Philly Haitian community reacts to assassination and chaos

Haiti's President Jovenel Moise exist a museum with armed people flanked on both sides

Haiti's President Jovenel Moise, center, leaves the National Pantheon museum in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Saturday April 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)

When Josephys Dafils heard about the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, he thought it must be a social media rumor. However, a slew of Facebook notifications made him curious. He quickly checked the news and was surprised to find out it was true.

“I was just in shock. I was in shock because, you know, in my lifetime, that’s the first time a president was assassinated in Haiti. We have coups and stuff — overthrowing the government — but not killing the president.”

Dafils, the founder and executive director of Haitian-American United for Change, a non-profit organization focused on empowering immigrants in Philadelphia, is one of over 8,000 Haitian immigrants in the city processing the killing. He moved to the United States from Haiti in 1995.

“It’s been very unstable for a while. But to get to the point where the president is a victim of that, too. It just shows you how scary that is,” said Dafils.

Moïse was assassinated in his bedroom early Wednesday morning, shot at least 12 times by a band of attackers. His wife, First Lady Martine Moïse was also injured and has been flown to a Miami hospital where she is in stable condition.

In response, Haitian authorities instituted lockdowns across the country, have set a curfew, and closed their borders. Haitian Police reported that they have killed four suspects — without providing proof of involvement — and arrested six others, including at least one American.

Political tensions and violence flared in February when Moïse continued to rule Haiti by decree beyond the end of his term, causing protests and an increase in gang activity that rocked the country.

Violence in Port-au Prince, Haiti’s capital, has quickly escalated in the previous months. A wave of shootings, arson, and other crimes have caused thousands of people to flee their homes.

Now, a leadership void threatens to further undermine stability as the country has been put in a “state of siege” that allows the state to enter homes, control traffic and take special security measures.

Rodney Dagobert, a student at Temple University and the son of Haitian immigrants was also disturbed to hear about the president’s death. With all the violence, he fears for the safety of his uncles and cousins who live in Haiti.

“They’re nervous. They’re scared. They are scared to go outdoors. You know, if they step out to certain neighborhoods, certain, you know, communities, they might not make it back home,” he said.

In June, an estimated 13,600 Port-au Prince residents fled to seek refuge outside the city.

Johanne Louis, a nurse practitioner at the Philadelphia Veterans Administration Medical Center, also worries about family members who’ve remained in Haiti.

“You’re constantly afraid for your loved ones that you hear that they’ve been caught up in some kind of gunfire or been kidnapped,” said Louis, who came to the U.S. when she was seven.

Louis, the founder of a nonprofit organization that serves Haiti and communities in the U.S., was supposed to visit in February but canceled amid the chaos.

“Violence walks hand in hand with poverty and misery, and there was already a lot of poverty in Haiti,” she said. “There are a lot of hard-working, just wonderful people in Haiti that are just trying to survive.”

For many Haitian Americans, the question of how to best help the country recover is a complicated one, and there’s division about the role the U.S. government should play.

Louis, for instance, would welcome U.S. aid, but is wary of deeper involvement.

Others, like Dagobert, believe that America needs to take an active role.

“America should want to help get involved with Haiti more and take leadership because they need help there. For me, all the shooting sprees and violence is a cry for help,” he said.

Others like Dafils are hesitant to accept any U.S aid. He fears the U.S would prioritize its own interests over Haiti’s needs. Instead, he would like to see the Haitian community come together and create its own solutions.

“I’m hoping that we can sit down as a nation and find a Haitian solution for Haitians by Haitians,” he said. “I am hoping that all the sectors — the private sectors in Haiti, the church people, people that were in power…Let’s compromise. Let’s make a deal for the betterment of this country.”

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