Haitians in Boston organize aid and wait for word from home

The Boston area has one of the largest Haitian populations in the US. The community is trying to overcome its shock to find ways to help Haiti after its devastating earthquake.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Local Haitian-American community leaders meet to discuss how to help victims of the Haitian earthquake as well as the local Haitian community.

After a long night of unconnected phone calls, listening to community radio, and scanning the national news, employees at a Haitian community center in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood trudged to work Wednesday, minds weary and hearts heavy.

“There’s no word to explain how we’re feeling right now,” says Lydia Louise-Jean, mail coordinator at the Center for Community Health, Education, and Research. “We have workers who came to work this morning like zombies. They’ve been up all night, they haven’t slept, and they still can’t get through to [their families].”

For Haitians in the Boston area – one of the largest Haitian communities in the US – the emotional aftershocks of the earthquake that devastated the island nation are far from subsiding.

With very little communication with their friends and families abroad, Boston’s Haitians are living long periods of anxiety punctuated by intense moments of joy when a connection is made with a loved one.

Gathered around the TV for news

Rhode Milord LeBlanc, an English language educator at the Haitian American Public Health Initiative in Boston, says that her students, all recent adult immigrants, were largely cut off from information because of their weak grasp of English and lack of Internet connections. When four of her usual 13 students turned up for class Wednesday, she gathered them in her office to watch CNN, translating news updates as they flashed on the screen.

“One of their daughters came in to the room and told us that one of their neighbors in Haiti discovered that [a female student’s] son was dead,” Ms. LeBlanc says.

The group then broke up, heading for home to wait for more calls.

At a community meeting in Boston Wednesday, roughly two-dozen Haitian community leaders from bankers to doctors to educators gathered to sort through how to provide aid. But even as much as the meeting aimed to set up the organizational infrastructure to support a relief effort, the conversation frequently returned to shoring up the community’s emotional needs, especially those of children.

Students worry about their parents

“This is a message we need to send to the schools: the students need help,” says Edner Cayemite, an instructor at a Boston high school. The students “are scared because they don’t have any information.”

Some expressed dismay, knowing that Haiti, the Western hemisphere’s poorest country, simply doesn’t have the necessary infrastructure – both political and physical – to get the answers so many in their community are seeking.

“Last year, one school collapsed and they couldn’t deal with it. How will they manage this?” asked Julio Midy, deputy editor of InfoHaiti.Net, a clearinghouse for French-language news about the country.

But amid uncertainty, the discussion within the local Haitian leadership aimed to capitalize on another pervasive community feeling: a sense of responsibility to friends and family in duress. The group sought to bring a wide variety of efforts together, from locating space to serve as community gathering points to raising money and unifying churches, civic groups, and professionals into a concentrated effort.

“We have to know where we can play our role in the second wave,” says Jean Bonner, a local physician. “We can do something small about what is going on now. But after that, we need to rebuild our country.”


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