PORTLAND, Maine — In his native Haiti, Ralph Houanche earned the captaincy of his Saint-Louis de Gonzague school soccer team in just his freshman year and promptly led the team to a 2008 league championship.
Little did he know then that jubilant title game was the last time Houanche would take a soccer pitch wearing the historic school’s proud red and green colors. Before he’d ever suit up again, he’d have to evade kidnappers and gunfire and travel more than 1,700 miles to Portland.
“They had to cancel the soccer program during my sophomore year,” he recalled. “It was getting too dangerous for the buses to travel.”
A group of violent insurgents announced plans before the 2009 season to kidnap at least one student from Saint-Louis de Gonzague, which as a prestigious private school symbolized in their minds the ruling elite class. So school leaders shut down their sports programs out of fear the transit to games would make their students easy targets.
Houanche recalls sneaking home from school in baggy pants and dirty clothes so he wouldn’t be recognized as a student of the upscale institution. And the environment continued to become more and more turbulent.
“Sometimes you’d be in class you’d hear gunshots all around [the school],” he said. “Sometimes you’d have to get down and under your desks.”
By his junior year, however, Houanche was on the move to the United States. On Wednesday morning at Merrill Auditorium, he’ll be one of 195 graduates from Portland High School, where he triumphantly returned to soccer with all-star accolades in both of his seasons with the Bulldogs.
The alternative to the cap and gown could have been abduction or even death, Houanche, who spoke no English before he moved here, acknowledges now. Even if the political uprising didn’t get him, he said, the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that leveled his home city of Port-au-Prince six months after his family’s departure might have.
The Caribbean country still is recovering from the natural disaster, and with both of its campuses destroyed in the event, Saint-Louis de Gonzague classes are held under tents while school officials seek donations to help rebuild classrooms.
“I think about this all the time,” he admitted during a Monday interview with the Bangor Daily News. “I got here six months before the earthquake. If [Haitian emigration officials] had told us [we couldn’t leave the country], I probably wouldn’t even be here today. I consider myself a very lucky man.”
By “here,” Houanche doesn’t mean “Portland,” but rather “among the living.”
So he’s keenly appreciative of the opportunities looming for him beyond graduation Wednesday. In the fall, Houanche will join the soccer team at St. Joseph’s College, where he’ll study to be a pharmacist or nurse.
“I’m excited,” he said. “I’m looking forward to that.”