Haiti's chaos reverberates for expatriates in American cities

In enclaves in Boston and other cities, expats latch on to every nugget from home.

The owner of Radio Nouveauté puts out a request on the local airwaves: "We are live in Mattapan. My name is Sylvane Simon. Tell me your opinions about what has happened in Haiti."

Within seconds Monday afternoon, a day after Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled the Caribbean nation, the phone starts to ring relentlessly. Mr. Simon, taking calls in the closet-sized studio located in the heart of Boston's Haitian community, picks up the line. "I don't like the way they treat my president," says one woman. "I feel so bad. I feel so ashamed about it."

Moments later a man dials in: "As a good Haitian, no one is happy with the way Mr. Bush has treated us. We will never forget this."

Another caller disagrees. "Aristide had to resign," he says. "Now the rebels must be disarmed."

The buzz is a small slice of Haitian-American life in the United States, where some 600,000 Haitians reside, concentrated largely in Florida and the Northeast. But it reveals a community transfixed by the chaos that has engulfed Haiti over the past month. From Miami to New York to Boston, the Haitian community has expressed a mixture of fear, anger, and relief. They are worried about relatives back home. They are weary of US involvement in their nation. Some are relieved Mr. Aristide is gone. Others are enraged.

In Mattapan, a Boston neighborhood, where the main street is lined with Haitian bakeries, wire transfer shops, and West Indian grocers, discussions were heated as events unfolded over the weekend. Churches organized prayer services, and community members scrambled to plan meetings and protests. But while opinions are divided on what's best for the country, most were unified in expressing uncertainty.

"The Haitians are afraid, they are afraid of what's next," says Simon, a burly man with big glasses and an American flag pin on his lapel. He says he is pro-Aristide. "They don't know where to go. Who is in charge now?"

The owner of Radio Nouveauté came to the United States more than 23 years ago - to have a voice, he says, and to secure a better future for his children. Most of his family lives in the Greater Boston area now - including seven children and 12 grandchildren - but he, like most Haitians, still feels a close connection to his native country.

Across the street at the Haitian eatery Picasso Creole Cuisine, the Rev. Alfred Mombeleur concentrates on hope. Over the weekend he urged community members to join a Monday night meeting of Haitian clergy to focus on what they can do to help from here.

The Haitian community in Boston has been closely following reports on the violence in Haiti: at least 70 people are dead, businesses across the country of 8 million have been looted, and fires have burned in the streets. "There are a lot of people saying, 'Maybe now we'll see improvement. Maybe now we'll be going forward, now that America is willing to help Haiti,'" says Mr. Mombeleur, who spent Monday loading up medical supplies he hopes to ship to Haiti from his social services agency Caribbean U-Turn in Mattapan.

Meanwhile, inside the tiny Picasso restaurant, decorated with murals of palm trees and paintings of fishing villages, owner Hercule Viel says he can easily detect the ebb and flow of the local mood. In January, the community celebrated Haiti's 200-year history from afar - only to have high spirits deflated weeks later, as a nation that has seen 32 coups ousted its first democratically elected leader since 1804.

"What is the plan for Haiti now?" asks Mr. Viel. He says he is not pro-Aristide - in fact he says he hates politics - but he is pro-democracy. "You can't call yourself a democracy at 1 p.m. and then not at 1:30. I am ready to accept any government in Haiti, as long as it's democratic."

About 44,000 Haitians live in Massachusetts, according to the 2000 Census, but local leaders estimate that number to be closer to 80,000. The largest US-Haitian community lives in Florida, and there are also large communities in New York and New Jersey.

In Boston over the weekend, before Aristide's departure, nearly 100 Haitians gathered at City Hall to protest US pressure on Aristide to step down. Josue Renaud stood aside, making signs with magic marker, reading "No Aristide. No Peace."

"Using weapons to solve a problem is not the right solution," says Mr. Renaud, who came to the US 12 years ago. His brothers, nieces, and father still live in Cap-Haïtien. He hasn't been able to reach them by phone for a week.

Now that Aristide has left, anger has flared even more. Simon says some Haitians believe the US funded the rebels and kidnapped Aristide against his will. The US has denied these allegations.

The debate within the Haitian-American community is not necessarily destructive, says Mombeleur, but a healthy sign of democracy. "It's painful," he says. "But the [democratic] process came about. People are willing to stand and get hurt, but get up again and stand, and stand, and stand."

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