Diaspora

Language barriers, trust: Greeneville and Norwich's Haitian community – Norwich Bulletin

NORWICH — Leaders of Norwich’s growing Haitian population say city government can – and should – do more to help the community flourish.
As someone translated her Haitian Creole for the benefit of the English speakers listening, Gladisse Celestin told her story in a blue-walled room of Greeneville’s El Shaddai Worship Center earlier this month. She’d been out of work for three months and was struggling to pay her bills. Her husband left her, she said, but she couldn’t get a formal letter from her husband saying so, which was holding up government assistance. She also ended up in a new mortgage plan that would take her until 2053 to pay off, despite previously being near the end of her payments.
A city caseworker, Heydi Mercedes-Zayas, spoke up to offer alternatives.
The interaction, part of a family hall town meeting held by the Greeneville Neighborhood Committee, reflects a need for case workers and others who can speak languages other than just English and Spanish, including those who can speak Haitian, Greeneville Neighborhood Committee Vice President Cynthia Jean-Mary said.
“Human Services is a great wraparound service, but it doesn’t hit the barriers,” she said.
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Norwich’s Haitian population has been growing. About 1,413 city residents reported Haitian ancestry to the American Community Survey in 2020, which is the latest tally available. The Survey is part of the United States Census. In 2019, the figure was 801, then 1,390 in 2018, 1,210 in 2017, 949 in 2016 and 1,052 in 2015.
Community organizers, including Jean-Mary, estimate the city’s actual Haitian population to be in the multiple thousands of people, many of whom live in the Greeneville neighborhood.
The Greeneville Neighborhood Committee meeting at the worship center, which included representatives from the city, local politicians, nonprofits and many members of the local Haitian community, was intended to raise Greeneville’s awareness of available city services, as well as the city’s awareness of Greeneville’s needs.
Watch the videoGreeneville Neighborhood Committee meeting
It is part of a larger effort to revitalize the neighborhood and empower its residents.
Communities need to have their leaders visible and community members present in community affairs, to get others to listen and understand what people are saying, Jean-Mary said.
“No matter what I do or what the leadership does, if the citizens don’t come out and say ‘I’m hurting,’ or ‘I can help with this,’ we can’t go further in the conversation,” she said.
Other barriers facing the Haitian community in Norwich include a hesitancy to trust promises and getting people to seek mental health treatment, especially as more Haitians have sought asylum in the U.S., Jean-Mary, who is from a Haitian family, said.
“The town hall meeting was an opportunity for those to come out in public, (instead of) dealing silently with disparities,” she said.
During the Human Services panel of the community meeting earlier this month, Director Kate Milde announced the department’s client intake paperwork will now be available in Haitian Creole.
“That’s why we’re here,” she said. “We want to hear you, we want to be responsive, and we have to keep this momentum going.”
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Jean-Mary praised the response.
“That’s immediate action,” she said. “They didn’t go back and say ‘let’s think about it.'”
For those looking for services from Human Services partner organizations that have been having trouble, Milde said there’s “an army of case workers” to help people get what they need.
Committee president Tamir Capehart said more needs to be done to address communication barriers. While translators and interpreters are always available for things like court appearances, it doesn’t mean they’re everywhere. Capehart has a brother in New York who is deaf, and needs her to call in and help him, even while he’s at the disability office, she said.
“Let’s stop picking and choosing what we want people informed of and what we don’t want them informed of,” Capehart said.
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There are open positions with the Norwich Human Services department. While there may be people, from truck drivers to people earning master’s degrees, who may have the interest and ability to do this kind of work, it might not be something someone would do for around $50,000 a year, Jean-Mary said.
Milde hopes working with Jean-Mary can help the department identify more interpreters to hire. Human Services also has access to call-in translation services, but it’s better when there’s someone in the room.
Resident Guirlele Taylor wants city leadership to show up in the community more often, beyond just election season.
“Some people have lived 20 years here, 30 years here, and they don’t even know the mayor,” she said.
The Haitian community is tight-knit in Norwich, and how something impacts one person will be known to everyone, Taylor said.
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While she wishes more people attended, Jean-Mary considers the Nov. 5 meeting a success. This is because leaders in Norwich gave the panels their full effort, she said, and those who couldn’t make it expressed interest in watching the video later.
“Even though it wasn’t a full house, flowing out the door, the leadership that showed up gave 110% and spoke to the people,” she said.
Going forward, Jean-Mary hopes to have more of these town hall meetings, as Norwich officials should try to reach as many people as possible.
“If our leadership is willing to meet the people where they’re most comfortable at, whether it be their churches, their synagogue, their mosque, let’s go for it and meet the people where they’re at, so we can get them the services that they need,” she said.

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