Joelle Fontaine was just a little girl when she moved to America from Haiti.
There, she had community and family, and her mom took her to the beach every weekend. But it was scary, too. The president was Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who, like his father, “Papa Doc,” terrorized the people. Corruption, poverty, violence.
“I loved my country. It’s never your choice to leave everything you know and love and come to a country where you don’t know the language and have to start completely over. But my mother’s business was burned down. We would hear gunshots at night. I was scared to sleep on the bed. I slept under the bed. I heard men come in the night and rape the girl next door.”
Her mother wanted a better life for her daughter. They came to America. She thought it would be like the summers she spent in New Jersey with her aunt, going to church and surrounded by family. But when they settled in Boston and made the American transition, the xenophobia was inescapable. It was the ‘80s, at the height of the HIV epidemic, and the CDC had wrongly listed Haitian immigrants as high risk for AIDS and prevented them from donating blood.
“I barely knew English and I remember going to school and being called an African booty scratcher, people said Haitians were bringing in AIDS and not wanting to be around us. It wasn’t until the Fugees came out that Haitians became cool all of a sudden and everyone was proud to be Haitian. Before then, it was a different world,” she said.
But seeing the images of Border Patrol on horseback yanking Haitian migrants off their feet as they fled for a better life reminded her the world is still upside down in America. We are supposed to protect those seeking safety, not uphold supremacy, wielding reins like whips with the harrowing echoes of the souls of the first Black folk in America.
By Friday afternoon, the camps by the Rio Grande had been entirely cleared, officials said.
“I went to bed crying Monday night and I woke up and there were still tears in my eyes. I came to America on a plane. I am watching people who have crossed thousands of miles, through rivers and valleys on a dangerous journey, hearing a young girl recount her story of making it to America and they are being beaten. When I see a Black Haitian man being whipped in 2021, that is my uncle, that is my brother, that is me,” Fontaine said.
As much as she looks at America’s xenophobia and narcissism as problems, as deeply as she understands we need to end the use of Title 42, invoked by Donald Trump to deport migrants, Fontaine is also looking at the life she has built and both of her countries.
Fontaine runs her own fashion house, I am Kréyol, celebrating Haitian culture and style. Last year, she did a collaboration with Bloomingdales. This winter she will debut a REFUGE(E) collection focusing on the concept of safety. All of the things she had in Haiti as a little girl — community, family, dreams — she has here, too. Massachusetts has the third largest population of Haitian immigrants in America. This is also home.
“Americans need to look outside themselves and seek to understand what it is they fear. That idea of immigrants coming here and taking jobs and bringing crimes is false. We bring culture, creativity, and more,” Fontaine said. “But I am also looking at myself, at the diaspora. We have so many Haitians here, first and second generation, who are talented and knowledgeable and doing well. What are we doing to elevate and invest in Haiti?”
That idea of immigrants coming here and taking jobs and bringing crimes is false. We bring culture, creativity, and more.
Ruthzee Louijeune, who is running for a Boston City Council at-large seat, helped organize a protest for Haiti in front of the John F. Kennedy Federal Building downtown on Friday morning.
“No human being should be treated the way we are seeing Haitians being treated,” Louijeune said. “It harkens back to times of enslavement, strips people of their basic human dignity, and it reminds everyone how anti-Blackness rears its head in so much of our policy including immigration.”
Born and raised in Hyde Park and Mattapan, Louijeune is home here in America, but when she sees Haiti, that is home, too. Her grandmother is there, her parents are from there, and her ancestors root her in the country.
And Haiti is in crisis. In July, there was the assassination of President Jovenel Moise. A 7.2-magnitude earthquake killed more than 2,000 Haitians in mid-August. Now, Haitians seek refuge and a new beginning in America, only to be met with violence and inhumanity.
President Biden’s administration promised a more graceful immigration system, yet his team clings to Title 42 of the Public Health Service Act, leaning on COVID as a reason to reject those seeking asylum without a hearing. It’s a power allowing federal health officials to limit access based on fear of infectious diseases.
“For the US to be treating Haitian migrants without compassion and decency is a smack in the face to so many who have contributed to this country who have been driven out of Haiti,” Louijeune said. “Migration doesn’t happen in a vacuum. No one just leaves their home just because. People are being forced out over economic and political conditions that you cannot divorce from American policies that have often left Haitians bearing the brunt of it all.”
America has benefited off Haiti. Haitians helped us win the American Revolution. Yet America has used and abused the country that fought off its French slave owners and declared its independence.
“We do our own intelligence a disservice if we don’t acknowledge the role of America in creating the political stability you see. America can help Haiti. We can help by reversing Title 42. We can help this small island by practicing human decency,” Louijeune said. “I am the daughter of Haitian immigrants who are American citizens and super voters. But Haiti is their home. What happens on the island affects us here.”
What happens on Haiti, what is happening to Haitians seeking asylum, should matter to all of us.
Biden must be held accountable. We have to fight for Haiti, for migrants seeking safety. And we cannot allow Biden to dismiss Haiti as an island that could sink into the Caribbean without consequence to America.
Haitians live in our country. They are our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends, our family. And they, too, are American. We should care. Asylum should be accessible. But what is refuge in a land that reserves safety for the privileged?
Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee and on Instagram @abeautifulresistance.