By Anne D’Urso-Rose
Martha Bezzat and Ose Schwab contributed to this article
Right after the devastating earthquake in Haiti on Aug. 14, Nekita Lamour of Malden received a message from her cousin from Jérémie, in the south of Haiti. Her family’s home was completely destroyed and her cousin went into labor when the earthquake started. Her baby son was born the day after the earthquake and she is now living in makeshift housing under tarps with her husband, the new baby and her two other children.
“I thought of my half brother and his wife who had a baby right after the 2010 earthquake and were living in the same kind of situation,” Lamour said. “The baby died because of the breezes and the germs that are not conducive to a baby’s health. But I didn’t tell [my cousin] that.”
The enormity of Haiti’s suffering can overwhelm any sense of actionable empathy; the island nation has suffered from two massive earthquakes in the last decade and a recent presidential assassination. For non-Haitians, it can be easy to move on. The pictures and stories recede from the headlines. The world moves on to other tragedies, other issues.
But for thousands of Haitian-Americans living in Malden, the recent events are still very much on the surface. They receive news from their homeland — pictures and texts from family members, calls from friends through WhatsApp, deeply personal stories from the fallout of these events. This is all part of the daily lives of people like Marie Coulanges from Malden.
“St. Louis du Sud is the town where my father had his last church, the Baptist church where I grew up. When the earthquake struck, there was a funeral service going on for an elder. He’s someone that I knew, very well-respected and a great community person. The balcony of the church fell and killed nine people — all there to pay respects to this elder. It is so tragic,” Coulanges said.
Coulanges grew up in a small town, Les Cayes, in the south of Haiti, and immigrated to the United States in her teens. Her father was a minister who led churches and spent his life helping people in need. Coulanges credits both her parents with instilling that sense of ministry in her. She said that she has not been able to sleep due to recent events. She spends her days communicating with people in Haiti and trying to help in whatever way she can — sending money and raising awareness.
“Every time something happens in Haiti, I feel so bad. Even though I came to this country a long time ago – my father brought me here and I’m so grateful for being here and for being part of the American dream – but even though I am here, a piece of my heart and a piece of me will always be in Haiti,” Coulanges said.
Nadege works in Malden and is a former resident. Her family is from the westside of Haiti in a suburb of Port au Prince. Nadege’s immediate family was not affected by the recent earthquake, but a family friend’s village was drastically affected, a village that she has fond memories of. She explained, “A friend’s house I used to visit on long weekends, and sleep at, totally collapsed…and the family is just living outside under a tent.”
Mikeneil Paul, the new director of the Malden Senior Center, was born in the United States to Haitian-born parents, but grew up and went to school just outside of Port-au-Prince. He immigrated here without his parents and with his younger brother, also a U.S. citizen, just after the 2010 earthquake. He has since attended Salem State University and earned his master’s degree in Public Health at Boston University. He worked at LaSource, the adult daycare center for Haitian seniors on Commercial Street just prior to taking his new position at the Malden Senior Center.
Though his family is not from the south of Haiti, where the recent earthquake hit, he knows many people from that area. “Haiti is on a small island,” he said. “It’s like a big family. You know people from everywhere in the country.”
“A lot has been happening very fast,” Paul said. “For Haitians living here, Haiti is a constant source of stress and anxiety.” Paul’s own parents immigrated here just recently, after the assassination of Haiti’s president, which plunged the country deeper into crisis.
Paul initiated a fundraiser with two Haitian-American colleagues in Malden: Bybiose Larochelle, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Coordinator, and Tamerlie Roc, the Community Communication Outreach Specialist at the Board of Health and Human Services. The fundraiser had the backing and support of the City of Malden, a city home to one of the largest percentages of the 86,000 Haitian-Americans living in Massachusetts.
“We didn’t want to send money because it’s difficult to get money to the people who really need it in Haiti. Instead, we focused on collecting tents and sleeping bags, also medical supplies and hygiene products,” Paul said. “Our fundraising event was done Haitian style. We had food and a DJ to help attract people to come and bring donations. The food and music was 100% donated by local Haitian individuals and businesses.”
The event, held on the City Hall plaza on Aug. 31, and the subsequent opportunity for donations through Sept. 14, generated a donation of 40 tents, along with thousands of toiletries and first-aid items.
“I reached out to organizations in the southeast of Haiti that I know are doing great work in the country. They were able to help us ship all the items to the south of Haiti where they will get distributed. I want to get pictures to show how the items have helped families there. With 40 tents you can give 40 families a temporary place to live.”
Marie Coulanges has been sending money regularly to people she knows in Haiti even before the earthquake. She wires the money via Western Union and has personal contacts that bring the money to people in need. She communicates via WhatsApp to make sure the money goes directly to families.
“Those of us who are here and have some money, we need to help. I give money to the people in the village and I make sure they get it so a family has some rice and some dried beans so their children don’t go to bed with empty bellies,” Coulanges said.
A local nonprofit, Sowing Opportunities, helped Coulanges set up a GoFundMe page so that others can donate money for her to send directly to people in need in Haiti.
Other local efforts include Malden Comes Together for Haiti, a fundraiser to provide tents, tarps, and other emergency items to earthquake victims. This effort is organized by community member Amanda Ceide, with the help of Greg Gourgue, a veteran of the U.S. Army National Guard, who has worked on many helping initiatives on the ground in Haiti.
The Haitian Club of Malden High School has been holding an ongoing fundraiser to support the Matènwa Community Learning Center in Haiti. Paul Degenkolb is a French teacher and advisor to the club who initiated an ongoing partnership between the two schools. The club encourages people to donate on the Friends of Matènwa website.
It’s important to do research before donating, say organizers. Coulanges cautions those who want to help the situation by sending money. “When you give money to big organizations, you don’t really touch the real needs of the people. They might come with a big truck and give things out. But who gets those things? People who have the strength to fight and carry the stuff back. It’s not the women and children and elderly and people far away in the mountains and villages.”
“90 percent of all the country’s resources stay in the capital,” Paul said. Infrastructure is poor in the country and villages are in mountainous terrain with primitive roads. It is difficult to bring food and goods and water into those areas. After the earthquake, the price of food, gas and oil rose significantly. “Getting food and water to people is a big thing, especially for people who do not have the same resources as middle-income people,”
And it’s not just the prices and the difficulty in transportation. “The political situation, it’s dreadful,” Coulanges said. “Haiti is very complicated and has a lot of problems. We’re dealing with so many things at the same time.”
Lamour considers the situation dire. “The country is now being ruled by bandits and gangs.” Michelle Raymond, a local Haitian-American resident, described the political situation as “a pissing contest.”
“It’s sad,” Lamour said. “I love Haiti. I love my country. It’s not just about my family — though I love them and care about them. I care about my country. Haiti never has peace. The political situation, the natural disasters. It’s calamity after calamity.”
Raymond observes that “Haiti is in desperate need and no one wants to help them…when you want to help, other people get in the way…it might not be given out in equal shares.” She laments their “wheel of fortune” between the floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, and cyclones, and wonders whether, “the rise of climate change could affect if Haiti is still a country.”
Raymond said she “doesn’t want to talk to friends” about the situation and that they “try to be lighthearted.”
And yet, there is a general appreciation for the beauty of the country and the resilience of its people. Lamour said, “Haiti has so much natural beauty — the scenery, the ecosystem. It has such a rich history and a rich culture. It has more to offer in terms of richness of culture than any other place in the Caribbean. Jérémie is called the ‘city of poets.’”
Nicolas Hyacinthe, is a Haitian-American living in Randolph, whose artwork – paintings, photography and short films – were recently featured at UMA (Urban Media Arts, formerly MATV) in Malden. He immigrated to the United States with his family when he was nine years old and has traveled back there a number of times. Much of his artwork, particularly his photographs and films, helps to highlight the natural beauty of the country, the resilience of its people, and its rich history. He hopes to show the side of Haiti that outsiders do not get to see.
Many local members of the Haitian diaspora find creative ways to help their country. Jean Appolon, a Malden resident who experienced deep family trauma emanating from crises in Haiti, founded Jean Appolon Expressions (JAE), a contemporary dance company rooted in Haitian-folkloric culture. JAE runs dance workshops in the Boston area and will be performing a new work, Traka, which is all about how we heal from trauma — whether personal, cultural, or historical. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has made a documentary of the making of this work. It will premiere in 2022 at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Jean and his company of dancers and musicians will perform a short excerpt of it in Malden on Oct. 2 at City Hall Plaza at an event called “Ouvèti.” He will also offer his popular Haitian Folkloric Dance on the same day.
Prior to Covid, Appolon traveled to and from Haiti and ran dance workshops with over 100 youth from the Port Au Prince area. The organization is committed and connected to youth in Haiti currently through technology. He cites many other organizations committed to supporting Haitians through arts and education.
But Haiti’s problems run deep. Lamour said, “I don’t think there is hope for this generation in Haiti. We have to focus on the kids being born now. Raise them in the way you want the country to be in 20 years. Raise another generation – that cares for the country. That’s my hope.”
As for what Malden citizens can do to support Haiti, Raymond recommends “find out about Haiti, learn more…people know the big stuff, but not the little stuff….” She suggests that if you’re giving money, give it directly to families and not to trust every organization.” She also said the city could get involved with the local Haitian community center. “Just be aware and get educated about what’s going on.”
Paul said, “I cannot NOT have hope. I have to have hope because I have so many family and friends there. It’s impossible for them to all come here. As for seeing a realistic path for Haiti out of all this, I don’t see it. I can only do what I can do and to pray. My mom says, the Lord has to do something. She instilled in me a faith. It will take a lot. It will take other nations helping.”
Hyacinthe cites a Haitian proverb that captures the topography of the country, as well as its many challenges. In Kreyol, it is “Dèyè mòn, gen mòn!” And it means, “Beyond mountains, there are mountains.”
If you would like to help, below we offer a list of local efforts that address immediate needs or, as in the case of the Ouvèti event, also raise awareness of Haitian culture. We also provide a list (shown first) of established organizations that include a focus on systemic needs. These were researched and compiled by Nicolas Hyacinthe, who says “These organizations have been around and have a track record of being on the ground and helping. They have a legacy, an imprint in Haiti. I favored organizations that are Haitian-led or where Haitians are part of the top administration. These all have a good score on Charity Navigator and they make it easy to donate. People can go on their website and read about them. Many I’ve heard about from people in Haiti – where they have directly encountered the organization’s work.
Haitian Women For Haitian Refugees
Health equity international St Boniface Haiti Foundation
Hope For Haiti
Partners in Health
Local Efforts & Ways to Help
Help Feed Southern Haitians After the Earthquake
Fundraising & distribution initiative by Marie Coulanges
Malden Comes Together for Haiti
Organized by the local Ceide family in collaboration with Greg Gourgue
Matènwa Community Learning Center
Support a learning center in Haiti that partners with Malden High School
Ouvèti Outdoor Dance Performance and Community Haitian Folkloric dance class
Come out to Malden City Hall Plaza on Saturday, October 2 for a very special event sponsored by UMA (Urban Media Arts) in collaboration with Jean Appolon Expressions. Dance workshop at 1:30 PM. Performance at 3:30 PM. Click on link for details.