Diaspora

This Thanksgiving, Haitians helped Haitians in New Jersey. ‘That’s our brothers and sisters’. | Opinion – NJ.com

Moved by images of U.S. Customs and Border Protection mounted officers beating back Haitian refugees into the Rio Grande River at the border of Mexico last year, Vanessa Jean Louis thought about how she could help her fellow Haitians.
Jean Louis and a community of first-generation Haitian Americans in Irvington banded together to provide groceries to recent Haitian migrants so they could prepare their first Thanksgiving dinner. The migrants, unlike immigrants who are here legally, are asylum seekers who have not been repatriated to Haiti and have no legal status in the U.S. They exist in a veritable limbo.
“Many of those individuals came to the United States with nothing, just like my father came many years ago,” said Luis Antilus, who co-sponsored the event and helped to distribute food. Antilus, who is Haitian American and sits on the Irvington school board, said his community wanted to give their Haitian brothers and sisters their first taste of Thanksgiving in America.
Vanessa Jean Louis founded Children of Haitian Immigrants (COHI),” to help the influx of Haitian migrants coming into the United States from places like Central America and South America. "There was obviously a lack of resources available to them so I founded COHI to fill in the gaps," she said.
They had over 130 grocery bags filled with rice, cereal, beans and cooking oil. They gave away more than 75 turkeys and they had other types of meat products there as well. They served about 130 families and when they ran out of food supplies, those in need were given $50 in cash so they could go grocery shopping. Jean Louis said depending on the size of their families they could make multiple meals from the donations they received.
Last October, Jean Luis traveled to Texas to help process incoming asylum seekers. There were no Haitians the day she was there so instead she helped the Honduran families that showed up. However, Jean Louis knew a day at the border would not be enough if she was truly going to make a difference for her fellow Haitians.
Since that trip, she has focused her spare time on helping newly arrived migrants in New Jersey with basic needs: food, clothing and shelter. She uses her own money and donations from like-minded community members. This year Jean Louis took a bold step and formed a nonprofit organization.
“I founded Children of Haitian Immigrants (COHI),” she said. “The reason why I started the nonprofit is that we have had an influx of Haitian migrants come into the United States from places like Central America and South America. There was obviously a lack of resources available to them so I founded COHI to fill in the gaps.”
Jean Louis’ organization provides clothing, helps with translating forms for parents, and assists with registering children for school. They have had community baby showers for pregnant migrants and a backpack drive in partnership with the International Rescue Committee and other organizations like Baby2Baby.
Many of the migrants came here because of the insecurity in Haiti right now. People are fleeing the country. Gangs have taken over ports and neighborhoods in an effort to survive but sometimes their tactics work against them. The country is in the midst of a cholera outbreak and children are dying.
About 40,850 Haitian-Americans live in New Jersey, according to the U.S. Census, with most living in or near East Orange, Irvington and Paterson, and COHI is doing what it can to help in their community. Jean Louis says early next year they will host a legal clinic for the migrants so they can get assistance helping them apply for asylum. The migrants’ goal is to be here legally.
“They travel many, many miles by foot to come here for a better life,” Antilus said. “That’s our brothers and sisters, we cannot leave them without nothing. Our job is to provide resources to them and to make sure that they succeed.”
Jean Louis was visibly tired at the end of the event. She said she’d just traveled back from a work trip to Chicago and had little sleep, but she said she needs no praise for organizing these events. She’s thankful she can do this work with the support of her community.
Ande Richards wants to hear from New Jersey’s communities of color, people with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ communities, and those who feel underserved by traditional media. She may be reached at arichards@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @anderichards.
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