Haiti's emotional aftershocks

Editor's note: In this special report, GlobalPost and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism explore how New York’s Haitian community is dealing with the emotional aftershocks of Haiti’s earthquake. Student correspondents fanned out across New York to tell the stories of how the Haitian-American community and the people of Haiti are joined through family, culture and a shared pain. These are some of the stories: how illegal Haitian immigrants are pursuing the U.S. government's offer of “temporary protected status”; a profile of a Haitian-American woman who dropped everything to become a one-woman coordinator of redevelopment efforts; and a video that documents the struggle of a Haitian man who — his supporters say — was reformed and transformed in prison only to face a new kind of punishment, a forced deportation to Haiti. Also, please see an audio slideshow from Good Friday services in Flatbush.
BROOKLYN, New York — On a quiet Sunday morning, turn the corner off Nostrand Avenue in Flatbush, walk past hair salons, restaurants and bodegas all with French and English signs, and you come to the aptly named Church Avenue.

You’ve arrived in the heart of New York’s Haitian diaspora, where the emotional aftershocks of the devastating January earthquake still reverberate.

Families dressed in their Sunday best congregate on the sidewalks outside church before Mass. Lilting hymns pour out the church doors, while street vendors vie for the congregation's attention — and their dollars — to buy sweet milk and hot churros.

New York is home to more than 200,000 Haitians, and though they are scattered across the city’s boroughs, the largest concentration live, work and worship in Brooklyn, particularly in Flatbush.

On Sundays, Haitian immigrants and Haitian-Americans gather by the thousands at English or Creole services in Flatbush’s Holy Cross R.C. Church, New Jerusalem Church of the Nazarene and the other dozen-odd places of worship nearby.

While some Haitians say the Jan. 12 earthquake shook their faith in God, church attendance has remained as steady as ever. In many ways, the churches of Flatbush and other diaspora neighborhoods have helped unite Haitians in their grief. The quake has also united them in action to send aid and assist family and loved ones, and sometimes even fellow parishioners, who are trying to survive amid the rubble and the despair.

Holy Cross is one of many parishes in the area that held a memorial service for Haiti in late February. Haitians wrote names of the confirmed victims in the Book of the Dead, then lit candles and walked in a procession through the neighborhood.

One parishioner who lost 35 members of her family in the earthquake wept through the entire ceremony. An elderly man cried uncontrollably, a rare sight in Haitian culture, where men cultivate a strong masculine identity.

“To see a man screaming in church tells you how big an impact this earthquake had on a person,” said Donelson Thevenin, a priest at Holy Cross Catholic Church.

Religion is just one of the many bonds that tether New York’s Haitian diaspora community together. Ethnic radio stations and weekly newspapers published in Creole, French and English have established a record for mobilizing the Flatbush community to action.

In 1997, they helped galvanize public outrage in the case of Abner Louima, a 30-year-old Haitian immigrant who was arrested and sodomized with a broomstick by police in Brooklyn. In 2007, the ethnic media urged voters to polls to elect Mathieu Eugene, who became the New York City Council’s first Haitian-born member. And this year, Haitian radio and newspapers in Flatbush provided an information lifeline for Haitian-Americans seeking news of loved ones in the wake of the Port-au-Prince earthquake.

Haitians have immigrated to the United States since the 19th century, but the majority came in the 1970s and 1980s, driven by the political repression and the economic uncertainty of the Duvalier years. From 1971 to 1986, Jean-Claude Duvalier and his wife, Michele, notoriously pilfered millions of dollars from state coffers to fund an extravagant lifestyle while most Haitians didn’t have enough to eat.

The country was left in financial ruin as they fled to France. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians immigrated to the U.S. in the aftermath, often in rickety, over-crowded boats. Today, more than 500,000 Haitians reside in the U.S. — 20 times more than in the 1970s.

The U.S. Census Bureau indicates the Haitian diaspora in New York is more educated and better off than other Haitian-Americans in the U.S.

Compared with the national average, more New York Haitians attained bachelor’s or graduate level education. Compared with fellow Haitians in Florida, those in New York are more than twice as likely to have graduated from university.

In the ethnic mosaic of New York City, Haitians are the ninth-largest immigrant group. And in communities like Flatbush, they’ve surrounded themselves with comforting signs of home.
After Sunday services, a line spills out the door onto the streets for lunch at Kal’s Bakery on Church Avenue and 34th Street. Displays showcase savory dishes of beans, grilled chicken and steaming stews. The long and narrow bakery steers customers outdoors to devour their food while standing and chatting with others.

Another local standby is Fresh Grill Chicken and Fish, a deli on Nostrand Avenue near Glenwood Road. On a recent Sunday afternoon, Hubert Alcide and Pierre Darlyns, both musicians and both Haitian-Americans, strolled in for a lunch of lalo, a dish of greens, meat and rice. Their conversation moved seamlessly between Creole and English, the rhythms of the two languages punctuated by Alcide’s occasional drumming of a lively beat on the restaurant tables. Both men were born in the U.S. but spent their childhood years in Haiti, raised by grandparents and other relatives. It’s not an uncommon tradition, said the young men. Parents send their children to Haiti, said Darlyns, “to stay out of trouble.”

It is estimated that as many as 100,000 undocumented Haitians were living in New York City at the time of the Port-au-Prince disaster. Three days after the earthquake, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced Haitians living here illegally as of Jan. 12 could apply for temporary protected status.

Temporary protected status is no guarantee of permanent residency, but it does allow eligible Haitians to work temporarily in the U.S. — and to send money back home to struggling family members. Hundreds of legal clinics help Haitians with the process, and some scholars say the U.S. should open its doors wide to let in many thousands more Haitians. 

But U.S. policy remains firm: Haitians are warned that if they try to enter the U.S. now, they will be sequestered and turned back.

The earthquake seemed to touch every Haitian in Flatbush. Many lost family. Some traveled to Port-au-Prince to offer their medical skills to earthquake victims. Others gathered money or goods to send for earthquake relief.

Regine Zamor, born in Brooklyn of Haitian heritage, joined the wave of diaspora helpers just days after the quake. It became a life-changing decision: Within a few weeks, she returned to New York, quit her job, sold most of her belongings and moved permanently to Port-au-Prince to help rebuild the country. Her decision to relocate underscores the deep ties that the Haitian diaspora maintains with the homeland.

Watch the story of Jean Montrevil.
(GlobalPost/Bradley Gallo)

Despite its devastation, the earthquake brought unexpected relief to some in the diaspora. Brooklyn resident Jean Montrevil, a Haitian-American who arrived here in 1986 with permanent resident status, was scheduled for deportation in January because of a drug conviction more than 20 years ago. On Jan. 11, he was in a holding cell in York, Penn., awaiting the final order back home. Then the earthquake struck, and Montrevil was granted a temporary reprieve. His many supporters say the reprieve may boost their campaign to nullify his deportation order.

The stories that emerge from Brooklyn’s Haitian community are as lively and diverse as the neighborhood it inhabits. They span generations, weave in the words of elders and tell the personal stories of newcomers. In this special project by GlobalPost and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, we look at how New York’s Haitian diaspora is coping with the sudden onslaught of change and renewal in the aftermath of the earthquake.
Additional reporting by Christopher Livesay, Wadzanai Mhute, Saskya Vandoorne and Rania Zabaneh.