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Haiti's emotional aftershocks

A Brooklyn neighborhood maintains strong ties to Haiti even as world attention dims.

A woman holds photographs as she prays for the victims of an earthquake that hit Haiti during a midday mass at St. Jerome's Church in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, N.Y., Jan. 13, 2010. (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

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.