a general assignments reporter focusing on investigative journalism and writing stories about the mid-Mon Valley.

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