How will the earthquake affect the future of the Haitian American community?

Marleine Bastien is the founder and executive director of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami–Haitian Women of Miami–www.fanm.org, which advocates for the rights of Haitian women. She is also a congressional candidate for U.S. House District 17, representing Little Haiti and other neighborhoods in Miami. Erin N. Marcus spoke with Bastien on Jan. 22 about the Haiti earthquake.

What has FANM been doing since the earthquake?

As soon as we heard about it, we headed to the Haitian Community Center. The next day we organized all the groups under the leadership of the Haitian-American grassroots coalition, an umbrella of 15 different organizations that I co-founded.

By Thursday we had our first relief center open. Now, we’re getting water, clothing, foods, dried beans, tents. We’ve been offered a cargo of portable toilets, which is a big need right now. From a communication I received this morning from Port-au-Prince, people are sleeping on the streets and they don’t have any infrastructure to allow them to bathe or even take care of their basic needs. Our cargoes leave every day, to go to Haiti to different foundations in the country.

Now we have lists of doctors, nurses and social workers ready to be deployed once the airport is open. Anybody who calls and offers their support we put in our human resource data bank.

We devised a plan to assist those who needed to locate their family members. Before anybody else started doing it, we got people to bring their pictures here to the center. We scanned their pictures and placed them on the CNN website and also on our own website.

We organized a support system to welcome the (adopted) children who have been coming to the airport. Many of the children don’t speak English, and their [adoptive] parents don’t speak Creole. Many of them needed sweaters, so we started a campaign to get sweaters to them at the airport.

What do you think of the global response to this crisis?

For the most part, it was very significant, but it was too slow. Even as we speak, I am communicating with Raymond Laurant, a volunteer in Port-Au-Prince. He told me that he is getting texts from people who are still alive, even today.

He also told me that the feeling on the ground is that only the most important folks and the Americans were attended to. There’s a strong feeling that most of the people in need of assistance are not getting it and there are so many areas where people are still alive under the rubble, but no one is paying attention.

Why do you think that the organization of the response wasn’t better or faster?

People were scrambling to respond. It was exacerbated by a lack of infrastructure in Haiti. I think it’s more the fault of our own state than anything else — the fact that prior to this there wasn’t any infrastructure to even have a semblance of preparation for any disaster.

What’s your reaction to the mainstream media’s depiction of the events in Haiti?

I was very impressed by the level of reporting and by the importance given to the story – it’s still making the front pages. But I was a bit disappointed by some of the things that were being emphasized, such as looting. For the most part, you have 2 million people with no food, no water — they were well behaved by all standards.

The main responders were the Haitian people. There should have been more focus on those unbelievable stories of human beings helping each other in the face of such horrific conditions — people squeezing into holes with their whole bodies to remove babies and pregnant women. Focusing on a few young people screaming for food and taking away a bag of rice — that’s not looting, that’s surviving.

Did you lose any friends or family?

I lost a cousin. She died while teaching her students. I still have a lot of members of the family who are unaccounted for. But I consider myself lucky because it could have been worse.

How will the earthquake affect the future of the Haitian-American community?

Haiti is really poised to receive an overwhelming amount of support from the diaspora. Many left Haiti with skill sets and competencies that have been strengthened during their time in the United States, or Canada, or Africa, or wherever they may be. It depends on the vision of our leaders in Haiti. In the past they have been very reluctant to accept and welcome this assistance. My hope is they put their personal political ambitions behind them and look rather at how we can together put our strength, skills and talents together to put Haiti on the road to democracy and development.

What effect do you think this will have on Haitian immigration to the United States and on U.S. policy?

The policies of both Democratic and Republican administrations have been: keep them out by any means necessary. So we are happy that the Obama administration, albeit late, finally decided to give temporary protected status to Haitians.

We’re not asking the administration to open the floodgates for all to come; we are asking them for the basics, which is a safe haven and a means for refugees to state their cases in a court of law, and for them to be free and out of detention.

You are one of three Haitian Americans who are serious contenders for the U.S. House seat being vacated by Kendrick Meek. There have not yet been any Haitian-Americans in the U.S. Congress. Do you think this marks a new stage in politics for Haitian-Americans?

Actually I’m one of four – there’s one who just joined. Haitians have been contributing to build the social, economic and political fabric of this country for a long time. I think this country will be enriched by having the first Haitian-American serve in the U.S. Congress.

At the same time, are you concerned that the four Haitian-Americans could split the vote?

Yes, I’m concerned about that, and that is why I’m really pushing for a consensus. I believe that if my three compatriots rally behind me, we have a very good chance of making it. So my prayer is that we can have the first ever Haitian-American — and a female on top of that – elected to the U.S. Congress. I believe that we will benefit by having a woman there.

Erin Marcus is an internal medicine physician and writes at New America Media.

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