On New Year’s Day, Haitians around the world will feast on our UNESCO-verified squash soup: “soup joumou.” During slavery, even though enslaved Haitians were the ones who made the soup, the French forbade them from eating it and kept it only for the French masters and plantation owners. On Jan. 1, 1804, Haitians overthrew the French after a 13-year bloody rebellion. We reclaimed the soup as our own. Haiti became the first free Black nation in the Western Hemisphere and the only nation to be created out of a slave rebellion. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, my extended family would gather after midnight on Jan. 1, pull an all-nighter making soup joumou, and ring in the new year and Haitian Independence Day with movies, full stomachs, and prayer.
But this celebration of freedom is bittersweet. In the past year alone, we’ve seen Haiti destabilized by a presidential assassination, rocked by an earthquake, and dodging other natural and man-made disasters. All this for a nation still reeling from the 2010 earthquake. The international community dances between stymieing Haiti’s economic growth and supporting bad political actors.
We bore witness to how the United States treats Haitian migrants this past summer. US Border patrol agents on horseback attacked Haitian migrants at the US-Mexican border. The government continues to block migrants from making asylum claims, flouting international law. Carrying on a Trump-era legacy, it has accelerated the deportation of Haitian migrants to a country rife with political and economic instability. The State Department’s travel advisory currently states, “Do not travel to Haiti due to kidnapping, crime, civil unrest, and COVID-19.” Yet more than 10,000 Haitian migrants have been deported since September.
Anti-Blackness embedded in immigration policy blinds the United States from recognizing the dignity of Haitians. For many Black Haitians living in America, this reality carries a deep sense of shame in the gap between this county’s professed values and its actions. Yet there have been glimmers of hope here in the Commonwealth. The Legislature recently allocated $8 million to the Immigrant Family Services Institute, the Mattapan nonprofit organization that attends to the Haitian migrants who have made it to Boston. Still, there is more to do at every level of government:
▪ Boston should allocate funding to nonprofits providing legal assistance to help obtain immigration status and survey whether city-owned empty buildings can provide temporary housing.
▪ The state should commit to continued capacity-building of Haitian-led organizations responding to emergency crises and routine needs of the Haitian community, such as IFSI, Association of Haitian Women in Boston, Haitian Community Partners, and others.
▪ The Biden administration must end its use of the Trump-era Title 42, which expels Haitian migrants without due process; provide funding for Haitian resettlement in the United States; adopt a political approach in true partnership with Haitian civil society to develop a foundation for free and fair elections, and improve overall conditions in Haiti; and thwart the flow of weapons coming from the United States that arms gangs and wreaks havoc on the people.
On Jan. 3, I’ll be sworn in as Boston’s first Haitian American city councilor. In the echoes of my recommendations can be heard the advocacy of former state senator Linda Dorcena Forry and former state representative Marie St. Fleur, both of whom had historic elections and remain powerful voices in the Haitian community. With the third largest Haitian diaspora in the country, we need more Haitian advocates in Boston demanding dignity for our people.
While campaigning, I met people from Somalia, Colombia, and other countries who told me how Haiti inspired or participated in their country’s own journey for freedom. It filled me with a sense of solidarity in our struggles. I think of the Haitian soldiers who helped this country in its own pursuit of freedom, such as the more than 500 free Black Haitians who joined American forces in Savannah, Ga., to push out the British during the Revolutionary War, now memorialized in a Savannah monument, and I am enraged at the US government’s refusal to be true partners in bringing life to the promise of the freedom won by a historic slave rebellion. Yet even this rage must give way to hope in the impossible. The stories of both the Haitian and American Revolutions are rooted in unyielding hope. That hope grounds me in knowing that true freedom for Haiti is possible, as is better treatment for Haitian migrants.
Ruthzee Louijeune is a lawyer, advocate, Hyde Park resident, and incoming at-large Boston city councilor.