Opinion: Haitian Diaspora Needs To Put Its Needs Above Those Of Haiti

Women’s March on Jan. 20, 2018 (Photo by Garry Pierre-Pierre)

Over the years, I’ve seen many Haitian-American organizers, those with the right intentions and ambitions, falter. The common thread for this failure is that at some point in the organization’s existence, one or more key members inevitably decide they need to focus their energy on Haiti instead of the community in the diaspora.

They go back to Haiti to start a business enterprise that will hemorrhage money until it bleeds to death. Others opt to decamp to work in government when a friend is either the president or someone close to the president, so they thought. Most are handed a low-level position or never meet the right person for the right job.

The aftereffect common denominator is the return to the United States of these organizers, bitter and disappointed. They wash their hands of all things related to Haiti and unfortunately, all things Haitian-American. They stay away from the community to our detriment.

I fear this cycle is spinning again. Lately, there have been renewed talks of organizing and marshaling resources against a president that is hostile toward Haitians in both word and deed. Donald Trump has called Haiti a “shithole” country and has ended temporary protected status (TPS) for nearly 60,000 Haitians. They face deportation by July 2019 if they don’t return voluntarily.

Some readers took issue with me saying that Trump is one of the greatest dangers we face since we began arriving to the United States in large numbers in the 1970s. Those that disagree with me bring up the 2010 earthquake as a bigger challenge to Haiti, and by extension, to Haitian Americans. That’s conflating two issues. As hard as it is for Haitians in the United States to accept, our interests here are different than interests in Haiti. I will even go so far as to say that, at times, the two travel along parallel lines.

If we make an honest and sober analysis of the Haitian community in the New York metropolitan area, for example, the picture is bleak. While the number of Haitians in the area has increased, the number of Haitian-owned businesses has plummeted. Social service organizations struggle to find support and their work, though much needed, cannot meet the community’s needs.

Professional organizations for Haitian lawyers, physicians, nurses, and teachers exist in name only and have little impact on the community’s progress. This is not to bash or denigrate anyone. This is a true assessment of where we are as a community. As individuals, we are doing well.

One can find Haitians in all echelons of business, government, and civil society organizations. But our wealth is at its lowest.  Part of the problem stems from the community sending savings to friends and family members in Haiti so they can eke out a living.

I applaud our dedication to helping those less unfortunate in Haiti. It is essential. But the community’s survival here in the United States is also at stake. While we pour billions of dollars into Haiti, we rob our communities of the resources we need to build and sustain institutions that can help us become a stronger piece in the great American mosaic.

To be sure, helping Haiti should not be done to the detriment of the Haitian community. We need to channel the enthusiasm of the young and the experience of the elders to bring about a common agenda. We need to answer the existential question of who we are and what role we want to play – both here and in Haiti.

As far as I’m concerned, our generation has a better chance to implement change here than in Haiti. We’re not equipped to deal with Haiti’s intractable problems at this point. On top of it all, Haitians from the diaspora are not welcome back home. We are seen as arrogant, emotional, and void of nuance about Haiti. I have to agree with them.

We cannot force ourselves into the fabric of Haitian society if they don’t want us there playing a significant role. The argument from many here in the U.S. is that because we give so much money to our relatives, we should have a voice and be able to vote.

But Haitians in Haiti see the remittance money as something we do for our relatives but does little for the country. Haiti doesn’t get much out of the money sent. The money sent is used to purchase foodstuff and other imported items. You see, Haiti produces very little. The cash spent finds its way back to the U.S. or Canada instead of stimulating the Haitian economy, a senior official of a progressive political party in Port-au-Prince explained to me last year.

Voting is also a non-starter. Fraud or the possibility of it is often cited as an argument against giving Haitian Americans the right to vote. Such argument, while laughable in its face, is taken seriously in Haiti. It is estimated that current Haiti President Jovenel Moïse was elected with less than 20 percent of voters casting a ballot.

What should we do? As I mentioned last week, we need to organize, carry out citizenship drives, hold voter registration drives, and ultimately, get people out to the polls. We also need to support Haitian entrepreneurs. Before we head to the money transfer agents on pay day, we need to stop at a local bank and put half of that in a savings account.

Unlike immigrants who came to America from Europe and Asia, our ties to Haiti remain tight. The advent of rapid transportation and communication make bonding affordable and fast. We live in both worlds in ways unimaginable in the early 1900s.

At that time, Italians, Irish, and Eastern Europeans were the shitholes of their time. Their countries were in bad shape. These people faced stinging racism, classism, and were relegated to second- and third-class citizens in the U.S. They started as unskilled laborers and worked their way into civil service, dominating professions like police officers and firefighters.

In due time, they gained economic clout and stability in this country, thus allowing them the luxury to turn their attention to investing in their homelands. It’s no coincidence that Italy and Ireland, once exporters of immigrants worldwide are now stable democracies with a low migration rate. This experience is instructive for us – similarities abound.

I don’t know what’s going to save Haiti, but one thing I know is that the Haitian diaspora can’t – at least not the way we are now. We need to get our communities to organize for the next generation to take it to another level, just like the earlier immigrants did.

This opinion piece was originally published in The Haitian Times.

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