To help Haiti, you must do it from the outside at first. Now that Haiti finds itself on the precipice of total chaos, strengthening our communities should be the way forward.
By Garry Pierre-Pierre
When the earthquake flattened Haiti in 2010, a troop of young Haitian Americans descended on their homeland with the noble mission of sharing their expertise. There were lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs and others filled with altruism willing to lend a hand in the rebuilding process.
In the few years that followed, almost all of them had left Haiti. They left deeply disappointed that their knowledge was unappreciated or met with hostility from their sisters and brothers, who viewed them suspiciously.
I had watched this scenario play out in 1986 when my parents’ generation — which had dreamt of a triumphant return to their sun-drenched country while living in forced exile in the United States — saw an opportunity to go home. Some sold their taxi medallions and houses when Jean-Claude Duvalier’s “president-for-life” tenure was cut short when a popular uprising sent him to exile.
But once these émigrés returned though, they realized the country the saw was no longer the place they had oh-so-fondly remembered.
‘A virtuous, but misguided ideal‘
Once again, as Haiti careens toward a dusty hellscape, a new generation of Haitians, most of them born here and who have never been to Haiti, are asking themselves what they can do to help. Recently, I received a message on LinkedIn from a young lady. Here’s an excerpt:
“As a first generation Haitian American, I am always trying to figure out how to help Haiti. Like what more can I do or say. I was thrilled to find you here on LinkedIn, and I love the work you are doing… I am far removed in some ways, but this is the land of my parents and my ancestors, and it’s my heritage. It saddens me all that goes down, and many in our communities feel helpless…but I want to support even in small ways the movement in making lasting healthy change in Haiti.”
I’m keenly aware that this generation would emerge, and Haiti would still be struggling with natural or man-made disasters caused by rapacious politicians, the elites and their international comrades.
My generation lacked a media that spoke to it and explained Haiti, so we could understand the country of our parents. We had our limitations as a newly arrived group in America; and as we pursued our place in this land, our parents wanted us to succeed and unwittingly created a group that ran as far away from the community as we could.
Although we’ve overachieved individually, upward mobility trumped the need for the common good, so we haven’t created the solid institutions necessary to create strong communities.
To be fair, that’s just the way it is for most first-generation immigrants, including the Italians, Irish and Eastern European Jews who came to America more than a century before us. However, while these early immigrants never looked back, Haiti’s magnetic pull with its never-ending challenges steer us away from confronting our shortcomings as a community.
But going back to Haiti is a virtuous, but misguided ideal.
Before you can help Haiti, the people there must ask for your cooperation. Otherwise, they will not appreciate you. Haiti tends to cannibalize its best and brightest. And the sad part about it, the hero in this film is always the white savior. Sean Penn is lionized for his work in Haiti after the earthquake, but few know about the sacrifices and the contributions that those Haitian Americans who flew down there actually made.
Another chance to get it right
But this current generation, I hope, can break this cycle. I hope they see the wisdom that channeling their energy to help compatriots in need here is more important than rushing down to Haiti when the latest crisis rears its ugly head, only to be disappointed.
To help Haiti, you must do it from the outside at first. I made that bet 25 years ago that this awakening would happen. And now that Haiti finds itself on the precipice of total chaos, strengthening our communities should be the way forward.
U.S. State Department officials have bandied about the buzz word “Haitian-led solution” to address the situation where gangs or warlords run rampant and the police watch impotently. Don’t be seduced by that. We don’t want to own this mess the U.S. helps perpetuate. We are in no position to do much in Haiti at this moment.
While there is no shortage of organizations, only a handful of them are effective. Sant La in Miami and Haitian Americans United for Progress in New York are a couple rising to the occasion, and they need a cadre of smart young members to elevate their work beyond where it is now.
But we don’t have one advocacy group capable of lobbying Congress to demand a better, heck, even a coherent, policy vis-à-vis Haiti. We have friends of Haiti when we need fighters of Haiti.
If you’re a doctor, lawyer or a nurse, join the existing organizations. If you’re a taxi driver or a home health aide, create an association. These will form the foundation of a solid community with resources. When you do those things, the people in Haiti will call on you.
I promise this generation their engagement in Haitian communities across the United States will not go unnoticed. It will be chronicled in The Haitian Times — that’s our mission, our raison d’être after all — and beyond.
“That was a lovely note… I founded The Haitian Times with your generation in mind. I realized that at some point, you will need to understand your ancestral land and there will be no news organization to do that. There wasn’t one for mine either, so I took the leap of faith by leaving a cushy job at the NYT to do this. I’m humbled by you and your generation.”
That was my response to the young lady who messaged me on LinkedIn. I also recommended an organization where she could channel her concerns and play a part in the development of the community.
Haiti can wait.