Haitians in the U.S. feel the pull of home

haitians return home Cyncia Raymond Celestin and her husband, Guito, were about to buy their dream house in Miami Shores. They drove “his-and-hers” Mercedes. But in March, after much reflection, they gave up their cushy life and moved to Haiti.

Even before the earthquake, the couple wanted to build businesses and participate in what they believed would be a time of historic change.

Today, with the country facing so much destruction, the Celestins could hardly be criticized if they gave up and returned to Miami. But they say they’re committed for the long haul.

“There was never a time our country needed us more,” says Celestin, who worked for Miami-Dade County Transit. Her husband was a MetLife financial adviser.

They are among a large number of Haitian-Americans who feel the pull of their homeland. Long acculturated to diaspora life, they often speak better English than Creole. But in the aftermath of the worst crisis their country has suffered, they have been forced to take stock of their priorities, clarify issues of identity (Can I fit in back in Haiti?) and consider how they might participate in rebuilding.

Immediately after the Jan. 12 earthquake, Haitian-Americans mourning personal losses or worrying about missing loved ones jumped to help with relief efforts. But now the dust has settled, and many in the diaspora ? not just in Miami but also in New York, Canada and Europe ? are coming to terms with the fact that they have skills they can put to great use back home. They see a chance to make a difference in the long run.

“We know we have to participate one way or another,” says Gepsie Metellus, executive director of the Sant La Haitian Community Center in Miami’s Upper East Side.

She remains committed to her work in Miami’s Haitian community but says she would return to Haiti “in a New York minute” to carry out specific projects for a few weeks at a time.

“We have come of age politically, administratively, personally,” Mettelus says. “And we have a different approach. We are operating in the United States under strict controls, controls that don’t exist in Haiti. It’s up to us now.”

As with Cuban exiles, members of the younger generation of Haitian-Americans have been instilled with a sense of patriotism by their parents and grandparents who long have pined to return to a better Haiti. Some of them say they had considered lending a hand in Haiti but have held back, fearing their time and energy would be squandered by a corrupt system.

Line Bovery, a registered nurse, and her husband, Ron Hallabe, a Florida Power & Light engineer, say they are now ready to put doubts aside.

“You go from a really profound sadness to a really strong desire to get there by any means,” Bovery says.
But the couple can’t just drop everything. They have jobs, a mortgage.

“We would prefer to be there together, of course. But we’re ready to handle one of us being gone for periods at a time,” says Bovery, who was born in the United States. Her parents left Haiti 40 years ago.

“My parents always had a dream of being able to go back to Haiti one day and help make the country what they knew it could be,” Bovery says. “But there was always so much political upheaval. It’s my duty … to go back now.”

Decisions about exactly what jobs they could do, and through which organizations, are still up in the air for many Haitian-Americans.

“I do think I have skills that could be very useful in Haiti right now,” says Thamara Labrousse, a consultant with Strategic Partners, a Miami firm that helps organizations develop and strengthen their infrastructures. “But I don’t have the resources to do this on my own. It will require associating with some entity that’s going to be serious about rebuilding.”

Labrousse has been sending money back to her family since she was 18.
“That’s when my mother died. It had been her job to send money back, but when she died, I became my mother,” says Labrousse, who also put herself through college and raised a younger brother.

“Sending money back was as important to me as paying my own rent. But that’s not heroic. That’s what happens in a typical immigrant household. But while you’re struggling to build your own life, you do think about giving back to your homeland in a broader way. That desire kind of lays dormant, especially because of the political corruption in Haiti. You’re not going to put your own life on hold to try to help only to wind up accomplishing nothing. But things are different now.”

Karen Andre, a Miami lawyer and political consultant, helped coordinate relief efforts immediately after the earthquake. But she knows she needs to carve out a bigger role for herself in Haiti’s reconstruction.
“Lately I’ve been thinking, ‘What if I packed up and moved to Haiti?’ We do need people who are willing to go that far,” she says. “It’s something I’m still wrestling with.”

The fact that she would face hardship living in a place with little infrastructure even before the earthquake is the least of Andre’s worries.

“Here in Miami, there is a level of certainty and comfort. I can drive into my gated community, take hot showers every day. But there can be no greater calling than to help make Haiti bigger and stronger,” she says.
“Right now I’m researching NGOs on the ground to assess what’s needed and what I can specifically bring to the table.”

In the past, resentment often flared against Haitians who left, then returned to try to assume leadership roles. But that perspective had begun to change even before the earthquake.

“This past holiday season was one of the most festive in Haiti,” says Leonie Hermantin, deputy director of the Lambi Fund, which works to empower Haitians in rural communities. “There were so many Haitian-Americans there that it was like being in Miami. There was so much optimism. And it felt much safer. Haitian-Americans were beginning to see themselves connected to their homeland in a way that was becoming transformational.”
Regine Monestime, a Miami lawyer, celebrated this past New Year’s Eve in Jacmel.

“It was the first time I had ever vacationed in Haiti,” says Monestime, who was born in New York. “I had gone for family weddings and funerals. But this time I saw Haiti from a different perspective. For the first time I thought, ‘Maybe I really could get a little house on the beach one day and retire here.’ I love that, at night, people tell one another stories instead of sitting in front of the computer or the TV.”

“People were talking about the possibility of a great return,” says Andre, whose mother, Farah Juste, is a well-known singer who organizes an annual Haitian Independence Day Concert in Miami and was blacklisted by Haitian ruler Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s government for her protest songs. “There was beginning to be good will on both sides. Which makes it even more important for people who want to go back to help to not adopt a paternalistic attitude. This can’t be ‘Move over and let me.’ “

But, Hermantin says, international organizations involved in rebuilding efforts must enlist the help of Haitian-Americans.

“The international donor community has spent a fortune over the years hiring consultants to help Haiti. But there was always little effort to find consultants who knew Haiti, who spoke the language and who had the resumes and the degrees to do those jobs,” she says. “There are so many qualified Haitian-Americans. And while everybody else will run out in the long run, we won’t. We’re in it for life.”

(c) 2010, The Miami Herald.

Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.