Haiti unrest fuels fear, frustration in tight-knit Haitian diasporas

Marjorie Villefranche has never experienced anything like it.

For the past six months, the head of Maison d’Haiti (Haiti House), a community centre in Montreal’s St-Michel neighbourhood, has received a wave of unsolicited messages from Haitians, begging for help to leave the country.

“‘Get us out of here please, we are starving, we are afraid, we are in the hands of mobs,’” Villefranche recalled of the messages that have poured in. “That never happened before.”

But this month, Haiti’s years-long crisis reached a new peak of political instability and violence.

Powerful armed groups have maintained their grip on the capital of Port-au-Prince after the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry last week and a shaky political transition is under way.

The attacks have paralysed Port-au-Prince, more than 360,000 people have been displaced, and the country faces a deepening hunger crisis.

For Haitians living outside of the Caribbean nation, the unrest has fuelled a sense of fear and anxiety over the safety of their loved ones back home. It has also spurred growing frustrations over their inability to get family members out of harm’s way, as well as calls to action.

Villefranche told Al Jazeera that more than half of the staff members at Maison d’Haiti have close family in Haiti.

“They’re just on the phone with them all the time because they don’t know what will happen to them. Some of [the relatives], they cannot go out of the house, they don’t have water, they don’t have electricity. You risk your life to go and buy some food,” she told Al Jazeera.

Meanwhile, the international airport in Port-au-Prince has been closed amid the violence and the Dominican Republic – which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti – has largely sealed its land border, too.“It’s impossible actually to get them out but this is what everyone will like,” Villefranche said. “They want a break from that suffering. Everyone [is] thinking, ‘Can I bring my family here, please?’”

The diaspora

Haitians have migrated to other parts of the Americas region and further afield for many decades.

Some left in search of better employment opportunities or education, while others were pushed out due to natural disasters, political instability and increasingly, violence wrought by armed groups.

Today, there are large Haitian communities in the Dominican Republic, Chile and Brazil, among other countries in Central and South America, as well as in Canada, which is home to nearly 180,000 people of Haitian descent.

But the largest Haitian diaspora is in the United States, where US Census figures showed that more than 1.1 million people identified as Haitian in 2022.

“We’re all connected. I think that every Haitian immigrant is somewhat connected to Haitians in Haiti,” said Tessa Petit, the executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC), a coalition of dozens of community and advocacy groups in the southeastern US state.

Florida counts the largest Haitian community in the country, followed by New York City.

Like Villefranche in Canada, Petit said Haitians in Florida have strong ties to communities in Haiti – and they have been watching the latest developments in Port-au-Prince with alarm over the past several weeks.

“There’s a stress because you’re sitting here, you’re in Miami, you feel powerless,” Petit told Al Jazeera. “You hope that you’re not going to get bad news, that it’s not going to be your turn to lose a loved one.”

Growing urgency

Petit said there is a growing sense of urgency among Haitians in the US that something must be done to stem the wave of deadly attacks in Haiti’s capital.

Amid the violence, US President Joe Biden’s administration and other foreign governments that had previously backed Henry, Haiti’s unelected prime minister, since he took office in 2021, withdrew their support for him.

They are now backing a political process that will see the establishment of a transitional presidential council, which in turn will choose a temporary replacement for Henry before Haitian elections can be held.

The United Nations has also supported a multinational security mission to help Haiti respond to the gangs but that proposal has been stalled.

The president of Kenya, which is expected to lead the deployment, said last week that the country would send “a reconnaissance mission as soon as a viable administration is in place” to ensure that Kenyan security personnel “are adequately prepared and informed to respond”.

But Petit said people in Port-au-Prince cannot wait for such a mission to arrive. Instead, she urged the international community, including the US, to provide better equipment and training to the overwhelmed Haitian National Police to restore security.

“What’s going to be left of the country if we’re waiting for a Kenyan police force?” she said. “There’s not going to be anything left to fight for.”

‘All is not lost’

Emmanuela Douyon, an anticorruption activist who left Haiti in 2021 amid fears for her safety and is now based in the US city of Boston, echoed the need to act.

“It’s really painful and I’m feeling a lot of emotions at the same time,” she told Al Jazeera about what it has been like to watch the violence in Haiti unfold over the past weeks from afar.

She noted that this month’s crisis is not new, however, but the continuation of years of corruption by Haitian politicians and businessmen who have used armed groups to maintain power and further their economic interests.

“The situation is extremely serious but all is not lost,” said Douyon, who stressed that many Haitians can serve their country and help rebuild state institutions.

“But on their own, without the support of the international community, without the support of international civil society groups, they won’t manage it” in the face of armed gangs that increasingly want political power, she said.

Villefranche at Maison d’Haiti in Canada, also told Al Jazeera that there are many groups and people in Haiti who are well organised and have ideas about how to chart the country’s future.

But these Haitian voices often get excluded, Villefranche said, in favour of “the same old actors who created the problem” in the first place.

“It’s funny because in the Haitian spirit, we’re never discouraged. We always think that there will be a solution, so I think being in despair is not in our DNA. Even if it’s terrible, we just hope that something better will come out of it.

“People are sad, they are angry, and I would say that a lot of them, their body is here but their heart is in Haiti – because their family is there. So this is how we feel, I would say: a little bit empty,” Villefranche added, her voice trailing off.

“But still hoping that something will happen because there are a lot of possibilities in the country – because there are a lot of people still living there and ready to do something.”


Related Articles

Back to top button