Diaspora

I moved to Haiti to help it recover from the 2010 earthquake. Violence forced my family to flee. – The Boston Globe

I had just finished a work call in 2021 and was thinking about squeezing in a Peloton workout when my phone rang. It was a typically bright, beautiful September afternoon just outside of Port-au-Prince, but I felt a sense of dread. It was my husband, Junior, calling.
“These two guys came out,” he began, his voice sounding small and far away. It took a minute — and lots of questions — for me to realize what he was telling me.
I flew down the stairs, yelling. In my frenzy, I remembered to grab my “go bag” with my passport and cash. These bags — always packed and waiting — had become essential for anyone living around the capital, which in recent months had been overrun with gang violence. I jumped into our mud-covered farm truck and told the driver where to go.
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“Junior’s been shot,” I told him.
Having watched violent gangs swiftly take over the capital — especially since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse last July — I had come to expect something like this would one day happen. With Junior now bleeding by the roadside, I saw our dreams swiftly unraveling; later I would understand this personal misfortune as part of the unraveling of Haiti.
My parents fled Haiti in the mid-1980s to escape violence under the dynastic Duvalier dictatorship, which for almost three decades had robbed and abused the Haitian people. A popular uprising had broken out and would eventually lead to the end of the regime. My mother recalls being at work while pregnant with me, and dropping to the ground at the sound of gunfire.
Our family eventually settled in Cambridge. My parents seldom talked about the beauty and anguish of their experiences in Haiti, but I sensed their loss and felt a deep connection to the country. I didn’t interact much with the Haitian community in the Boston area outside of my extended family; I rarely heard news from Haiti.
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That all changed in 2010, when a magnitude-7.0 earthquake killed hundreds of thousands of people and triggered a humanitarian crisis. I was a corporate lawyer at the time, and distraught to see my country become the focus of international attention for its devastation rather than its extraordinary culture. Resolved to help change that, I began doing pro bono work for Haitian clients. That summer, I left my career in Boston and moved to Croix-des-Bouquets, my parents’ hometown, just east of Port-au-Prince.
My family thought I’d lost my mind. Relatives thought someone must have put a hex on me.
But I wanted, in my small way, to contribute to Haiti. I used my legal training to open a human rights clinic, where I conducted research and led trainings on the right to water, housing, education, and voting.
I quickly found that people didn’t want to talk about rights; they wanted jobs. I decided with a colleague to open a restaurant to drive investment and create jobs in our community. I would eventually fall in love with that colleague, a Haitian man named Junior Abellard with a perpetually boyish grin.
As I fell in love with Junior, my love for Haiti deepened. The calls of the street vendors selling scrap metal, boiled eggs, or sweet cream corn ice pops felt familiar from my childhood. I loved Kreyòl — Haitian Creole — and its proverbs, which made people talk in metaphors and riddles that I was learning to crack. I felt I belonged everywhere I ventured, embraced by people I met.
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Over time, I found dozens of young Haitian-Americans who, like me, had come to Haiti after the earthquake. We formed an informal professional network, meeting for drinks and chatting on WhatsApp. These friends supported me as my restaurant evolved into a multifaceted business exporting traditional Haitian hot sauces, cooking sauces, iced teas, and cocktails.
Our businesses were thriving. One friend manufactured castor oil; another, cereal. One was an architect; another operated a recycling plant. One ran a call center; one managed a consortium of artisans; another, a leadership foundation. Together, we employed hundreds of people.
For the moment, hope was in the air.
Still, nothing in Haiti came easy.
The first time I went to pay taxes, the official told me I had to bribe someone for my forms to be processed. I had heard of colleagues who paid to facilitate such transactions, but I refused. I didn’t want to succumb to easy “business-as-usual” practices that would make me part of the problem I had moved to Haiti to help solve.
When I tried to import bottles without paying off customs officials, they put on a show of making me wait, until I hired a brokerage firm to import my goods, and presumably offer my bribes. I felt awful, complicit, and ashamed — but tried not to think about it.
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Despite the challenges, I felt happy on our farm on the outskirts of the city, tending the lime and mango trees, and organizing our farmers network to supply us with coconuts, mangos, peppers, and ginger. I was witnessing growth in real time, creating jobs, and sharing our rich Haitian culture. I felt I was exactly where I should be.
In 2015, Junior and I got married in a tiny ceremony in the countryside, at a waterfall in the village of Papay. Not only was I building a business in Haiti, I was deepening my roots.
At our peak in 2017 and 2018, our company, MyaBèl, had 18 full-time employees and 65 farmers in our network. But while we were thriving — and the earthquake relief money was flowing across Haiti — my friends and I didn’t fully understand the depth of the government’s corruption and dysfunction. And we did not know that everything was about to turn on its head.
In July 2018, President Moïse announced a nearly 50 percent hike in fuel prices. People took to the streets, looting and blocking roads. Then, reports circulated implicating Moïse and other officials in embezzling and wasting a staggering $2 billion in public funds. This was far beyond the scale of the corruption that had long defined life in Haiti. I began to grasp the magnitude of what had been stolen from Haitians.
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As public rage grew, so did political turmoil. Elections were repeatedly delayed, the terms of all members of Parliament and 20 of 30 senators eventually expired, and Moïse began ruling by decree. As mass protests gained momentum, gangs with close ties to political leaders waged a series of massacres in neighborhoods known as bedrocks of opposition to the government. Moïse sabotaged democratic institutions such as the courts and the electoral commission, which could have checked his power and dimmed his party’s reelection prospects.
To my dismay, US officials continued to support him.
Things stopped working. In Croix-des-Bouquets, a local gang called 400 Mawozo (loosely translated, “mawozo” means “hicks” in Haitian Creole) began announcing lockdowns to flex its muscle, causing schools, banks, and hospitals to close. With each new obstacle, we tried to devise workarounds.
Amid a public dispute between Moïse and the head of a private electricity company, extended multiday blackouts became the norm. So we got solar panels.
When lockdowns prevented employees from coming to work, we built housing for our employees to stay onsite. We even erected temporary housing for the construction workers building the apartments.
When a total lockdown prevented us from traveling with our goods to a trade show in the United States, we paid someone to liaise with the gangs and take us to the airport. Junior and I, along with our 7-month-old baby, traveled by motorcycle through barricades of burning tires, carrying suitcases full of hot sauce.
At the time, I thought I was being savvy. In retrospect, it seems delusional. I had vowed not to participate in the system gangs created, but — almost a decade after arriving in Haiti — I had become complicit in its system of corruption.
Then, on July 7, 2021, the president was shot to death at his home.
Around that time, 400 Mawozo took over our quiet residential neighborhood of mango trees, and police began fighting them with armored personnel carriers. My 2-year-old daughter would innocently dance to the rhythm of gunshots outside.
I blamed the government for the collapse of social order. Over the course of his presidency, Moïse had fostered gang leaders to enforce his own power and hobbled institutions, including the police, to bend state agencies to serve his own interests.
His killing made things worse. Moïse’s pick for prime minister, Ariel Henry, was weak, with little popular support. After the assassination, amid a leadership dispute, foreign ambassadors — including those from the United States — helped elevate him to head of state by tweeting a statement of support. And though a new movement of civil society leaders had developed a plan for an interim government to reestablish democracy, international leaders paid little attention.
My husband wanted us to leave. “It’s one thing if you’re kidnapped, but another if you’re gang-raped,” he said. I didn’t want to think about rape. I couldn’t while continuing to live my life.
Almost all of my Haitian-American friends who had invested their money and efforts in the country left. Almost anyone else who could get out, did — and many Haitian businesses collapsed.
At MyaBèl, after our three middle managers all left Haiti, I was doing the jobs of four people. A nonprofit I worked for, which supports economic development, primary schools, and farmers, was forced into hiatus after gangs blocked the road we used to transport fish to farmers markets. Gangs also took over the town of Pernier, where the organization’s project manager lived. She, too, was forced to leave Haiti.
As Croix-des-Bouquets became a locus of violence, people fled and sought refuge in the United States — by land through South America and, later, also by boat.
Many of my friends had become active in a movement aimed at proposing common-sense solutions to better represent Haitians. They worked with civil society groups to create a plan for a two-year transitional government that could reconstruct democratic institutions. But Haitians with power had no intention of giving it up — and US officials’ support for Henry seemed to block any compromise.
On September 23, my husband noticed a vehicle following him — and had no idea why. When he turned onto a side street, two men got out of their car, and aimed their 9mm pistols at him.
For months, Junior had been telling me exactly what he would do in such a scenario. Gangs kidnapped many Haitians by pulling them out of their cars at gunpoint — after which they sometimes tortured, raped, or even killed them, while they extorted their families for ransom. My husband said he would never surrender to be taken; I worried he’d be killed.
When he saw the guns, he slammed his foot on the gas pedal.
As he accelerated, both assailants shot at him. One bullet crashed through the windshield and entered my husband’s right forearm, shattering his ulna, then landing just below his ribcage without piercing his body. Miraculously, the other bullet similarly landed on his chest and exploded before penetrating his skin, as if he were wearing a bulletproof vest.
He kept driving. He managed to continue for several minutes and stopped at a police checkpoint. “I’ve been shot!” he yelled. Gazing at him, the officers did not help.
When I arrived, I found two police officers sitting in their vehicle, ignoring the human being parked beside them with a gunshot wound.
Everything that happened next showed the dysfunction of the state.
The police, afraid to intervene to help my husband, tried to drive away when I appeared, until I ran after them, banging on the window, to get them to stop. I was able to call an ambulance only because I had paid for a private service — the public ambulance service rarely answers the phone or dispatches vehicles.
At Hôpital Bernard Mevs — one of the only trauma centers still open in Haiti at the time after gangs blocked doctors and nurses from reaching other hospitals — my husband’s surgery was repeatedly postponed over five days to prioritize incoming patients with more serious gunshot wounds.
At one point, I saw a vehicle pull up to the emergency room with a police officer lying in the back, bleeding from a bullet to his side. He was screaming in pain. I was overcome by shame as I remembered how I had insisted that officers help my husband. They probably hadn’t been paid in months, and if gang members killed them, the government wasn’t going to take care of their children.
I was angry. I was fed up with leaders like Henry, whose base is in political parties with a stranglehold on power, criminal connections, and no interest in a functional democracy.
I tried to think of ways our family could stay in Haiti. Would our children — our toddler and my three stepsons — be safe? I wanted to believe the police could secure our neighborhood, that we could elect responsible leaders. But I didn’t see that happening. Until the United States stops propping up Henry’s government, I thought, there is no chance of stability in Haiti.
Ten days after the shooting, we got on a plane.
When my parents left Haiti during the brutal Duvalier regime, which maintained power with US support, it was because they worried they could not safely raise a child there. A generation later, I was leaving Haiti with my own daughter, for similar reasons. In between, my friends and I had come to Haiti full of hope, only to watch corrupt and violent leaders — with help from their international enablers — squander so much optimism, investment, and progress.
Today, we live in the Dominican Republic. MyaBèl is on hiatus, but we plan to resume operations soon in northern Haiti, which has been safer. I feel glad for this opportunity to continue our mission. Mostly, however, I feel robbed — as does my family. I want the United States and the international community to stop supporting the current government and sabotaging Haiti’s chances of developing a working democracy.
I have real hope that the entire country can become livable again. There is so much Haiti could provide to its people.
Despite our enormous love for Haiti, despite all we struggled to build, despite the ways we were willing and able to work around the country’s dysfunction, I don’t know if our family can ever live there again.
Régine Théodat is a Haitian-American attorney and strategist and the co-owner of MyaBél, a Haitian food and beverage company. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.


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