JULY 2003

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The Haitian Community In Brooklyn
From France Amerique

By Keren Lentschner


In New York, where more than 455,000 Haitians live, the majority of the community resides in Brooklyn, principally in the neighborhood of Flatbush Avenue, and in Cambria Heights (Jamaica, Queens). France-Amerique has gone to find them.

This is one of the neighborhoods of Brooklyn where the largest number of Haitians live. In total, the borough counts the most important Haitian community of the country with 305,000 people. To start, the signs often have French words.

At the “Clavicule de Roi', a store selling religious objects on Church Avenue, there is an old poster of Jean-Jacques Dessaline, heroes of the Haitian independence, and thrones on the threshold of the door. The odor of incense embalms the floor.

Candles, bibelots, crucifix, coarse salt -- one finds everything here for worship. One of the employees, a man around 60 years old, responds in French on the telephone. An animator-organizer in Haiti, he left his country 14 years ago. “Because the economic situation was not good,” he explains, not very loquacious, “These are the circumstances that bring you here.”
French, he loves to speak it. Today, he still buys books in French at the “bookstore of France” at Rockefeller Center.

A few meters in front, the Haitians have another religious sign, “Philomene,” which attests to the importance of faith in this community.

To refute the image of numerous Haitian youths who have renounced studying law or medicine like the “ancestors,” Jean-Valerie Fortune, age 26 and a resident of this neighborhood, is preparing for a computer programmer certificate and works as a security agent for a business on Wall Street. “Here, it is really easy to become someone,” he says, explaining his arrival in the United States four years ago.

Holding a green card and “very happy here,” he does not know for how much time he will be here. “This, this is destiny,” he says. His father and his brothers and sisters are still in their country. When Jean-Valery passes from English to French, he punctuates his sentences with “whatever.”

The person who best handles the French language according to him is, without hesitation, French President Jacques Chirac, whom he sometimes watches on TV5. “I would like to speak French like him,” he blurts out smiling. He likes to read from time to time in the language of Moliere, the newspaper Haiti Progres, or the novels of the francophonic Haitian writer Frank Etienne.

On 34th Street, two steps from Church Avenue, one finds Radio Lakay, which is broadcast on the Internet in Creole and French. Among the most popular singers on its waves, in addition to zouk and Haitian music are Mireille Mathieu, Frederic Francois, Michel Sardou and Charles Aznavour.

The name of the journalist Jean Dominique, one of the most famous in Haiti, assassinated during the troubles of the spring of 2000 – and to whom Israel Camille, the station’s technical director, and Odatte Ronel, information director, were close – comes very quickly into the conversation.
In order to explain the malaise that reigns in their country, and the absence of freedom of the press, they say, “There is a political crisis for two years, a deficit commercial balance, no budget for closed to four years, the country is at the edge of an abyss.”

“The last elections were fraudulent,” continues Odatte. “So, the country is back to its old self.”
The two young people do not draw an idyllic picture of their situation in the United States with the constant terrorist threat, “One does not feel safe here either,” the two young men assert. “In New York, life is a struggle,” adds Israel, who hopes to return to Haiti soon.

And the capitalist system does not benefit the poorest. “I am going to try to return to the system in which we live here,” he continues, “to learn also, but I am not going to stay forever. I am not at ease here.”

As if to signify that a nobler mission awaits the two men in their country, “It is left to us, the intellectual class,” confirms Odatte, to change the situation of the Haitians.

Translated from French by Charlotte Triggs

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