Diaspora

Uniondale library creates space to celebrate thriving Haitian community and culture – Newsday

Artist Frenal Mezilas painted the mural, seen behind him, which was unveiled at the Uniondale Public Library in September. He is seen with community member Marjorie Janvier. Credit: Gary Licker
The Uniondale Public Library is playing a key role for Haitian Americans living in the hamlet by providing a hub for the thriving community to explore and celebrate the culture of the Caribbean nation. 
Long Island’s Haitian population totaled more than 26,000 in 2021, largely in Nassau County, with a growing community in Uniondale. To better serve Haitian American patrons, assistant library director Syntychia Kendrick-Samuel has spearheaded efforts to host events, such as cooking and art classes, and create a community space where residents can connect and celebrate their culture. 
Kendrick-Samuel recently organized the library's Haitian Resilience Project, which included a mural by Haitian American artist Frenal Mezilas and a dance performance that Kendrick-Samuel said “brought to life the various aspects of Haitian history.” The project was made possible through grant funding distributed by the Huntington Arts Council and the Uniondale Union Free School District. 
“We wanted to celebrate our community,” Kendrick-Samuel said. “We want to make sure that … they know that they’re being seen and respected and celebrated. … Without the library, they wouldn’t be able to really gather together the way they do to talk about literature, politics, culture [and] art.” 
Even before the project, the Uniondale library has served as a place for Haitian Americans looking to make connections. Besides the library, other agencies also are working to acknowledge the Haitian community, such as the school district, which held a Haitian Family Day in October, said board trustee Charmise Desiré, whose husband is Haitian American. 
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Marie Sonia Saint Rose-Bienvil, 43, of Uniondale, moved to Long Island in 1999 from Haiti. She didn’t speak fluent English when she moved to America as a young adult and leaned on the library’s resources to acclimate to her new home. 
Saint Rose-Bienvil, who co-founded the Haitian community organization Solidarite Haitiano-Americaine de Long Island, or SHALI, in 2009, recalled the discouragement she felt when she once visited the library to inquire about computer access. With limited English and no Haitian Creole-speaking library employees, she said she felt “very sad and frustrated.” Now, seeing the mural in the library’s lobby, which depicts the vibrancy of Haiti, its produce, religion and people, is a reminder to her of the Haitian American community’s presence on Long Island, she said. 
“The library has been very helpful, because there’s no Haitian center anywhere here. … The library has been that for us,” Saint Rose-Bienvil said, adding that the library "has been very, very supportive of Haitian culture, of the language and of the community as a whole.” 
Mezilas painted the mural after speaking with Haitian American community members about what they hoped the painting would evoke. His mural was unveiled in September. Mezilas, 43, of Lindenhurst, moved to Long Island in 2011.
Haiti, an impoverished country, has faced a waning economy, political unrest and catastrophic earthquakes. Mezilas said he was honored to depict the island where he was raised and to focus on its fortitude, rather than its heartbreaks. 
“Art is a universal language,” Mezilas said. “You don’t need to be Haitian to understand what this painting means. … Everyone can learn from it.” 
With Caroline Curtin
Brinley Hineman covers the Town of Islip for Newsday. She previously was a reporter in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a native of West Virginia.
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