Haitian Association of Indiana works to keep up with Indy's growing immigrant community – IndyStar

The roughly 50 people gathered at the Grace Tabernacle First Haitian Church of Nazarene stood in silence, embracing their red and blue flags as they mourned the death of Haitian President Jovenel Moїse, who was assassinated July 7.
“As long as you have the Haitian bloodline, you are Haitian,” Pastor Ronny Etienne said, breaking the silence. “Let us unite together and build our community.”
The event, held at the east-side church July 23, was organized by the Haitian Association of Indiana (HAI), a nonprofit established in Indianapolis in 2008.
What started as an organization intended as a cultural hub for the city’s Haitian community has expanded as that community has grown — and so, too, have its needs. The economic turmoil incited by the pandemic triggered an influx of Haitians into the city last year, according to members of HAI who were unprepared for the sudden increase. 
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In the wake of the assassination, not only are members of HAI expressing concern about the safety of family back home, they’re concerned about being able to meet the community’s needs. Many are fleeing the country in anticipation of increased violence, fearing for their lives, and further economic deterioration. The association anticipates an increase in asylum-seeking immigrants from Haiti on top of the city’s already steadily growing Haitian community.
Leonce Jean-Baptiste, one of the co-founders of HAI, said the idea to start the organization was inspired by the desire to have an entity to represent the Haitian community. He felt there was a lack of recognition of the Haitians in Indianapolis who were willing and able to control their own narrative.
“Having your own voice is so important,” Jean-Baptiste said.
There were only a few hundred Haitians in Indianapolis when the organization launched in 2008, according to HAI’s website. They now estimate the population to be over 10,000.
At the time of its launch, the association felt a responsibility to foster a sense of belonging within Indianapolis’ Haitian community through food, dance and events, Jean-Baptiste said. Each year, they host Haitian Independence Day and Flag Day celebrations and organize barbecue fundraisers, summer camps for children and Haitian Creole classes.
But they’re doing more than filling a cultural gap.
The demands of the growing Haitian community have evolved, forcing HAI to shift from being a cultural-based organization to a needs-based one. Among other services, they now aid with job placement, legal services and help people find housing.
“As you start getting a greater population,” said Jean-Baptiste, “there are different needs that arise with that.” 
A grant from the Central Indiana Community Foundation was one of two awarded to HAI last year to provide funding for the organization’s pandemic relief efforts, which included rent-assistance checks, weekly food drives, a utility-bill assistance program and the hiring of a job readiness specialist.
Seeking more work opportunities and a lower cost of living, unemployment induced by the pandemic led to an even greater rate of Haitians migrating to Indianapolis, said Jenny Menelas, HAI’s only paid employee, heightening the stress the organization experienced. 
“The level of demand that we received during the pandemic overwhelmed us,” said Moise Dugé, executive director of HAI. “A lot of these people are not U.S. citizens and came to us because they cannot rely on the government for support.”
It’s not just the HAI noticing the uptick in need among the Haitian community.
Exodus Refugee, which provides services to refugees in Indianapolis, said in an email they weren’t serving any Haitians two years ago. Since the start of the pandemic, they’ve began serving dozens.  
Joanna Lopez of the Immigrant Welcome Center, which often works in conjunction with HAI, said before September 2020, there was only one volunteer staffed at the center to assist with the Haitian population. But because of the increased demand, “we now have five and are looking to add more.”
“The Haitian community is growing so rapidly,” Lopez said. “I’m not sure they’re receiving enough funding to be able to support the growing needs on their own.
In the final moments of the vigil held for President Moїse, Pastor Jean Wilbert Luma led the crowd in prayer. He repeated into the microphone three times: Vive Haiti. 
Pride was clearly visible among those in the audience, but for some, it was tinged with fear.
Over 130 human rights groups and other organizations called on President Joe Biden to welcome Haitians into the U.S. following the assassination, citing concerns of violence, according to amnestyusa.org.
“I have uncles and cousins and aunts back in Haiti,” said Vanessa Hilaire, a member of HAI’s board. “If the sitting president was not safe in his own bed, who is?”
Hilaire said she and her husband had plans of retiring in Haiti and starting their own business. But with the assassination, she said she now feels all her dreams have been taken away.
As Indianapolis’ Haitian community seeks to move forward, they are unified and strengthened by their grief, Jean-Baptiste said.
“There is still unity in our community,” said Jean-Baptiste.
If you are a member of the Haitian community in need of assistance, call the Haitian Association of Indiana at 317-207-6110 or visit haindy.org.
Contact IndyStar reporter Brandon Drenon at 317-517-3340 or BDrenon@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BrandonDrenon.
Brandon is also a Report for America corps member with the GroundTruth Project, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to supporting the next generation of journalists in the U.S. and around the world.
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