Words by Kristal Roberts
“We searched for my sister for days,” said Marc Edouard Jean Baptiste, a Haitian immigrant who moved to Tampa, Florida, two years following the earthquake in Haiti.
After the quake, which devastated the island and more than 230,000 people, Baptiste and his family thought his sister had died. They later discovered that she escaped out from under some rubble with the help of a stranger, who escorted her home.
“They were an angel. It was a miracle.”
Many people fled the ravaged island, looking to start over, and settled in several U.S. cities including New York, Boston and Miami. Baptiste and his wife, along with thousands of Haitians, have made Tampa their home.
When Baptiste first moved to Tampa, he said he had a rough start connecting with people, but eventually the certified coach and speaker plugged into a large network of Haitian professionals who live in the area.
“I was surprised how many people were here,” Baptiste said. “Once I started connecting with people, especially through my church, it made it worth staying.”
The thing about the Haitian population in Tampa is that it already existed. The St. Petersburg Times reported at least 8,000 Haitians were present in 1994, and the numbers have surged in recent years.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa told the Tampa Tribune in 2014 that while Cubans were the top group requesting immigration assistance, Haitians are a very close second.
Fortunately, many Haitians who came right after the earthquake received treatment from Tampa General Hospital and were offered housing assistance by local groups like the Catholic Charities and the Lutheran Ministries. The 2013 census reported over 11,500 Haitians living in Tampa, but even Castor admits that the data is likely wrong. Over a decade ago, a 2004 study conducted in Hillsborough County by the Haitian-American Organization for Population Activities and Education (HAOPAE) said the number was closer to 20,000.
Today, word of mouth indicates the number is much higher.
“I heard there’s about 70,000 Haitians living in Tampa,” Baptiste said.
Dr. Linda Tavernier-Almada, an Africana Studies professor at the University of South Florida and President of the Haitian Association Foundation of Tampa Bay (HAFTB), said the cause behind the confusion in numbers may be the Kreyol-French language barrier.
Some Haitians are also identified as African-Americans, and according to Tavernier-Almada, Haitians can be secretive about identity.
“In terms of their immigration status, Haitians are very cautious about discussing things like that because they fear any form of retribution,” she explained.
According to the Pew Research Center, that fear is valid. While the exact figures for Haitian immigrants weren’t mentioned, the number of immigrants who have been deported from the U.S. has steadily increased, from 189,000 deportations in 2001 to 438,000 deportations in 2013.
Deportation is a looming threat to illegal aliens, but the HAFTB focuses on providing immigrants with all the resources necessarily to survive and thrive in their new environments. HAFTB promotes Haitian heritage and provides a number of services to the local Haitian community, including mentoring, tutorship, scholarships, assistance with immigration issues and job connections.
But this is just one of many programs that involve Haitians helping Haitians.
Emmanuela Pierre Charles, a grad student of Haitian descent at University of South Florida, worked with a lot of Haitian immigrants through her former employer, CARIBE. The CARIBE Program provides school kids as well as adults, English language instruction, educational assistance and vocational training to immigrants.
“We had a program where we taught them to speak English. After they reach a certain level they can go to a school for a certain career, something technical or something like that,” she said.
The skill level of the Haitians she worked with varied widely.
“Some people came and they were already in school, some people couldn’t even write their names. It was like a mixture of different levels of education,” she said. Some of the clients she worked with ended up attending Charles’s church. “But it’s not because of the program,” she explained. “It’s a Haitian church – Bethanie SDA Haitian Church (Seventh Day Adventist) – on Florida Ave.”
Haitian churches are a part of the natural network at play responsible for connecting this growing community.
There are a large number of Haitian churches in the area for Haitians to network, as well as a significant amount of Haitian establishments like Alez Haitian Cuisine and Kreyol Delight, which employs Haitians. Then there’s also the Greater Haitian American Chamber of Commerce that connect Haitian businesses and causes.
Due to the devastation she witnessed in the aftermath of the earthquake, Charles started an organization with her church three years ago, called Knowledge and Empowerment for Your Success First (K.E.Y.S. First). She’s hosted back-to-school drives mostly serving children from the Haitian population and even chats with law enforcement to teach Haitians about American law.
“There are Haitians that come here and don’t know the laws, so we would bring an officer in just to educate them, because the country has laws, so you have to be careful not to fall into certain things,” she said. “A lot of them have set up lives now. They’ve got kids now, they’ve gotten married.”
And it appears that there will be even more opportunities for new Haitian migrants to put down roots.
Toward the end of 2014, President Barack Obama rolled out a program that will make it easier for Haitians to legally call the U.S. home: the Haitian Family Reunification Parole Program. It allows Haitians living in the U.S. as legal citizens or legal permanent residents to quicken the process of petitioning for relatives to come legally to the U.S.
Dieunice Deris, a 30-year-old Haitian-American and graduate student at the University of South Florida (USF) studying public administration, founded Neg Kreyol, a non-profit student organization which focuses on benefiting other Haitian organizations, the Haitian community and Haiti.
He explained that Haitian immigrants who move to the U.S. not only contribute to the American economy, but provide support to their families back home.
“Sending money back is the basis of the economy in Haiti…they come here, they work and send money back home, that’s pretty much how most of the Haitians (in Haiti) are supported,” Deris said.
Many hardworking Haitians often face a long, expensive road to citizenship. Deris believes the reunification program is a step in the right direction.
“We fought for a long time for immigrants to have a better way to be here legally and not have the problem of being deported. We applaud President Obama. It’s actually allowing these individuals to have the opportunity to be here with their families so that way they can get their visas and eventually, their residency,” he said.
“This should make things easier, I know that people who have been waiting for a period of time should have their cases expedited, there’s a lot of paperwork.”
Baptiste agrees, and is grateful for Obama’s program. With the resources and thriving community developing in Tampa, he thinks the city is a great place.
“Tampa is a great place to come. There’s lots of opportunity in this town. I’d advise any Haitian to come here.”