Silverthorne family wins fight to bring Haitian boy to The Peak School
November 9, 2018
After months of wading through the turbulent waters of immigration policies and wondering if he'd ever get the chance to reconnect with his second family, a decision has finally been made.
Last year Jaci and Stephan Ohayon, along with their children Maxem and Eleeana, took a family trip down to the Dominican Republic. On the beaches of Las Terrenas they encountered Jonas Julian, a young Haitian "street kid" who had taken to shining tourists' shoes for money. It wasn't long until Jonas became an honorary member of the Ohayon clan, taking on a strong friendship with Max and Eleeana, and eventually moving in with the family.
When it was time to head back to Summit County, the Ohayons made Jonas a promise — one that seemed impossible at the time — that they would come back for him.
“There have been so many people involved. You know that saying that it takes a village? Our village has extended to the Dominican Republic, Haiti, France, here … It’s like this amazing Haitian Cinderella story. Just giving him this opportunity is incredible.”Jaci Ohayon
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On Friday, they made good on that promise. The U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, has officially approved Jonas' student visa, which means he'll soon be on his way to the mountains to rejoin the Ohayons, attend The Peak School and sleep in his own bedroom for the first time.
"It's been one step forward and 30 steps back at each stage trying to get this to happen," said an emotional Jaci. "There have been so many people involved. You know that saying that it takes a village? Our village has extended to the Dominican Republic, Haiti, France, here … It's like this amazing Haitian Cinderella story. Just giving him this opportunity is incredible."
Jonas initially applied for a visa in September, though his application was quickly denied on the basis that he couldn't sufficiently prove strong enough ties to Haiti — immigration officials look for proof in income, housing and jobs among other ties — fearing that Jonas would never return to his home country.
On Oct. 29, Jonas tried again, but it seemed that his application was once again doomed to fail. The Ohayons received emails from the offices of Senator Michael Bennet and Gov.-elect Jared Polis informing them that Jonas' visa was denied. A representative from Polis' office, Jorge Loweree, told the Ohayons that they intended to set up a teleconference between Polis and the Port-au-Prince embassy to find a solution. But on Friday morning, everything changed.
"This morning I got another email from Jorge, and it's just a million exclamation points on his end," said Jaci. "It was a response from the U.S. Embassy saying that they'd be happy to set up a teleconference with Congressman Polis, but that there was a mistake. The visa wasn't denied, it's actually been approved."
The Ohayons are hoping to fly to Haiti by the end of next week to bring Jonas back with them. Jonas will move back in with the Ohayons and attend the rest of the school year at The Peak School in Frisco.
While Jonas' visa only lasts until the end of the school year, it will be possible to extend his stay depending on how he does in school and how much he likes living in the United States.
The family expects that certain aspects of moving from Haiti to Summit County will be overwhelming at first — from attending school regularly for the first time as a non-native speaker to seeing snow for the first time — they expect that he will adjust well and fit in with the community.
"The cool part is he's already lived with us," said Stephan. "So he's just changing location in a way. He felt protected as soon as he walked into our house down in the Dominican Republic. Life was simpler between those four walls. I think he will have all these new experiences outside. It's a different atmosphere, different country, different everything. But once he gets into those four walls, he'll be home."
But Jonas' arrival doesn't mean all fun and games for the family. Along with the already considerable resources the Ohayon family has used to get to this point, they now have to purchase new clothes, a new car that can fit the whole family and most importantly, they need to find a way to afford to send Jonas to school.
Luckily for Jonas and the Ohayons, there was one more surprise waiting for them on Friday morning. As they arrived at The Peak School to deliver the news, head of school Travis Aldrich broke some news of his own: Jonas was the recipient of the first ever Fulkerson Family Scholarship.
Fred and Ellen Fulkerson, the parents of two Peak School alumni, decided to create a scholarship for Jonas after hearing his story, offering to pay for the entirety of his tuition along with his books and a laptop to work on during his stay at the school.
"We knew after our kids graduated that we would continue to be involved," said Ellen. "So when Travis told us the story, he said maybe this is a way to start our scholarship. Fred and I talked to the kids, and they were excited about Jonas' story and wanted to give him a chance. If the Ohayon family believes in him so much that they're going out of their way to take care of this boy and his family, then we're happy to help as well."
"That a family is going to sponsor Jonas to go to school … I just feel so much love for everybody," said Jaci. "This has been so incredible."
Jonas will likely get some time to adjust to his new setting before he begins school, but the tentative plan is to have him start sometime around Thanksgiving. He'll be placed into sixth grade, and his classmates are already eagerly awaiting his arrival.
"Our sixth-graders were in class and their teacher got the notification that Jonas had been approved, and shared it with the class," said Aldrich. "They erupted in cheers. That's the best indicator of how Jonas is going to be received here. They read about his story in the paper, and such an open-hearted reaction to someone they've never met speaks volumes to what we think his experience will be like here."
The process has been a long and difficult one for both Jonas and the Ohayon family. But Jonas' approval to come to the United States isn't the only change to come out of their efforts.
Jaci, once an immigration attorney, gave up her practice over a year ago after a particularly heartbreaking loss on an asylum case. But the experience with Jonas has helped to reaffirm her passion for helping those without a voice find better opportunities in the United States.
"I've had a really good break from it," said Jaci. "But I want to go back and fight for people, because this has been a horrible process. I didn't go to law school to make a lot of money. I went because I wanted to change the world. Then you get there and you get beat down so much that you stop believing that's possible. Maybe it's not. But you can definitely change lives. Jonas is going to get this opportunity to change his whole life and his whole family's life. That feels good."