Their minds are often on those back home in Haiti — thinking of them, praying for them, calling when they can.
For Soraya Jean-Baptiste, there is her cousin, a new mother, who recently walked more than three hours to a hospital with her husband when she went into labor because of the gangs who serve as gatekeepers to the roads in her neighborhood in Port-au-Prince.
“They weren’t letting anyone pass through. No one could drive. They were threatening people to kill them, and she ended up walking all that time,” said Jean-Baptiste, 32, of Randolph. “Just hearing about the story ... it impacts me a lot. I think that it’s a human right for people to be able to move around in their own country and not feel imprisoned.”
The conflict in Haiti, which has steadily worsened since the 2021 assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse by hired guns, continues to strike a chord among Haitian residents in Greater Boston, which has long boasted the country’s third largest Haitian population, according to the US Census. Many watch week after week as violence intensifies and law and order disintegrate, helping where they can and calling for greater action in both local and national arenas.
“You can’t really experience weariness when it’s a place you’re connected to, a place where you still have family,” said Ruthzee Louijeune, an at-large Boston city councilor who spent much of her childhood growing up in the city’s most densely populated Haitian community in Mattapan.
Louijeune, who has family in the heart of the conflict zone in Port-au-Prince, called on the local community to sponsor Haitians seeking to relocate to the US. She also urged the Biden administration to end deportations and streamline the process for immigrants looking to obtain work visas.
“It’s about being as welcoming to folks fleeing conflict as we can ... and rooting out the anti-Blackness in our immigration system,” she said.
Recent weeks have seen yet another surge in deaths and abductions, with gang violence leaving at least 208 killed, 164 injured, and 101 kidnapped in the first two weeks of March alone, according to Marta Hurtado, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Last week a Haitian-American couple from southern Florida made headlines when they were kidnapped from a bus on a visit to see relatives in Haiti. The couple is being held for ransom.
Another 323 people were killed in the first two months of the year, Hurtado said in a statement, most by snipers shooting people at random in homes or on the streets.
Schools have shuttered in recent weeks and without classrooms as a safe haven, many children have been forcibly recruited by gangs, which wield power over much of Port-au-Prince, the capital city, by blockading major roads.
“We’ve seen those gangs getting the most sophisticated weapons, and you know where those weapons are coming from? The United States,” said Pastor Dieufort Fleurissaint, 61, an outspoken Haitian rights activist and pastor of Total Health Christian Ministries in Boston.
Fleurissaint’s sister, who lives near the capital, is one of many parents whose children have had their education interrupted since a fresh wave of violence erupted in 2018. But the situation is worse now, he said, with schools closed for weeks or months at a time, instead of days, and children who “just remain in the house waiting” on classes to reopen, for fear of being abducted.
“All the schools have been closed completely [in many areas],” he said. “They just closed their doors two weeks ago because parents and children have been kidnapped on their way to school.”
In addition, as of mid-March at least 160,000 people have been displaced since the conflict began, according to the UN, with roughly 40,000 in makeshift settlements that offer limited access to clean water, leading to a resurgence of cholera cases. As they watch conditions deteriorate, many Haitians dream of escaping the country, but run into obstacles when trying to get a passport.
“I got a pastor who called me yesterday and said, ‘I got my three children here, and I just don’t want them to enroll in the gangs. I want to send them to Chile, to Mexico, but I can’t get passports for them!’,” said Fleurissaint, who also called on the Biden administration to step in and support relocation efforts.
“If the United States wants to help, they can help. They have the biggest embassy in Haiti. They have [the United States Agency for International Development] in all the different [geographic] departments in Haiti,” he said. “They are able to make sure our government issues passports to Haitian constituents who want to leave in the midst of this mayhem.”
Micalo Simon, a Somerville cab driver and security guard with eight siblings in Haiti, said he doesn’t see any way to quell gang violence other than military force, noting that gang members are unlikely to return to traditional modes of employment when kidnapping and blockades have proven so lucrative.
“How are you going to convince them to put the guns down and join work programs for $10 an hour?” asked Simon, 56. “We don’t have a working justice system to bring them to court.”
Others, however, see a greater role for Haitian immigrants to play in returning political stability to their home country — using their financial power to give stronger voice to the interests of family back home.
“There’s so much money that’s contributed to Haiti by people outside of Haiti. Our voices are not reflected in politics, and I wish there was more of a way for our voices to be heard,” said Jean-Baptiste, who counts herself part of a group of millennials that would love to see a Haitian political caucus to advocate for new ideas, from decentralizing the capital city to diversifying a parliament historically dominated by older men.
If the government experimented with ideas “other than the solutions we’ve been hearing since the ‘90s,” she said, “I think that we would see a different Haiti.”
Ivy Scott can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @itsivyscott.