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A Tense Day With Boston's Haitian Community

This article is more than 10 years old.

This area is home to the third-largest community of Haitian immigrants in the United States, many of them still struggling to learn details about their family and loved ones. I spent the day in Mattapan Square, a heavily Haitian neighborhood.

The Scene In Mattapan Square

Jean Dany Joachim, the poet laureate of Cambridge, was supposed to return to Haiti on Wednesday to attend a literary conference. He was compulsively checking his cell phone for any word from family there. (Bianca Vazquez Toness/WBUR)
Jean Dany Joachim, the poet laureate of Cambridge, was supposed to return to Haiti on Wednesday to attend a literary conference. He was compulsively checking his cell phone for any word from family there. (Bianca Vazquez Toness/WBUR)

I stood outside a grocery store and canvassed a lot of people, all of whom still had very little information about their families or homes.

One man, Jean Romulus, who has lived here for almost 20 years, said he cannot reach his mother, father, sisters — no one.

"My life is back there, yeah," he said. "I can't reach. I can't. Everything, all the power lines back there, it's down, so no communication back there."

But others are getting news, such as Rhode Milord LeBlanc, who teaches English as a second language at a non-profit serving Haitians in Mattapan.

LeBlanc said the majority of her students did not come to class Wednesday morning because they were at home trying to get information.

Then she told me about her own process of finding information, learning that a child in the family was pinned under the rubble of the family home.

"But he's alive, and I said, 'Oh, yeah, great Mommy, OK, he's alive.'

"She was like, 'He's alive, but so what, there's no hospital. Who's going to help him?' "

LeBlanc's voice was cracking now, and she was obviously about to cry.

"And it dawned on me, like, it's not only about death," she went on. "You know, if anything that may be a little bit easier — how 'bout the millions of people that have nowhere to go because one of the hospitals collapsed in Haiti? And Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, so it's going from '1' to 'negative 10'."

Boston's Unique Relationship To Haiti

More so than other immigrant communities in Boston, Haitians maintain close connections with home. Thanks to  modern technology and cheap flights, Haitians regularly travel back and forth between Haiti and the United States. They also have a high rate of U.S. citizenship, making it easy to return. Both doctors and taxi drivers alike prefer to live here but maintain a home in Haiti.

Patrick Casimir, second from right, a Medford resident born in Haiti, listens Wednesday during a meeting at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End held to update family members and spread information about relief efforts in the wake of the earthquake. (AP)
Patrick Casimir, second from right, a Medford resident born in Haiti, listens Wednesday during a meeting at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End held to update family members and spread information about relief efforts in the wake of the earthquake. (AP)

This community stretches across class lines — also uncommon in an immigrant community — and includes some of the intellectuals, artists and top elites who maintain close ties to the Haitian government and study in Boston's universities.

The poet laureate of Cambridge, Jean Dany Joachim, was set to return to Haiti on Wednesday to attend a literary conference. The flight was canceled, and now he is trying to wrap his mind around the destruction. I spoke to him about seeing images of the National Cathedral collapse.

"God, to see this thing down. I have so many memories in that cathedral," he said. "I know it as a religious place, and then later on, in 1986, when [Haitians] decided to have the movement to revolt from the government, many of the manifestations of the protests were inside that cathedral.

"They are memories," he said. "They are memories of moments of brutalities, where people will run to take refuge inside that cathedral."

Joachim is waiting for the next available flight to Haiti to see the destruction firsthand and look for family members.

Lawmakers Pledge State Aid

Gov. Deval Patrick has promised the state will help Haiti in whatever ways it can. No one has said yet what that help would entail.

Boston Archbishop Cardinal Sean O'Malley has asked for a special collection at Catholic parishes to help victims of the earthquake. And at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in South Boston, on Wednesday at 7 p.m., people will gather to organize a local recovery effort.

I attended a meeting Wednesday of pastors and community groups in Mattapan who were beginning to organize their own aid effort. They were torn between sending money or supplies. A lot of aid agencies are just asking for money.

There's also the issue of counseling. Some of these local agencies think Haitians here are going to need help coping with the idea that their homeland will never be the same.

This program aired on January 13, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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