After the quake, Oakland’s Haitian community reaches out to help
on January 24, 2010
By now, reports and images from the earthquake that ripped through the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince on January 12th have reached almost everyone. The plight of the Haitian people, 80 percent of whom were already living in poverty, has attracted a tremendous outpouring of sentiment and support from the United States as millions of Americans have pledged donations for the Haitian relief effort.
For Haitians living in Oakland, news of the disaster brought panic, confusion, and despair as people frantically tried to get in touch with loved ones in Haiti. Longtime Oakland resident Antoine Bellot was at work when he heard the news of the quake, and hoped desperately that that his brother and sister in Port-au-Prince were not two of the untold thousands who were killed, crushed, or buried alive. He had just talked to his brother in Port-au-Prince on the phone an hour before the earthquake, but it would be days before he would hear news of their fate. “I couldn’t sleep,” Bellot said. “I was watching TV day and night, and I began to even see people that looked like my sister — but it wasn’t my sister. It was heavy. I can’t even explain it — it was a very painful situation.”
Finally, after four days of waiting, news came from Haiti that Bellot’s brother and sister had survived.”When I heard, it was like, you were thirsty in a desert and you finally find a glass of water,” Bellot said. “It was one of the best feelings of my life –not for me only, but for my entire family.”
It has been a time of mixed emotion for Haitians here—away from the disaster and far from home, there is little they can do but hope and pray for their country and try to send help. Maria Labossiere and her husband Pierre organize the Haiti Action Committee, an Oakland-based group that Pierre Labossiere founded in 1991 to promote democracy and development in Haiti. The two have been organizing fundraisers and other public events to support the recovery effort, but feel powerless, being so far away.
“I still feel like I’m in a dream, in a daze really,” Maria Labossiere said, her voice trailing off for a moment. “It’s been very hard to absorb. We spent the first couple days searching for loved ones in panic, and watching the images with horror and disbelief. Luckily our family members are fine, but we were watching the suffering of the Haitian people with a broken heart.”
The Haiti Action Committee and other local groups are organizing events in the community to help the relief effort in Port-au-Prince. On Sunday, the San Francisco Boys Choir will perform at Christ the Light Cathedral in Oakland, and Pierre Labossiere will speak at a fundraiser at the Black Dot Café. On Monday, the Haiti Action Committee is organizing a demonstration in San Francisco at Market and Powell streets to protest the US military presence in Haiti.
By ten days after the quake, Americans had donated over $380 million to non-profits in Haiti that are providing much-needed supplies for earthquake victims. But many, exasperated at reports of food and medical supplies being stockpiled at Port-au-Prince’s airport rather than being distributed to those still waiting for relief, are concerned that not all of these funds are being used effectively. (The New York Times has offered these three tips to anyone considering making a donation.)
Labossiere said that public support for her home country since the earthquake has been a source of inspiration. “What gives me strength, really, and the courage to go on has been the outpouring of support throughout the world, and the Bay Area particularly,” she said. “For the first few days, the calls were coming in every minute: What can we do? How can we help? It’s been so comforting to see that, and it gives us courage and hope.”
But she said she was most frustrated by the priority given in the days after the earthquake to military planes over those carrying supplies and medical equipment. There are now over 16,000 US soldiers in Haiti, troops that have been sent to prevent chaos during the distribution process. Since the disaster, concerns over security and reports of looting and other forms of disruption have created a bottleneck in the flow of rations and medical supplies.
Labossiere said that she doesn’t see the looting as a symptom of chaos, but rather a simple act of necessity. “If you’re in a disaster as such,” she said, “and you find a store with water and food, what are you supposed to do? Should you not try to feed yourself?”
Though humanitarian aid is now starting to flow more smoothly — about 120 to 140 flights per day are now landing at Port-au-Prince’s single-runway airport, compared with 25 the day after the quake — Labossiere expressed regret for the many Haitians who died needlessly because medical relief was stalled by the US military response. “What the Haitian people need now are doctors and nurses,” Labossiere said. “Marines are arriving with loaded guns, but what we need is gauze for these people.”
While some Haitian groups in Oakland have focused their criticism on the US relief effort, they also recognize the historical role that America has played in Haiti’s development. Many charge the US with adopting exploitative policies that have helped create the widespread poverty that is the real cause of the tragedy in Port-au-Prince. “We look at this disaster as an unnatural disaster,” said Gerald Lenoir, director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, a group active in Oakland’s African-American community that hosts workshops and forums at local churches that educate the community about the global causes of poverty and immigration.
Lenoir said that the United States’ economic policies and its support for “dictator after dictator” in Haiti has crippled the country with debt and made the US “complicit in keeping people exploited and poor.” Haiti, once a prosperous, independent republic, said Lenoir, is now the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, which helps explain the earthquake’s unimaginable death toll.
The poor living conditions and unstable structures in Port-au-Prince made the city exceptionally vulnerable to an earthquake. By comparison, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which like the Haitian quake registered a 7.0 on the Richter Scale, killed 63 people in the Bay Area and left as many as 12,000 people homeless, and was considered one of the worst natural disasters in modern American history. Ten days after the Haitian quake, the United Nations reported that the official death toll was over 110,000 and growing, with 600,000 others left homeless.
BAJI partnered with the Haiti Action Committee last year to support Haitian immigrants in the United States who sought Temporary Protected Status (TPS) here after a series of hurricanes in 2008 destroyed entire Haitian cities and took away 60 percent of its harvest that year. This status allows immigrants who are in the US without visas (many of whom under final orders of deportation) to avoid being sent back to a country that is currently engaged in armed conflict or one that is suffering in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Temporary Protected Status has been granted to immigrants of five other countries — Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia, El Salvador, and Sudan — since 1999.
Of the nearly 522,000 Haitians that live in the United States, mostly on the East Coast, Census estimates show that there are only about 3,000 Haitian immigrants in California. The largest Haitian community in the Bay Area is in Marin County, where there are an estimated 800 to 2,000 Haitians. While many Haitians like Labossiere would like to be in Haiti to help the relief effort, they also recognize that for those at risk of deportation, Temporary Protected Status means a chance to work and live in stable conditions. “[TPS] is basically designed to allow people not to have to go back to Haiti,” said Angela Bean, an Oakland attorney who has been practicing immigration law for over 25 years. “But it’s not an earthquake relief program—it’s a political animal.”
The political nature of immigration programs has created complications in the past, she said, for many Haitians and other immigrants desperate for a better quality of life in the United States. Bean recalled one Haitian boy that she fought for all the way to federal court—only to see him be denied citizenship and deported. “He came to the US as a permanent resident when he was 11,” Bean explained. “His dad became a US citizen, but his mother was in Haiti and he never knew her. This child should have received US citizenship through his father, but fathers are discriminated against in immigration law.”
If it had been his mother who had come to the United States and naturalized, the child would have become a citizen automatically, but immigration law at the time required fathers to prove in court that they had been separated from the child’s mother for that to occur. Since the boy’s mother and father never were actually married, and the father couldn’t prove their relationship, the boy was denied citizenship and sent back to Haiti. “I’ve worried about him,” Bean said of the boy. “I hope he made it through [the earthquake]. He might be dead already.”
Last week, the Obama administration announced it would be granting Temporary Protected Status to Haitian nationals who have been in the United States since before January 12th, the day of the Haitian quake. Lenoir said BAJI is glad that Haitians are finally being granted this status, but that the US protection was “very long overdue.”
While temporary protected status will only grant Haitians protection for 18 months, Lenoir said that it’s possible that the Haitians could stay for longer. “Nicaraguans were granted TPS in ‘99, and it’s been renewed continually since,” Lenoir said, which allowed them to continue to live and work in America. “We expect and hope that will be the case with the Haitians.”
Even if that is the case, Marie Labossiere of the Haiti Action Committee said that the future of Haiti may depend on those migrants returning to help rebuild the country’s infrastructure and economy. “The most important thing is for Haitians to first of all come together as a whole, to reunite and take the lead and responsibility for rebuilding,” she said. “What we don’t want is for a country to come in and impose on us the rebuilding of Haiti. We the Haitian people must come together and do that.”
Oakland’s Antoine Bellot is one local Haitian who was at work rebuilding his country long before this month’s earthquake. Over the course of his 51 years, Bellot has watched his homeland change: he’s seen its farmland washing away, its forest slowly disappearing — and the health of its people along with it.
Bellot spent the first half of his life on Ile de la Tortue, a rural island off the north coast of Haiti. The son of a prosperous farmer and community leader on the island, he remembers Haiti as a fertile place of plenty, where his father was able to grow enough food to share his crops with his neighbors and friends despite the fact that he had twenty of his own children to feed.
“I lived many happy days in Haiti, days when you could cut a big banana and eat it, a big potato and eat it, a big pumpkin and eat it,” said Bellot in a thick French accent that at once demands attention and puts one completely at ease. After moving to Oakland 15 years ago, Bellot periodically returned to Haiti to visit family, and every time he did, it seemed that things were getting worse. “Every time I went back to Haiti I began to see the disappearance of the land,” he said. “Now its very sad, all the land is arid. The land has become dead.”
In 2004 Bellot and his brother Will founded the Oakland-based Bellot Idovia Foundation, which aims to fight the widespread deforestation and erosion that has crippled Haiti’s agricultural output and its ability to provide for itself. According to the US Library of Congress, nearly 60 percent of Haiti was covered with forests in 1923. Today, that figure is only two percent.
Bellot and his co-director, Denise Pittman, organize trips to Ile de la Tortue that are geared toward agricultural education and reforestation projects. The Bellot Idovia team works with local Haitians to plant trees, build local infrastructure, and adopt better farming practices “Our goal is to teach [Haitians] to plant trees and crops, to make the land profitable again,” Bellot said. “We want to share the knowledge of how to take care of the land, so the land will take care of them.”
Bellot Idovia also provides other resources for the island’s community. During their latest trip to Haiti two months ago, the group helped refurbish a medical center and installed solar panels on its roof, so that electricity can run twenty-four hours a day.
Pittman said that deforestation and poverty have created a culture of dependency, in which Haitians rely on foreign aid for survival. “Haitians are used to people coming in and solving problems for them,” she said. “That’s no way to sustain yourself. We want to help them learn to govern themselves better.”
Bellot said that the outpouring of support for victims of the Haitian earthquake is heartening, but warned that short-term disaster relief will not solve the problems that created the squalor and the scale of destruction in Port-au-Prince.
He hopes that the generosity of the international community toward victims of the earthquake will extend to groups like Bellot Idovia that are focused on long-term solutions to the poverty problem in Haiti. Bellot and Pittman are currently fundraising for their next trip to Il de La Tortue in March.
Bellot believes that by successfully reforesting the island of Il de la Tortue, he can show that Haitian land is not lost; that with education and smart agricultural practices, it can be reclaimed and become productive for the people again. His vision is that the island project will serve as a model for the rest of Haiti to follow. If that were to happen, he said, then US aid money would not only be going toward rebuilding Haiti’s capital, and the shanty towns that surround it. Instead, it would be providing a foundation for the Haitian people to come home to, and a chance to build a new country for themselves.
“When I look at Haiti, it’s a very sad situation,” Bellot said. “That’s why we’re motivated more every day to help. But we don’t want to do something today and tomorrow have them go back to the same situation. We want to empower them with resources and education to allow them to fend for themselves.”
Images: All photos are courtesy of the Bella Idovia Foundation, and were taken before the earthquake.
Lead image: Haitian women prepare a meal on the island of Ile de la Tortue.
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