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On Earthquake Anniversary, Boston's Haitian Community Wrestles With Turmoil Back Home04:05
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Police officers and protesters take cover behind a police truck as shots ring out during a protest to demand the resignation of Haiti's president Jovenel Moise in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in November (Dieu Nalio Chery/AP)
Police officers and protesters take cover behind a police truck as shots ring out during a protest to demand the resignation of Haiti's president Jovenel Moise in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in November (Dieu Nalio Chery/AP)

As the Haitian American community in and around Greater Boston pauses to reflect on the decade since a devastating magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck the island, many are still living today with the effects of violent political unrest unfolding thousands of miles away in their home country.

Anti-government protests in Haiti calling for the resignation of the country's president have in some cases turned violent, and Haitians face fuel and electric shortages and increasing costs for basic goods.

Joujou Myrtil lives in Boston but is originally from Haiti. At a recent gathering of Haitian Americans in Mattapan, she choked back tears and explained the physical sensation she feels because of the turmoil in her home nation.

"I'm in pain. I'm in pain inside of me," she said. "Even my bones hurt me because of what's happening in my country. We are human beings like everybody else, we have to live a life like everybody else."

Boston is home to the third largest Haitian diaspora in the U.S., following Miami and New York, and the local community's ties to the Caribbean nation run deep.

Many are financially supporting family living in Haiti — in fact, remittances to Haiti make up nearly a third of the country's GDP.

Haitians living in Boston frequently travel back to Haiti to see family several times a year. But given the current instability, many at the meeting in Mattapan said they canceled their trips, calling the risk of violence too great.

Avoiding travel to Haiti, though, does not mean Haitian Americans can avoid the unrest, and many living in Boston feel the impacts of what they see playing out on television and hear in conversations with loved ones.

Joelle Gamere is director of the Toussaint L'Ouverture Academy in Mattapan, the first school in the U.S. to offer dual language learning in Haitian Creole. Gamere says the stress unfolding on the streets of Port-au-Prince is visible on the faces of students and parents at her school.

"What I see in my school is the trauma that Haiti has caused in my students," she said.

Gamere noted that the uncertainty facing nearly 5,000 Haitians living in Massachusetts with temporary protected status adds to the stress. The Trump administration tried to end TPS for Haitians in 2017 but recently extended it until 2021 while court cases play out.

"That manifests in a way of parents are afraid to come to open house because they don't know if immigration is going to be there. They're afraid to drop their kids off. They're afraid of what's going to happen when they're getting their kids off of the bus," Gamere said.

In this 2012 photo, printers sit on a desk on the roof the earthquake damaged National Palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Dieu Nalio Chery/AP)
In this 2012 photo, printers sit on a desk on the roof the earthquake damaged National Palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Dieu Nalio Chery/AP)

In the wake of the 2010 earthquake — which struck 10 years ago Sunday and killed tens of thousands of people — more than a million Haitians were displaced.

Pierre Noel, a Haitian American, heads up The Boston Foundation's Haiti Development Institute. He says many of those who relocated to Boston still feel as though they're living in two places.

"I may need to help my community in Haiti but at the same time, I live in Boston and my kids live in Boston so I have a direct interest to see prosperity and a viable community here in Boston. At the same time, that interest still exists back home," he said.

Noel said this transnational identity is the reality of immigrant life. And with that reality, he says, comes great potential to nurture community here while cultivating a shared vision for the future of Haiti.

This segment aired on January 10, 2020.

Shannon Dooling Twitter Reporter
Shannon Dooling is an immigration reporter at WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station.

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