News & Events

Homeland’s crisis strains Haitian families in region

By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / February 8, 2010

The ringing telephone jarred the early evening in the Cambridge apartment. It was Patrick St. Fleur, calling from the ravaged Haitian capital, urging relatives in Massachusetts to send money – and fast.

His 9-year-old son, Darlens, had lost a leg when their home collapsed in the Jan. 12 earthquake, and needed surgery. His wife and infant son were dead.

St. Fleur’s sister, Juliette Andre immediately wired $450; she soon realized with dread that it would not be close to enough. But as a home health aide who lives in public housing, she has limited means.

“They keep calling me asking me to do something,’’ she said, “but I don’t know how to do something for them.’’

In the aftermath of the devastating quake, Haitians in Massachusetts and beyond are facing intense pressure to pay for medical care, food, and shelter for loved ones in Haiti – and even to find ways to bring them here. But for many local Haitians, the new demands are sorely straining families struggling to make ends meet.

Haitian immigrants and their children are a diverse mix of professionals and laborers, but they are hurting more in the recession than average state residents, according to recent census data. About 13.5 percent of Haitians fell under the poverty line, nearly double the state average, while their per capita income was $18,000, compared with $33,800 statewide.

Still, immigrants and others are digging into their savings and wiring what they can to Haiti from money-transfer kiosks set up in bakeries, minimarts, and storefronts across Massachusetts.

Carlo Jean Michel of Boston, a 56-year-old parking valet, sent money to a friend who lost several relatives and her house. But he also sent her bus fare so that she could travel from the town of Merger to Port-au-Prince to locate Michel’s missing daughter.
Junie Simon, a 30-year-old clerk at the Petionville Bakery in Everett, sat behind a glass window helping customers wire money to Haiti last week, days after she sent her own limited cash to bury her sister in the city of Carrefour. “We don’t have enough money to send over there,’’ she said. “Here you have to pay bills. You have to pay for everything.’’

Bedlet Victor of Somerville, a 34-year-old bus driver and co-owner of Bedley’s Mini-Market, named after his son, has not lived in Haiti for 20 years, but he expects to be sending money for years to come. Before the earthquake, he was putting a cousin through medical school. Now he is struggling to come up with extra money to send.
“They depend on us here. That’s the way it is,’’ he said, as his 16-month-old son snoozed in a bassinet behind the counter. “They count on me.’’Continued…

Immigrant families were already a lifeline before the disaster, sending back an estimated $68 million last year from Massachusetts, which is home to about 60,000 people of Haitian descent, the third-largest in the United States.

The $1.18 billion in remittances sent to Haiti in 2008 accounted for almost 30 percent of all economic activity in the Caribbean nation, according to the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. The average amount sent to Haiti was $123, lower than the regional average of $249, partly because the US dollar goes further in Haiti.

“In times of crisis, they try to do the best they can, and they will probably be able to send more money than they used to, but I don’t think they can send more than 30-percent more,’’ said Manuel Orozco, a senior associate in the remittances and development program at the Inter-American Dialogue, which focuses on policy and issues in the Western Hemisphere.

The Andre family in Cambridge is doing more of everything. In addition to sending money to relatives in Haiti, they are trying to get some of them out.

One snowy day last week, Juliette Andre, 52, went to US Citizenship and Immigration Services in hopes of speeding a sister’s emigration from Haiti. She had already paid $355 to apply to the US government to bring Mirlene, 38, to the United States, but now she also wants to bring her brother Patrick’s son, Darlens.

The boy underwent an amputation in a hospital in the Dominican Republic, where he keeps crying for his aunt in the United States to come and get him. “He won’t eat,’’ Juliette Andre said, worried, as she and her daughter Jenny Andre-Jean visited the federal building in downtown Boston. “He misses his mom.’’

A clerk at the information desk gave them some paperwork, but they have to figure it out on their own. Bringing a relative to the United States is a costly process that can take months or years, and her sister is sleeping on the street in Haiti.

They paid $10 for parking, and left just as bewildered as before.

“If I find somebody to help us in immigration, to let them come over here, that will be good,’’ Juliette Andre said. “When they come here, they will survive.’’

For now, the Andre family goes to work, aware that the aftermath of the earthquake will drag on for them as well.

Life in America was never easy – Juliette Andre’s husband brought them to America, but he died of cancer in 1992, leaving her to raise three children alone. Still, all three, Jenny, Jimmy, 28, and Erlande, 23, went to college, and all are US citizens.

They are all aware that life is much harder in Haiti, now more than ever.

“If my father didn’t bring us here we would be in the same predicament as everyone else,’’ said Jenny Andre-Jean, a 30-year-old preschool teacher. “We can’t just turn our backs on our family. That’s our blood.’’

© Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.