For U.S. Haitians, Home Is Both Near and Far Away
By Michael Deibert
NEW YORK, Nov 21 (IPS) - Roman Catholic Bishop Guy Sansaricq presides over his flock at St. Jerome's Church in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Sitting on a busy, heavily Caribbean stretch of Nostrand Avenue, Sansaricq's office in the brick church is adorned with both a portrait of the Virgin Mary and a naive painting depicting a lyrical scene of village life from his native Haiti.
"You leave a piece of your heart in your native country," says Sansaricq, a voluble 72-year-old, whose appointment as Auxiliary Bishop of Brooklyn this past summer makes him the first Haitian-American to hold that post. "But at the same time, you need to live, you need an income, you need an education."
Sansaricq emigrated to the United States in 1971, following stints in the Bahamas and Canada. Born in the remote southwestern town of Jérémie, Sansaricq saw many of his own family members fall victim to the Haitian dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, who ruled Haiti from 1957 until 1971.
Throughout his long residency in New York, Bishop Sansaricq has been in a unique position to observe the changing face of the city's immigrant Haitian community. He has seen waves of immigration during the tenures of Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude, whose own dictatorship lorded over Haiti until 1986, the series of military governments that followed, two terms of the presidency of the former priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide (one interrupted by a coup in 1991, another cut short by massive protests and an armed rebellion in 2004) and now René Préval, who was inaugurated to his second term as Haiti's president in May of this year, replacing an unelected interim government.
"Before, there was a hope that the Haitian population had to return to Haiti," Sansaricq says, referring to the belief of many Haitians that, once the Duvalier dynasty was uprooted, their impoverished country of eight million would stabilise.
"There was a strong spirit of trans-nationalism," he says. "(But) now there is greater progress in terms of political involvement here in this country, as well. People are now recognising the United States as a place where they have roots."
Over one million Haitians live in the United States, more than one-third of them in the New York metropolitan area.
One group advocating for greater involvement in U.S. politics is the Consortium for Haitian Empowerment (CHE). In Brooklyn's Fort Greene area, on the third floor of a shopping mall, CHE is attempting to translate Haiti's numbers into political clout that will influence the way U.S. policy affects Haiti's sons and daughters both in the United States and at home.
The organisation grew out of an attempt to assess the impact that the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Centre had on the Haitian community in the New York area, and since the group officially formed in 2002, it has grown to include 16 member organisations from across Haiti's often-fractious political spectrum.
"The stronger the Haitian community here is, the better we can help Haiti," says one of CHE's founders, Gina Cheron, who first came to the U.S. in 1991 as a student. "By putting aside some of the differences that separate us and by working together we will be in better position to bring something to the table, and to influence American policy towards Haiti."
To be sure, the last decade has not been kind to Haiti. René Préval now steers a country whose turbulent politics, yawning class divide and environmental degradation have made Haiti a place where rich and poor alike often find it difficult to live, let alone make a living.
Some 80 percent of the country's population lives in poverty, and Haiti's rate of hunger is ranked as the world's third highest, surpassed by only Somalia and Afghanistan. Two-thirds of the labour force has no formal jobs. Deforestation has resulted in 90 percent of Haiti's tree cover being destroyed for charcoal and to make room for farming in the past 50 years, leaving little left to hold topsoil when the Caribbean rains fall.
The bright spots -- a decision by the Inter-American Development Bank to forgive Haiti's debt to that entity, a pledge of 750 million dollars to help fund economic recovery efforts by international donors this past July -- will require visionary stewardship, many say, to translate into an improvement in the lives of people on the ground.
It is a situation that has left many Haitian-Americans feeling exasperated.
"There are all of these external factors that make the country the way it is, that we're being made to pay for taking our independence they way we did," says Shu-fy Pongnon, sitting in a cafe in Manhattan's West Village, referring to Haiti's 1804 liberation from France in an era when slavery was still embraced throughout much of the Americas, including the United States.
Pongnon, who was born in New York to Haitian parents and raised both in the United States and Haiti, serves as both executive producer of I and I Exchange, a Caribbean women's and children's interest newsmagazine programme that airs on Brooklyn Community Access Television, and as special assistant to the deputy borough president of Manhattan, Rosemonde Pierre-Louis, herself of Haitian extraction.
"But at some point, we have to take the reins of this monster, we have to say that people deserve to live basic, decent lives," Pongnon says. "I think we need to recognise when someone (from the diaspora) wants to have input that would benefit in which direction in the country is going in."
One issue that hits close to home for Haitians living in the United States is Haiti's constitutional ban on dual citizenship.
Haiti's parliamentarians from 1991 until present have done little to address the issue -- though many lawmakers and government officials themselves hold varying degrees of citizenship or legal immigrant status in countries other than Haiti.
"Dual citizenship has well served many countries around the world," says Harry Fouché, CHE chairman and a former Consul General for Haiti in New York. Fouché emigrated to the United States with his family in 1969.
Fouché cites in particular the example of Greece. Former Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, born the son of a well-known Greek politician in the city of Chios, moved to the United States to attend Harvard University, served in the U.S. navy and became a professor at various U.S. colleges before returning to Greece to hold his nation's highest office in 1981.
"All the knowledge he acquired while he was here helped his country," says Fouché. "I think there will be a revision of the (Haitian) constitution. People have to demand that."
Conversely, as Haiti's development has stalled or even retreated, Haitians in the United States have become ever-more present fixtures on the political landscape.
In recent mid-term election in the United States, the Haitian-American Kwame Raoul, a Democrat, won re-election to the 13th District in Illinois as state senator with more than 80 percent of the vote. M. Rony Francois, a physician from the city of Tampa, currently heads the Florida Department of Health. The suburban Miami enclave of El Portal became, in 2000, the first municipality in the United States to elect a Haitian-American mayor, followed by North Miami and Spring Valley, New York. Haitian-Americans serve on city councils and municipal bodies throughout the country.
Having first arrived in the United States with one foot back in their homeland, many Haitians now seem to be seeing their adopted country as a place where they can thrive.
"It's not (the politicians) who are going to change the country," says the Reverend Daniel Ulysse, a CHE board member who arrived in the U.S. from the northern city of Cap-Haitien in 1981, in a statement as applicable to the United States as it is to Haiti. "But rather it will be us coming together and putting our differences aside."
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