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The Story In Haiti, Told By Haitians In The U.S.

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The Story In Haiti, Told By Haitians In The U.S.

Latin America

The Story In Haiti, Told By Haitians In The U.S.

The Story In Haiti, Told By Haitians In The U.S.

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Guests

Sylvana Joseph, Haitian-American writer and lawyer
Georges Fouron, director of American studies, SUNY Stony Brook
Jean-Robert Lafortune, president of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition

Tuesday's earthquake in Haiti destroyed thousands of lives, and left Haitians around the world desperate for news about their loves ones. Haitians in the U.S. talk about what information they're hearing from Haiti, and their connection to communities in the U.S.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts, in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

New statistics on the destruction in Haiti keep pouring in, even as relief workers try to reach as many survivors as possible with water and food and medical attention. Meanwhile, family members in the United States continue to pray and keep their hopes and cultural ties alive by any means necessary.

The Haitian Diaspora reaches far and wide. Nearly 800,000 Haitians live in the U.S., many in Florida and New York. They form community organizations and Creole-language media and teach their children about Haitian history and culture in order to instill a sense of connection with their families back home.

Today, we want to hear from Haitians here in the U.S. Many are slowly but surely starting to hear from loved ones back home. Tell us: How do you stay connected to Haiti? Tell us your story. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now from the studios at Audio Post Philadelphia is Sylvana Joseph. She's a Haitian-American writer and lawyer based in New Orleans. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. SYLVANA JOSEPH (Writer, Lawyer): Thank you.

ROBERTS: Have you been able to get word from your family in Haiti?

Ms. JOSEPH: Actually, just yesterday I got word that we found another three members of my family, which brings the number up to six that are alive and well. But we still have over a dozen that are unaccounted for.

ROBERTS: And how are you mainly getting in touch?

Ms. JOSEPH: I think they're finding people with cell phones and getting a call out. I mean, everyone in my family that is okay actually lost their homes. So I think they're just getting to a cell phone and getting through to somebody in the States.

ROBERTS: And other than the basic news that they're okay, what do they need?

Ms. JOSEPH: Oh, I mean, you know, they need their house back. But aside from that, they, you know, they actually are not necessarily talking about their own needs. They're talking about the needs for the rest of the people: medical supplies, food, water, clothing. You know, one of my elderly aunts was found, and she was, like, you know, I'm fine, but I have no underwear. So it's just that - it's that kind of - it's very basic. It is very basic needs. But I think that individually, people are kind of putting aside their own individual needs for the need - the greater needs of the community and of the country as a whole.

ROBERTS: Is your family in Port-au-Prince?

Ms. JOSEPH: They are in Port-au-Prince and Jacmel, which is two hours to the south, which was also very heavily damaged, but not many people know that.

ROBERTS: Well, we haven't heard much about Jacmel, except to sort of hear that aid is getting bogged down in Port-au-Prince and not really reaching areas like Jacmel that were hard hit. Is that what you're getting from your family?

Ms. JOSEPH: Exactly. I mean, you know, what's going on is that in the media, you're seeing Port-au-Prince because it is such widespread devastation, but the devastation is all throughout Haiti. And Jacmel is two hours to the south of Port-au-Prince, and at least 50 percent of the buildings there were destroyed or heavily damaged.

There are people in rubble there, too, but they're just not getting the aid that is coming to Port-au-Prince, and there are towns all along the coast that are like that.

ROBERTS: Tell us about Jacmel. What sort of a town is it?

Ms. JOSEPH: Jacmel is a coastal city. It is - it has huge historical significance. It is the basis in Haiti for a lot of artwork. There are a lot of great artists that came out of Jacmel. There's a huge music scene there. There's actually a music festival there every year for the past several years, and it's a very popular spot with tourists.

It's actually one of the few spots that tourists come to regularly. European tourists, Canadian tourists flock to Jacmel for the beaches and the food. So it's not just Haitians that are trapped in the rubble there. There are probably Europeans and Canadians and Americans, also.

ROBERTS: And as part of the expat community here, are you in touch with other Haitian-Americans? Are people trying to organize?

Ms. JOSEPH: Oh, my God. Haitians will organize at the drop of a hat for almost anything. So in terms of a crisis, organization is second nature. I mean, I've been on the phone and in email contact with so many Haitians, both my parents' generation, who were the initial immigrants, and us, who are the second generation.

There is incredible work going on with the Haitian community. I've talked to people in Atlanta, people in New York, in Miami, my own family and my extended family because Haitians are all one big family, and it's a lot like New Orleans in terms of we are not strangers to one another.

So anyone who is Haitian in this moment, I feel like I've been in contact with in one way or another.

ROBERTS: And is that in part because of the hurricanes of 2008 and organization leftover from that, or has that always been true?

Ms. JOSEPH: It's actually, in part, of the revolution from 200 years ago. When you get together to stage a revolution, that kind of feeling stays with the people. And so the Haitian people have always been able to rally for a cause. And whether it's a hurricane or it's political, or it's this, this earthquake, we're rallying.

ROBERTS: We are speaking with Sylvana Joseph. She's a Haitian-American writer based in New Orleans. And if you are part of the Haitian Diaspora, we want to hear from you. Our number here in Washington 800-989-8255. You can send us email: talk@npr.org. Or you can follow the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tell us what you've been hearing from Haiti, how you are in touch with people there and other Haitian-Americans here in Washington.

Let's take a call from Rudy in Jacksonville, Florida. Rudy, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

RUDY (Caller): Welcome. Good afternoon.

ROBERTS: Good afternoon.

RUDY: The reason why I'm calling, I've been trying to get in contact with my father since the tragedy occurred. I was unable to. Hopefully, just yesterday, my brother was able to get in contact with him. He spoke to him. He's doing well. However, he told me that the area where he lives, all the homes are, they were all destroyed, and things are extremely, extremely bad.

ROBERTS: And Rudy, where is your father?

RUDY: He lives - well, he was in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He's currently in Haiti.

ROBERTS: And as far as you can hear from your brother, his neighborhood's pretty much gone?

RUDY: Excuse me?

ROBERTS: And what your brother is saying after speaking to your father, that that neighborhood is pretty much gone?

RUDY: Exactly, yes. Yeah, all the homes all around that area, they were all destroyed. And as a matter of fact, there's a church. It's a specific area, it's (unintelligible). There's a church there that was demolished. And pretty much - well, my dad told and when I spoke to him yesterday, he told me that our house is fine, thank God. And he also has a business in downtown Port-au-Prince. He told me it was fine, as well. He wasn't able to go there, but his cousin told him that it was okay.

ROBERTS: And what's the business?

RUDY: Import-export, pretty much.

ROBERTS: And Rudy, let me ask, because we've been hearing that already before this disaster, remittances to Haiti were down because of economic hard times here in the U.S. With an import-export business, was he doing okay before the earthquake hit?

RUDY: Well, yeah. I mean, well, pretty much. What he used to do, he used to buy goods in the United States, and he used to bring them into Haiti, and vice versa. You know, nothing - I mean, he's retired. And nothing - just some things to help out his family, nothing that lucrative, but just to help out.

ROBERTS: Rudy, thank you for your call. I'm glad to hear your father is safe. Sylvana Joseph, we are hearing, you know, these stories coming in, trickling in. It must be just so frustrating to not have full information from there, to know what you do know and know what you don't know.

ROBERTS: Honestly, it is extraordinarily frustrating. And it's frustrating for everyone because, you know, you call and the phone rings, but you know that it's probably not ringing in Haiti. And, you know, even if you can get through, I've had family members, and I've had this issue where you get through, but then it immediately cut off. So it's very difficult because you don't know what people need and you don't know if they're all right and the extent of their injuries, if they have any. And so you just have to hope that they will be able to get in contact with you at some later date and let you know what they need.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Reggie in Philadelphia. Reggie, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

REGGIE (Caller): Good afternoon. Thanks for taking my call.

ROBERTS: Sure.

REGGIE: I was born there, and I, you know, came here - came to the U.S. And then after university, I went back to Haiti and lived for 10 more years. This is a very painful time for anyone, you know, not just, you know, people of Haitian descent, but more specifically for people of Haitian descent, you know, because you look at the pictures, you know, you look at where you used to live and where you used to, you know, go to the bank and the roads you drove. And it's just, you know, the loss of life - I can't process it, really. You know, it's just - you know, I can't get my arms around it, actually. It's going to take some time.

But why I called was, you know, your guest sparked me to want to call because I think that what I'm really hopeful for, if anything can come out of this, is that in the long run, that we can build something in Haiti that's sustaining, you know, that can get our people out of this grind that they've been in for so many years.

ROBERTS: And what role do you think the Haitian Diaspora has in that, Reggie? How do you think you can help?

REGGIE: Well, I mean, look. I'm - when I came to this country, my father parked cars for a living, okay? That's - I'm a graduate of the Wharton School. You know, that's what America has to offer, you know, anyone who's willing to work.

I would love - and I know there are many other people like myself who would love to have a platform to contribute in whatever way possible. And I have found it problematic because Haiti was a place of, let's say, peculiar institutions, you know, corruption. You know, it was a place where you have extreme, very, very, very rich, very little middle class and extremely large, very poor populations.

You know, and I would like to be able - you know, me, myself - and I know it isn't just, you know, limited to me, but, you know, I'd love to have a platform to go back and contribute in whatever, you know, talents, treasures, time, effort, whatever. Because after all, it's my country, you know? Yeah.

ROBERTS: Reggie, thank you so much for your call. We are talking with Haitians here in United States today. What are you hearing from your friends and family in Haiti? Tell us how you stay connected. The number here is 800-989-8255. You can also reach us by email. The address is talk@npr.org. More of your calls in a moment, and more with Sylvana Joseph, a Haitian-American writer and lawyer based in New Orleans. And we'll also go to Haiti and talk with the publisher of the Haitian Times. Stay with us. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts, in Washington. More U.S. Marines and aid workers arrived in Haiti. Demand for food and water and medical attention goes far beyond what's available. Police in Port-au-Prince have been trying to break up crowds of looters. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wants another 1,500 U.N. police and 2,000 more troops to help secure the country and distribute aid.

Today, we're talking with Haitians in the United States. What are you hearing from friends and family in Haiti? How are you staying connected? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

My guest is Sylvana Joseph. She's a Haitian-American writer and lawyer based in New Orleans. She's just been getting in contact with family in Haiti. And Sylvana, we heard from our caller from Philadelphia that maybe this will actually shine a light on Haiti, and maybe it is a chance for not just expats to get organized to help, but for the country to have a new birth. Is that hope sparking?

Ms. JOSEPH: I think so. I mean, I think that that is the least that we can expect, that it is a spark of hope, because this devastation has to lead to something better. Devastation generally leads to rebirth and rebuilding, and we definitely need that in Haiti.

The people deserve much more than they have. They are an incredible people, extremely hardworking and wanting to work, but there have not been opportunities for them to exercise that. So let's hope that out of this kind of rubble and earthquake we can rebuild a stronger, more-unified country.

ROBERTS: And when you talk about the Haitian Diaspora community as family and always being in touch with each other and never being strangers, what do you think it is that ties you together - I mean, more so than any other immigrant community?

Ms. JOSEPH: Well, Haiti was the only successful national slave revolt. That kind of history, that kind of fight ties a nation together, and it is hard for people to understand. The media leads all the time with all the stories for Haiti in the last 30 years with the fact that it's the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, which it is, economically.

But in terms of spirit, in terms of fight, in terms of organizing, it is the richest country. It is a country filled with music and art and good feeling and laughter, and you will not meet a Haitian that cannot tell you a story. And you will not meet a Haitian that will not look at another Haitian and, you know, want to talk to them, even if they are the only two in some kind of strange land.

So when you look at that sense of community, it is the immigrant spirit. What happens in Haiti is not much different than what happens in other countries when people flee those countries. But I feel, because I am Haitian, this is the experience that I know and these people are wonderful people.

These are the people that I know and love, and these are the people that have known and loved me and made me who I am. And we have - the Diaspora has great love for Haiti, and I agree with the caller from Philadelphia. There are thousands, if not millions, of Haitian expats that are going to do whatever it takes to get that country going, because where there is a Haitian, there is Haiti.

ROBERTS: Sylvana Joseph, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. JOSEPH: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Sylvana Joseph is a Haitian-American writer and lawyer based in New Orleans. She joined us from Audio Post Philadelphia. And joining us now from our bureau in New York is Georges Fouron. He's a professor of Africana studies at the State University of New York Stony Brook. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Professor GEORGES FOURON (Africana Studies, State University of New York Stony Brook): Thank you for having me.

ROBERTS: First, give me a sense, when we talk about these 800,000 Haitians living in the U.S., who are they?

Prof. FOURON: Well, we can say that you have the whole spectrum of the social realities of Haiti are represented in the Diaspora. And we mean by that, we have people from the countryside, people from the cities, people from Port-au-Prince, people who are very wealthy, people who are very poor. So the Diaspora is a reflection, is an image of what Haiti is.

ROBERTS: And give us a sense of why most people left Haiti. What were they looking for, specifically, coming to the U.S.?

Prof. FOURON: Well, it's a very complex situation. I mean, most people say, well, Haitians come - left Haiti because Haiti is poor and they don't have opportunities in Haiti, which is, to a certain extent, true. But this situation in Haiti is a reflection of a long story of oppression, exclusion, international exclusion, cooperation between international and national forces to keep the situation the way it is in Haiti.

It's not enough to say Haiti's a poor country. It is also important to delve into the reality of Haiti and find out why Haiti's in the situation that it is in today.

ROBERTS: And is it generally people from that large, poorer class that don't have as many opportunities who leave, or is it the elite who tend to leave?

Prof. FOURON: No, everybody. All the classes in Haiti are reflected in the Diaspora. They started coming here in the 1960s, hoping that they would get rid of Duvalier. But you had a situation in Haiti at that time, the Cold War was at its peak, and the United States was afraid that after the experience in Cuba, that there would be a domino effect in the Caribbean where the countries in the Caribbean would follow in the footsteps of Fidel Castro.

So there was that fear of supporting progressive governments in the Caribbean, but most especially in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, also in Central America. So what the United States and the Western powers did was to support to Duvalier, not to question what Duvalier was doing in Haiti.

So at the same time, yes, Haiti is a poor country economically, but at the same time, we have to understand the forces that kept the situation going for so many years.

There was no effort, no significant, real effort to really get rid of the dictatorship in Haiti. And, of course, when people found themselves in that situation, there was no human rights. There was no civil rights. The government was oppressing them, so they left. And you have people with skills, people who are very well-educated who left Haiti either to go to Africa or to come to the United States, to go to Canada or to France to find - most especially to escape the oppressive situation in Haiti.

And, of course, in their footsteps, (unintelligible), you have the other classes who began leaving Haiti at the same time because the first people to leave Haiti were not the lower classes. They were the very - people with money, people with education, people doing skills who could not survive the situation. It's later on that you had the lower classes following in their footsteps.

ROBERTS: So what do you think that means in terms of rebuilding? Are there enough doctors and structural engineers and people who can rise out of the ashes of this earthquake in terms of resources in Haiti?

Prof. FOURON: Well, we have enough well-educated, well-trained people to do the work, but it is not only that. We have a structural problem, a systemic problem in Haiti. And this is a situation, first of all, you have a weak private side of the economy.

Everybody depends on the state, on the government, for jobs and opportunity. As long as you have a situation like that in Haiti, I don't care how many well-qualified people that you have, you will see the same problems of oppression, exclusion in Haiti.

What we need in Haiti right now, we need a very strong private sector to compete with the public sector. You work for the government for a year, for two, for 20 years to get even your pension. You have to lobby the government to get your pension.

I am in the situation right now where my sister, who worked as a teacher in Haiti for over 30 years, she was in the process of getting her pension. It is not like you go to the government, you say these are my papers. I'll work for 30 years, now I'm applying for my pension, give me my pension. It doesn't work like that.

You have to have someone inside the government to lobby for you for something you worked for, you deserve, to come your way. Now, after this earthquake, she doubts she'll ever cash on her retirement money.

This is the problem that you have in Haiti. It's a structural problem. It's a systemic problem. As long as you don't have a public sector - a private sector to compete with the public sector, you will have recurrent problems of exclusion, of oppression and, of course, poverty in the country.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call. This is Johnny in Fresno, California. Johnny, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JOHNNY (Caller): Hello.

ROBERTS: Hello.

JOHNNY: Thank you for having me.

ROBERTS: Sure.

JOHNNY: Yes, basically, I live in California. And just like all other Haitians, you know, leaving (unintelligible) Haiti, I am very concerned about my parents and - who are stuck back there. And basically, for the past three days, I've asking myself how I can help. And as I watched the different media, the different network, I realized that there is a great need for communication. Many people from all over the world, from this country and anywhere else, you know, have rushed in to help Haitian. But they are unable to connect, to talk to the Haitians, even to say hello or to say hi.

Haitians enjoy or appreciate people when they say hi to them, bon jour. So that's why I have created Haitian Creole MP3 file. And I post them on haitiancreolemp3.libsyn.com...

ROBERTS: So Johnny, why don't you give us a quick lesson. How do you say, we wish you the best in Creole?

JOHNNY: (Creole spoken). It is just easy stuff. (Creole spoken). How are you? What's hurting you? (Creole spoken).

And a lot of the people who want the aid workers, they don't know how to ask the basic questions. So I was compiling a list of basic Haitian phrases that they can use - they can download to their iPods or MP3 players. And basically, they can use it as they go. They can use it on the (unintelligible) wherever, you know, they're going.

ROBERTS: Johnny, thank you so much for your call. We are talking about the Haitian diaspora this hour on TALK OF THE NATION, the 800,000 Haitians here in the U.S. and many, many more around the world, their response to the earthquake last week and how they are keeping in touch with Haiti and trying to help the situation there.

We want to hear from you: 800-989-8255 is our email address - our email - I mean our phone number. Our email address is talk@npr.org.

We are also joined now on the line by Georges Fouron. He's a professor of Africana studies at the Department of Professional Education at SUNY Stony Brook.

And we also have Jean-Robert Lafortune. He's the president of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition. That's an umbrella organization of 15 different community-based and advocacy groups in Miami. He's joining us from the studios of member station WLRN. Welcome to the program, Jean-Robert Lafortune.

Mr. JEAN-ROBERT LAFORTUNE (President, Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition): Hello. Thanks a lot for the invite. And this situation is very, very painful and we'll give more update to the audience later on.

ROBERTS: I imagine that your phone has been ringing off the hook in the last week, certainly a lot of Haitian-Americans in the Little Haiti district in Miami. Now, that a week has passed, what are you seeing? Are people starting to organize?

Mr. LAFORTUNE: Oh, yes. Definitely. The community start to organize(unintelligible) the nursing organizations, the medical doctors, the engineers, the lawyers and the other Haitian advocates from Miami all the way to West Palm Beach.

And also, what I would like to share with you is an email that I received at 5:36 this morning. This email states - it is from Colorado. It said that he - I am writing you because I don't know who else to contact. I finally talked to my husband on Sunday who lives in (unintelligible). He told me his house fell down. And he and his elderly aunt sustained injuries and just have the clothes on their back. The rest of the city is also in trouble. But since he has no way to get around, he doesn't know the extent of the damages.

No rescue or relief has been sighted in his area since they are cut off from Port-au-Prince. I'm wondering if anyone knows what this city and surrounding areas are also in trouble. Rescue and relief would have to be come from the Dah Habon, Dominican Republic. The bridge across the river is still intact so, at least, that is positive to get help for these people.

I am sure you know people to notify. I live in Colorado. I don't have the slightest idea of who is to contact.

ROBERTS: Well, thank you so much...

Mr. LAFORTUNE: End of citation.

ROBERTS: ...for sharing that email. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

ROBERTS: I want to get another caller in here. This is Jacque(ph) from Boston. Jacque, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JACQUE (Caller): Hi. How are you?

ROBERTS: I am good. How are you?

JACQUE: Good. I'm a Haitian-American. My mother was - has been here since 1959. First of all, I have a couple two or three things I want to say. Thank you so much to all the communities that have poured out their help to us.

I'm sitting here with my aunt right now. We just found out her son has been -died. And they put - you know, they - he got buried in a mass grave. He - she wasn't even able to claim the body from here. That's how frustrating it is, not to even be able to claim the body. By the time she - we found out my cousin was dead, they already buried him in a mass grave. We can't even do anything about it.

ROBERTS: Oh, Jacque, I am so sorry. Thank you so much for calling in to share that story. You know, when we hear stories like that, everybody wants to find some way to help.

Jean-Robert Lafortune, I understand that you are trying to get some supplies to Haiti. How are you doing that?

Mr. LAFORTUNE: You know, we are doing that with the help of the community and also the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy.

In fact, in 2008, on the aftermath of the fall hurricane that hit Haiti in '08, the community along with the local government here in my immediate country -there is a group that is called Haitian-American Relief Committee. They organized themselves into a very coordinated - well-coordinated group whereby they are able to establish contact with Port-au-Prince. And today they are using those contacts in order to facilitate the transportation of commodities, medical supplies, water, food to Haiti.

And also, what you have to understand, it's not only Port-au-Prince that has been destroyed. As news get along to the outside world, there are many other small towns (unintelligible) Leogane, Petit Goave (unintelligible) and others that we don't even know. They have been also destroyed, and what we see is the whole (unintelligible). The need is to (unintelligible) of the country and it's going to take a lot of determination and courage to rebuild that country, not only the physical country as we know it, but also we need to set a mindset of a different - of a new Haitian men where we, brothers and sisters, can work side by side.

ROBERTS: Jean-Robert Lafortune, president of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition, and George Fouron, professor from SUNY Stony Brook, thank you both so much. And thank you so much to all of our callers. We wish you well.

I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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