Haitians in Boston give US bad marks here and in homeland. 50,000 refugees manage to disappear into society's cracks
Boston — Haitian immigrants are showing a growing unhappiness with America's role in their country. That's the message from Boston, where about 50,000 Haitians live. Their native land is going to try a second attempt at national elections on Sunday and many in this community say the United States has not done enough to ensure a fair outcome. Violence caused a November election try to be aborted.
One prominent Haitian in Boston, Marc Manizat, says, ``The US State Department should have exerted pressure early on to make sure the election on Nov. 29 was carried out in a democratic way.'' Haitians ``do not trust this electoral process. ... They are afraid if they go to vote, they may get bullets instead,'' he says. Dr. Manizat is president of the board of CHAMA (Cambridge-Haitian American Affairs) in nearby Cambridge.
``Duvalier was not a nice guy, but compared to what's going on now, he comes out as a real nice person,'' says another of Boston's Haitians. ``People were working ... at least [under Duvalier]. We produce sugar cane, but now we're buying sugar cane from the US. I'm not an expert in economy, but these are the kinds of things Haitians are starting to get angry about.''
That feeling was dramatized in Boston last August when Antoine Thurel, a Haitian, committed suicide by setting himself afire on the State House steps.
``This was his way of showing that he cared about his country. That frustration, increasingly, is there'' in the refugee community, says Franz Minuty, a Haitian who has lived for 20 years in Boston.
Like many Haitian immigrants, Mr. Minuty holds several jobs: He has a high-tech aerospace job; teaches at a local college; and serves as host of three weekly radio programs on Haitian affairs - in English, Creole, and French.
``Haiti is a poor black country that doesn't have meaning for most Americans,'' Minuty says. US officials do not want to ``interfere in Haitian affairs,'' but they're interfering by not interfering, he says.
Haiti, with its deepwater harbor, has been mentioned as a possible alternative to the US naval base at Guant'anamo Bay in eastern Cuba. Fidel Castro is unlikely to renew the base lease when it runs out in 1999. But Haitians here don't like the idea: ``I would be willing to die ... to prevent Americans [from] getting a military base in Haiti,'' says one Haitian.
Haitians say they have come to the US fleeing famine and repression, yet they are denied political asylum and are considered economic refugees. So to escape notice of immigration officials, many live in the margins of society.
They are grateful to the US and observe a Haitian proverb: ``When you are riding on the cow's back, you must not say bad things about the cow.''
But ``the cow is riding us,'' one refugee says. ``We do many menial jobs in this country. ... We could go home, if there were not a repressive government [there] supported by the US.''
``I've wanted to go see my mother for the last 10 years. I have even bought the ticket, but I keep changing the reservation. I don't feel safe going prior to the election,'' says CHAMA's Dr. Manizat, who has lived in America for 18 years and is a US citizen.
Boston's Haitian community is vigorous and growing, yet it remains nearly invisible. It's a separate society of exiles who have endured hardships at home in Haiti, and now in America.
Many Haitian refugees settled in New York or Miami early on. The Boston influx, which began in the 1960s, was more gradual. The city now has America's third-largest Haitian population.
A decade ago, Boston housing was relatively cheap and comfortable compared with New York. ``It was much easier to get jobs, even if you were unskilled. The pace of life in Boston is closer to what we're used to. And the quality of life here is better than in New York, if you are poor,'' Franz Minuty says.
But Boston housing is becoming scarce and expensive as urban development gobbles it up.
The culture shock has been profound, too. Haitians are a minority within a minority here. ``I've been in America 14 years and feel I still cannot go into South Boston,'' says Roland La Foret, director of CHAMA, a social-service organization.
Haitians also suffer the stigma of being called ``importers of AIDS'' and ``boat people bringing diseases to America.''
Boston's Haitians have a strong sense of community. Their churches serve as social as well as religious centers. Strips of stores in several neighborhoods sell Haitian food, records, and, above all, Haitian newspapers. Creole-speaking customers shop for plantains and papers, while they exchange the latest news from back home.
CHAMA's Mr. La Foret says his clients often face a language barrier. ``They may sign a lease not knowing what they signed.''
Both Boston and Cambridge school systems offer classes in Creole and French. (A 1972 Massachusetts law provides that if more than 20 children speak a foreign language in one grade at a school, bilingual education must be provided.)
Many working Haitians also attend Boston-area colleges.
For instance, Jean-Claude goes to business school and works at a school for the handicapped. He hopes to go home to Haiti when its government is settled. ``Most of us think of going back. We are happiest at home. ... We live here, but it's not home.''
``I'm proud of the knowledge I've gotten here,'' says another student, Charles, who is studying engineering. ``I would like someday to go home and give my people that knowledge, to teach them, help them.''