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Last year, around this time, I sat with a group of Haitian detainees at the ICE facility in Aurora. Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents took a large number of Haitian immigrants into custody near the Tijuana border and sent several hundred to Colorado to await hearings. Having lived in Haiti for several years, I speak Haitian Kreyol, and volunteered to translate for the legal team processing their cases.
I first translated for Jean, a man of slight stature and commanding presence. He described his path to Aurora with passion and composure, speaking clearly and firmly, willing me to understand his story. Jean grew up in an isolated mountain town off the southern coast of the island. After excelling in primary school, he went to live with an aunt in Port-au-Prince to attend high school and seek a college he could afford. After his first year of university he could no longer pay tuition, but stayed in Port-au-Prince fighting for odd jobs and opportunities. In 2015, he heard of a program in Brazil, a special visa for low-paying but reliable jobs. He went, worked for some time, and when the opportunities dried up, he traveled through Central America, up the length of Mexico, and to the Tijuana border crossing. On arrival in the U.S. he was taken into custody and sent to Aurora.
“Why did you go to Brazil?” his lawyer asked.
“Mwen tap chache lavi.”
This literally means, “I was searching for life.” He continued, “You don’t make a trip like that for vacation. It was no vacation. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t speak the languages. I can’t describe the things I saw. I didn’t do it for fun – I had no choice.”
It has been eight years this month since an earthquake devastated Haiti, killing hundreds of thousands of people, displacing hundreds of thousands more. People often ask me, “Has there been progress in Haiti?” The question has taken on particular weight now, in the aftermath of the Trump administration’s November decision to revoke the temporary protected status of nearly 60,000 Haitian men and women living in the U.S. The administration deemed that “Haiti is able to safely receive traditional levels of returned citizens.” They have until July 2019 to leave the U.S. or face deportation.
I lived in Haiti for more than two years after the earthquake, I’ve been there more than 30 times in the past five years, my sons are Haitian-American, and I am the director of a non-profit that supports local leaders in Haiti. It is my job to answer the question regarding progress. I’ve answered it hundreds of times and will answer it hundreds more, and yet each time I’m asked, my chest tightens as I wait to see what will come out of my mouth.
Unemployment and a lack of opportunity are stifling for the youth of Haiti. There is rampant and extreme poverty, inadequate access to healthcare, widespread homelessness, lack of clean water, lack of energy, and minimal infrastructure. A recent New York Times piece, which featured close friends of mine, shows how even burying the dead is a daunting challenge for many. Another Times piece after Hurricane Matthew showed people living in caves for lack of a better option.
My chest tightens, I think, because while all I reference above is true, there is an important, more complex reality that hides beneath the darkness and pain: Haiti is the most beautiful place I know. Beauty in its people, beauty in its countryside, beauty in its courage and grace. It is a place of unique history and singular resistance. I’ve heard it called the birthplace of the human rights movement, due to its triumph over Napoleon’s army and its subsequent status as the first independent black republic in the New World. It is a place with long tradition of homegrown community development, of neighbors looking out for one another, and of grassroots movements organizing to great effect.
These truths are not widely known or published, and while they do not negate the poverty and need referenced above, they are an essential counterpoint to them. People who seek to invest in Haiti should be investing in local people and local structures, in communities like the one Jean comes from.
Progress is more than possible in Haiti: it is inevitable.
When Jean spoke of his hometown his eyes grew misty and his voice cracked. It was important for him to express that he did not want to leave Haiti, that his heart remained there the whole time. The people of Haiti love their country, are fiercely proud of their history and will fight for their communities if given a chance. They have the talent, capacity, and creativity to move forward, what is required is opportunity; a way to stay and fight; tools in their hands, and a chance to use them in their own communities. Given that, they will do the rest.
Wynn Walent is executive director of the Colorado Haiti Project. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org