At the corner of 47th and Woodlane in West Philadelphia is a mural, “Boat People,” painted by Haitian artist Claes Gabriel.
Part of Mural Arts Philadelphia, the colorful, 28-foot-wide work features a boat crowded with people. A figure in the center wears a ceremonial white mask, his lower body also containing a boat. It sits on a sea of red, symbolizing blood shed on the journey to the adopted home.
“This country is built on immigrants,” Gabriel observed. “Everyone is an immigrant.” “Boat People” illustrates “just sort of how hypocritical we are with that treatment,” he explained.
Recently, nearly 15,000 Haitian migrants showed up at the Mexico-Texas border, seeking refuge in the United States. Images showed some border patrol officers seemingly using their horses as weapons, some officers accused of using the reins in a whipping motion.
Critics have pointed out that the treatment the Haitians received was very different from the welcome by Americans of the thousands of Afghan refugees flown to the United States since the end of the Afghanistan War in August.
“Black migrants are disproportionately being criminalized just as African Americans are because of their Blackness,” said Nana Gyamfi, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants and the executive director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration, in a Washington Post article. “Our Blackness leads us to be racially profiled and puts us in the police-to-deportation pipeline.
“One group (Afghan refugees) is being met with food, cheers, places to live, etc. — which is what welcoming looks like. And the other group is being met with cowboys with leather straps or ropes and detention by force.”
About 4,000 Haitians were put on planes and sent back to Haiti, while others were sent back to Mexico and thousands more were bussed to processing centers where their fate would be decided.
For Haitians living in the United States, it was particularly difficult to watch.
Their homeland is going through particularly tumultuous times after another major earthquake in August and the July assassination of Haiti president Jovenel Moïse, as well as the ongoing pandemic. The 7.2 magnitude earthquake left at least 2,000 dead and many homeless, and came 11 years after the disastrous 2010 earthquake. That 7.0 magnitude earthquake took over 250,000 lives and left many homeless.
These events have contributed to a rise in gang violence and dire conditions in large parts of the Caribbean island nation.
New Jersey has the fourth-largest Haitian immigrant population in the United States, behind Florida, New York and the Boston, Massachusetts area, according to multiple websites.
That has resulted in an outpouring of support for Haitians sent back to the struggling country, and a consolidated effort across the state to relieve their suffering.
Frantz Lozier and Eliezer Marcellus came to Camden from Haiti with their families a year apart in the 1990s. They have made the most of the opportunities they’ve gotten since arriving here.
Lozier, who graduated from Brimm Medical Arts High School in Camden, is a registered nurse at Jefferson Hospital in Washington Township in Gloucester County, while Marcellus, PhD., a Woodrow Wilson High School graduate, is an assistant dean in the College of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University-Camden.
They are heavily involved with relief efforts for Haiti.
Lozier is president of the Haitian Community Development Organization of Camden, and Marcellus co-executive director of New Jersey for Haiti, a nonprofit dedicated to providing relief and assistance in helping Haiti recover and rebuild for the future. (Marcellus is also a past president of HCDOC, which was founded in 1999.)
“We were fortunate enough to be granted an opportunity to come to the U.S.,” Lozier said of his 1994 arrival with his family. “But ever since I came to the U.S., my parents always (instilled) in me to never forget where you came from. That was very important to me.”
“Haiti’s just been going through it,” reflected Marcellus, who came to the U.S. in 1993 . “A lot of the instability with our government. A lot of instability with natural disaster.”
Haitians need medical supplies, hygiene products, bottled water, tents, non-perishable food items, toiletries, clothing and more. Money is also needed to support the relief efforts.
Camden officials and the HCDOC kicked off a “Camden for Haiti” relief campaign on Sept. 25 at the Whitman Square Park Water Tower Community Center.
Camden City Councilman Chris Collins met with Lozier when a local community activist sent Lozier to him for support. Wheels were quickly put in motion.
Collins and Lozier teamed up with Mayor Vic Carstarphen, the Haitian Community Development Organization of Camden and the Camden for Haiti Relief Campaign.
“It’s a strong 35-day campaign to generate as much resources as we can to send over to Haiti,” Collins said. “I had no clue that we had a Haitian community in Camden. They came in my office and asked if I would help them. I told them ‘absolutely.’
“Camden, we like to lead by example,” he continued. “Just like with the George Floyd protests. When other cities and Philadelphia were under fire, Camden was leading a peaceful protest and in the same way, we know what was going on down in Del Rio, Texas.
“Our goal was not to focus on what was going on in Texas, but to focus on a relief effort and bring in the Haitian community, our city government and our local community organizations together to support our relief efforts.”
The city is considering a second event as a grand finale before they ship things out at the end of the month, he said.
“So far it’s been going great,” Lozier said of the Camden-based efforts. “The opening event, we had a lot of people that came out and gave us a lot of donations, so that was really good … Work continues.”
All donations will go directly to those in need, organizers said.
New Jersey for Haiti was founded in 2010 after that earthquake.
At that time, major nonprofit organizations such as the American Red Cross were accused by multiple sources, including Red Cross Haiti Program Director Judith St. Fort, of not effectively distributing aid that was collected for Haiti, prompting an investigation from ProPublica and NPR in 2015 which questioned where the $500 million raised by the American Red Cross was spent.
Their researchfound the Red Cross had used portions of the money to cover overhead and management and had grossly overstated how many houses the organization built in the years after the 2010 earthquake, according to a USA Today article. The American Red Cross has disputed the ProPublica-NPR findings.
“We did not want the same thing that happened in 2010 to happen again,” said Marcellus, who lost at least 10 cousins in the 2010 earthquake. “That’s not just my organization, it’s the whole Haitian diaspora.”
That meant getting much more involved on the ground and teaming up to ensure relief efforts were coordinated.
“How do we walk together, not duplicating efforts, to make sure we help the country?” Marcellus asked. “To make sure all the help we receive, make sure we get it to the people that needed it? One of the things we did was create a coalition so that organizations in the state of New Jersey, we all try to be under the same umbrella.”
That coalition holds weekly conference calls to share what each organization is doing and make sure they’re combining resources. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s office identified Marcellus’ organization as the one to lead all Haitian relief efforts throughout the state.
Haiti native Emmanuel Paul, an associate minister at Christ Baptist Church in Burlington City, came to the United States in 1989 and has lived in Willingboro for the last 27 years.
Christ Baptist Church is hosting a donation drive in conjunction with New Jersey for Haiti, working with Marcellus. The church has been part of a series of mission trips to Haiti through its Strings of Love-Haiti missionary outreach.
Paul went to Haiti about three months after the 2010 earthquake. “I shipped medical equipment, medicines and some first aid items” donated to hospitals, he said.
“Haiti is always in my heart,” Paul said. “No matter where I am, my status in life, I will always remember my homeland. This time when this earthquake happened, I was thinking about ways that I can help.”
“One of my church members (Suzanne Woodard) was talking to Dr. Elie (Marcellus) about how can we help, they had a Zoom meeting and I was invited to it.”
After that meeting, he gathered fellow church members Wil Joseph, Woodard (a Burlington City council member), Joyce Howell (Burlington Township council member) and minister Marossa Davis. All have been on mission trips with Paul to the Southern part of Haiti, he said. They partnered with Marcellus and New Jersey for Haiti.
“I am a missionary that has gone to Haiti for about three or four trips,” Howell said. “The infrastructure, it’s very hard to get around the country. The residents are in dire need of everything, medicine, clothing, just support … We’ve had to hire security because it is so terrible with the gangs and everything that’s there.”
Recently, 17 missionaries (16 from the U.S. and one from Canada) were kidnapped by gangs in Haiti. They were leaving an orphanage on a bus heading for the airport. The gang is demanding a $17 million ransom, $1 million per person, according to multiple reports.
On Oct. 10, Marcellus and Thomas Petit of New Jersey for Haiti drove a U-Haul truck from North Jersey to pick up a truckload of donated items from Christ Baptist. The items were housed in a small house next to the church, and the church members helped them load the truck with medical supplies, tents, blankets, gloves, masks, hand sanitizer and more.
Amy Wilentz lived in Haiti for two years and has made more than 20 trips to the country. The journalist and author, a Perth Amboy, Middlesex County, native is a professor of English at the University of California Irvine, and has written several books on Haiti. Wilentz also contributes articles about Haiti to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and Politico.
In a July article in “The Spectator,” she penned:
“There was a time when Haiti was at the center of the New World. It was one of the richest islands on the globe, producing cane sugar for the sweet tooth of Europe. It cultivated coffee, cotton and rice, and it produced rum. The Pearl of the Antilles, the island stood at the gateway to all the resources of South and Central America. Mexico, with all its gold, lay just beyond Haiti’s northernmost cape. Great powers of the era — France, Britain, Germany, and the United States — vied for political and military control.
“Now Haiti is failed state,” Wilentz wrote. “Failed by the West after centuries of violence and resource extraction and failed by its own leaders who have also enriched themselves off the backs of their compatriots.”
The U.S. intervened in Haiti in 1915 to prevent Germany from establishing a foothold and to stop civil strife. The U.S. Marines occupied Haiti until 1934, overseeing public works, tax collection, treasury management, and the development of a native Haitian Constabulary, Haiti’s first professional military force.
In 1991, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown by the military, then became president again from 1994 to 1996 after the coup regime collapsed. Aristide served as president from 2001 to 2004, before another coup ousted him.
Marcellus, who has taught classes on Haitian history at Rutgers-Camden, says Haiti is still resented “because of the way we won our independence.”
Haiti offered the rest of the world a blueprint for how to end slavery, he said.
Racism, he says, is another factor.
“We’re Black Africans,” he explained. “A lot of Dominicans (Dominican Republic is right next to Haiti), the situation is different. Yes, they’re Black, but they’re not viewed as Black Africans the way they view us. Our history, how we impacted the world. At the time of our independence, Haiti impacted the world economy. Slavery was the world economy. Slavery was a trillion-dollar industry.
“A small island, a group of slaves goes up against these world powers and they defeated them,” he explained. “Major countries that had slaves, the U.S., France, Great Britain, Portugal and all these different countries, they did not do any business with Haiti. They crippled Haiti ever since then.”
And if it isn’t world powers making things harder for the small nation, he said, it is the very earth itself.
“We have continued to suffer from those things,” Marcellus reflected. “Then the fact that where Haiti currently sits, the plate that Haiti sits in is not stable, which allows a lot of earthquakes to happen.”
Longtime Collingswood resident Kristin Schell and her husband Matthew, who are white, met working in Russian orphanages while in college. They always wanted to adopt, then kind of put that dream on hold. They married and the couple had five children of their own.
“When the earthquake happened in 2010, we got involved directly with some of the orphanages on the ground in Haiti,” Schell explained. “From there, we decided we were going to adopt. At the time in 2010, they weren’t allowing families that had more than two biological children to adopt from their country. In 2011, that law changed and you could have up to five biological children, so as soon as the law changed, we applied and began the two or three year process of adopting.”
About a month before they brought their first adopted daughter home in November, 2013, they applied to begin a second adoption. Their next daughter came home in 2019. Both girls are now 11.
The Schells always intended to adopt two Haitian children at the same time so they would be more comfortable joining their large family.
They’ve made seven trips to Haiti in the last nine years and have developed relationships with people there, Kristen Schell said.
“They are the most amazing, resilient people that have endured so much from the earthquake and hurricanes and poverty,” she added. “But their love of people, their love of hard work, their love of family is so transparent. We absolutely love the country. Unfortunately, they do have struggles. [And] a very corrupt government that unfortunately has made even the best intentions of people difficult.”
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The Schells have witnessed changes in Haiti over the years firsthand. “The gang violence has definitely increased from when we first started making trips. We would definitely have to really think twice about making a trip now. Before, I never did really feel unsafe.”
Jobs are scarce in Haiti, she said, and people are extremely poor, which increases gang violence and other criminal activity. COVID made things even worse.
Seeing the thousands of Haitians at the Mexico-Texas border recently and many turned away was “heartbreaking” for her family, she said.
“I feel like the people are judged from Americans here who don’t understand where they’re coming from,” Schell explained. “These are desperate people that, for the most part, just want to provide for their family and take care of their kids, get them some schooling and just to be safe. Unfortunately, they got to the border and it was a sad situation for sure.”
Schell questions how the migrant caravan was not picked up by U.S. surveillance so there could have been a “better, safer process” in place in Texas, adding that she is in favor of refugees undergoing background checks and COVID testing and that the VISA process for Haitian immigrants is difficult and can take years.
For artist Claes Gabriel, who lives in Philadelphia, painting that West Philly mural was a way to call attention to the needs of a desperate people.
“As an artist, I have a platform and I better use it,” said Gabriel, who is a 2021-22 artist in residence at the Fitler Club in Philadelphia.
“When I made that painting, I wanted to bring attention,” he recalled. “First of all, we all came here by boat. It’s kind of like this weird concept. Now that I’m here, nobody else can be here. I just couldn’t believe it. These people traveled two years to get here, and we just send them back to nothing.
“A lot of my work addresses a lot of those issues, visually, [and] in a way that I try to do it beautifully. It’s kind of like giving it a little honey so people can swallow it. ‘Boat People,’ that painting is completely about that. It’s about the richness that immigrants bring to America.
“I pitched three paintings to Mural Arts and immediately, they said ‘This is the one we want. This is the one that’s going to encourage immigrants. This is the one that’s going to educate people.’”
Gabriel, 44, came to the United States in the late ’80s with his family after his father passed away. His father, Jacques Gabriel, was a famous Haitian artist, who died in 1988.
The mural artist lived in Los Angeles with his siblings after his father died, eventually attending Maryland Institute College of Art where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in painting and sculpture.
“I was trying to make my way to New York like every artist does but Philly has such a rich history of Haitian immigrants,” said Gabriel, whose work is included in the permanent collection of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.
“I felt at home here and I just stayed here.”
Marcellus left Haiti when he was 11. He and his family live in Rahway.
“My parents and my siblings, we left Haiti, that’s when chaos was going on,” said Marcellus, who graduated from Rowan University and received his doctorate from Rutgers University.
Asked why New Jersey has such a high concentration of Haitian immigrants, he said one factor is a lower cost of living than cities such as New York or Boston. While there are Haitians living in Camden and other parts of South Jersey, the highest concentration is further north in cities including Irvington, Union and Elizabeth.
Lozier estimates that Camden has about 300 to 400 Haitians, although that number could be higher.
The Camden native went to Camden County College, and later Rutgers-Camden, where he graduated with a bachelor of science degree in nursing in 2015. He began working as a registered nurse in 2016.
His parents, farmers in Haiti, sold a lot of what they owned “to sacrifice just for us to have the opportunity for us to come to the U.S.”
“To be quite honest, as refugees, we don’t get to decide where they place us,” Lozier reflected. “At that time, the crime rate in Camden was at an all-time high. But that’s where we were homed. We made the best out of it.
“A lot of us didn’t fall into the statistics. We just kept in mind what we came here to do.”
New Jersey for Haiti: You can go to the website at nj4haiti.org and make a monetary donation or contact them at email@example.com or by phone at 908-353-7171 for more information about donations or drives.
Haitian Community Development Organization of Camden: Donations are being collected in Camden at the Water Tower Community Center near the corner of Rose and Everett streets, Tuesday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon until Oct. 29. You can also contact the organization at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or to set up a monetary donation. Website: hc-doc.org.
Celeste E. Whittaker is a features reporter for the Courier Post, Daily Journal and Burlington County Times. The South Jersey native started at the CP in 1998 and has covered the Philadelphia 76ers, college and high school sports and has won numerous awards for her work. Reach her at 856-486-2437 or email@example.com.
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At the corner of 47th and Woodlane in West Philadelphia is a mural, “Boat People,” painted by Haitian artist Claes Gabriel.