‘I’ve been pretty scared’: Philadelphia’s Haitians react to home country’s turmoil

Political turmoil, natural disasters, gang violence, a prison breakout and an exiled former prime minister have Haiti on edge.

Local painter Alain Jean-Baptiste

Local painter Alain Jean-Baptiste came to America from Haiti, a week after the earthquake erupted in 2010, at the age of 10. (Tribune photo/Abdul R. Sulayman)

This story originally appeared in The Philadelphia Tribune.

Political turmoil combined with natural disasters has led Haiti to a peak of hunger and dismay.

And an uptick in gang violence, a prison breakout and an exiled former prime minister has the country’s capital Port-Au-Prince especially on edge.

Haitian immigrants and first-generation Haitian-Americans in Philadelphia are processing the tipping point of the country’s crisis. Philadelphia is home to roughly 30,000 Haitians, with most living in North Philadelphia, Olney and East Mount Airy, according to the nonprofit Global Philadelphia.

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Gaining its freedom from France in 1804, Haiti is considered the first free Black republic of the West. But over the years, it has grappled with global identity, poverty, a fragile government and interference by the U.S. and multiple European countries.

Gangs have also plagued the country and are growing in prominence. As Haiti is seeking to change leadership in its government with the impending exit of its Prime Minister Ariel Henry, gang leaders like Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, are seeking to overthrow the system.

Local painter Alain Jean-Baptiste, who came to America a week after the earthquake erupted in 2010 when he was just 10 is starting to talk about his Haitian roots through his art and his connection to his father, who lives in Carrefour, Haiti.

“I’ve been pretty scared. I’ll be honest with you,” Jean-Baptiste said. “[My father] is not letting it be, he’s not showing it, which I don’t know if it’s because he’s like truly okay or if he’s just trying to hold it like a strong face for us. He tells me that he hears shots fired. But he hasn’t gotten hurt and my other family members had to evacuate where we lived in Carrefour, but he told me they came back now.”

The current climate in Haiti has caused a full spectrum of emotions for Jean-Baptiste. He told The Tribune the misinformation about Haiti’s political history is fueling the tension and that corrupt politicians working with the country’s ruling class have caused damage to the working class of Haitians and won’t “let Haiti be free.”

Jean-Baptiste said the horrors happening are mostly concentrated in the capital of Port-Au-Prince. The foreign interventions, he said, for decades have made Haiti a worse state than what it was before. Jean-Baptiste is firmly of the belief that it would take a united, communal effort to bring back a Haitian-elected and non-externally appointed leader to bring the country to a stable point.

Jean-Baptiste said his identity as a Haitian man is “beauty.”

“I wish [people] could see my smile. Being Haitian means bringing your neighbor sugar,” he said.

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Jensen Toussaint, an American-born Haitian, is hoping for peaceful resolution in the Caribbean country.

“Haiti has a really, really rich history, but it also has a very dark history,” he said. “There’s been so many different issues that have gone on in Haiti.”

Toussaint expressed that the assassination of the president, Jovenel Moïse, caused strife for the Haitian people.

“A lot of what’s going on now is kind of a residue of that,” Toussaint said.

While most of his family has moved to the U.S. since Toussaint’s parents immigrated in 1986, he thinks of the country’s rich history and his native link to his family as a place of “resilience.”

“They still have lives to live and they’re doing their best to do that despite the chaos that’s really going on.”

Toussaint believes intervention needs to happen. While the intervention now has skepticism internally across the Haitian community and for himself, he believes we must see how it works out with cooperation of the country’s people.

The Associated Press reported that a flight with dozens of U.S. citizens fleeing Haiti landed in Miami on Sunday. Officials said the flight arrived after the U.S. embassy in Haiti implored U.S. citizens to exit the country for their safety.

“I do think that the resignation of the prime minister was something that needed to take place,” Toussaint said. “I think it might reach a point where maybe an entire overhaul may need to take place as far as the entire Haitian government.”

James Pierre, a Haitian native, used to visit his home country annually until the unrest became too dangerous. Pierre laments that he misses him home but emphasizes that he cannot go back.

“It’s bigger than what most people think because while it’s gangs out there causing a lot of violence, this didn’t just happen overnight,” he said. “A lot of times when things are bad or countries are at war, it’s people who actually make money and profit from that.”

Pierre thinks U.S. intervention must come to an end and questions why Haitians have sparsely been able to democratically elect their leaders in its recent history.

He’s riddled with anxiety thinking of his family in the crossfires of war.

“We wake up, we don’t know if this person is going to be alive if we call them,” Pierre said. “If we’re going to find them or not because a lot of people have to leave their homes.”

Pierre remains hopeful in the strong will of fellow Haitians.

“I hope while I’m still in this lifetime, I’ll see real changes,” he said.

Unlike Pierre, native Haitian Yvenson Louis thinks “there’s no more Haiti.”

Yvenson Louis
Yvenson Louis, who resides in Philadelphia and still has family in Haiti, watches the news from his home country daily. (Tribune photos/Abdul R. Sulayman)

Since his arrival to America from Port-Au-Prince, he states the quality of life and the food in his homeland have fallen.

Louis says he sent his aunt $200; she has yet to receive the money order.

“People will follow you to the store, it’s dangerous and all the stores are closed,” he says.

However, his pride still encapsulates him, he wishes he was 13 again in 2005, wishing his parents won’t migrate to America.

Louis speaks about the leader Cherizier, who has a current stronghold in the country.

“We Haitians have a lot of questions. We want to know who made the country how it is now.

“Barbecue just needs to go,” Louis said. “Nobody is going to help us. We need to figure it out ourselves. Only us can lift us up.”

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