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Second Ward Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste is a part of what he calls the Haitian Diaspora: He is one of approximately 3 million Haitian citizens who left the country and resettled in the United States or elsewhere primarily during the 1950s and thereafter. In 2005, Mr. Jean-Baptiste and several other area Haitian-Americans decided to try to marshal the resources, talent and experience of the Diaspora to try and make Haiti a better place. In 2006, the Haitian Congress to Fortify Haiti (called the “Congress” by its members), now located on Dodge Avenue, was officially born.
The primary focus of the Congress changed dramatically on Jan. 12, when a massive earthquake struck Haiti. Everything took a back seat to relief efforts. As the Congress’ executive director, Aline Lauture, said about the effect of the earthquake on Haitians at home and abroad, “Everyone lost someone or had family that lost a home.” As a result, the focus of the Congress is “entirely on the relief effort” for now.
At the same time, noted Congress Board Member Frantz Jacques, “The specific mission [the relief effort] is entirely in line with the initial mission. This is the task right now; the mission remains.” In fact, the Board feels that it is in this particular time of crisis Haiti needs the resources, talent, input and involvement of Haitians abroad more than ever.”
The central mission of the Congress has two prongs: first, to organize Haitians living abroad to give back to Haiti; second, to convince the government and people of Haiti to accept the offered help. Both prongs seek to correct historic problems. Senator Dick Durbin, visiting the offices of the Congress as part of a tour of Evanston on Feb. 5, told Mr. Jean-Baptiste that in his experience the Diaspora, and even the government in Haiti, has not been organized. “It seemed chaotic in Haiti before the quake,” he said, “… and now, with this crisis on our hands….”
Mr. Jean-Baptiste responded by talking about recent successes. “[W]hat we have observed as the trend is that the Diaspora has been mobilizing itself….” The resources available, said Mr. Jean-Baptiste, can transform the struggling nation if the trend continues. He spoke not only about the members of the Diaspora itself, but also of their children: “[T]here’s 3 million of us outside, and plus we have another 5 million kids [of Haitians] who have grown up here, amassed a tremendous amount of skills, and who have a sense of relationship with Haiti.” The skills, resources, knowledge, and money of the Diaspora and its children can be of tremendous assistance to Haiti, particularly now.
Not only do Haitians abroad have much to give, but the nation they left has yet to fill the void created by their departure. Congress Board Member Alexandre Viard said the Diaspora led to a massive “brain drain” in Haiti, as talented individuals fled the dictatorship of François Duvalier (Papa Doc) and later his son, Jean-Claude. If the Congress can successfully re-integrate the Diaspora into the fabric of Haitian society, their talent, knowledge and skills will be of tremendous value to a country in need.
The Congress also seeks to combat a sense of resentment or bitterness felt by Haitians in Haiti toward members of the Diaspora. “We want to feel equal when we are down there,” said Mr. Jacques. A key to feeling equal and to being accepted by the Haitian community in Haiti, is citizenship, the Congress believes. Haitian law does not currently allow for dual citizenship – once a Haitian becomes a citizen in another country, Haitian citizenship is lost.
As Mr. Jean-Baptiste put it, “We have been trying to organize to open up the laws of [Haiti] to allow us to fully reintegrate into the life [of Haiti]… We have been fighting for dual citizenship, to amend the constitution to grant Haitians who have become American citizens dual citizenship.”
Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, who joined Mr. Durbin on the Evanston tour Feb. 5, said her perception during a recent visit to Haiti was that “resentment in Haiti toward the Diaspora has changed.” Mr. Jean-Baptiste agreed, pointing to the relief effort and the actual people on the ground, who returned to Haiti to help after the earthquake, as one of the causes of the change in perception.
The change, however, predates the earthquake. As Mr. Jean-Baptiste reported, “…on Sept. 14, 2009, the [Haitian] Parliament voted to recommend amending the constitution” to allow for dual citizenship. (Under Haitian law, an incoming parliament must act on the recommendations of an outgoing parliament “because the Duvalier-regime-era people were trying to prevent the sitting government from being able to amend the constitution.” Once the parliament gets back on its feet, he said, dual citizenship might be a reality. Given that, according to many reports, every major government building has been destroyed, such action might take a while.
Until then, the relief effort continues. As an example of the skills and connections acquired outside of Haiti and the importance of using them to help Haiti, Ms. Lauture told of the difficulty in getting supplies into Haiti in the immediate aftermath of the quake. “There were no commercial flights,” she said. A planeload of doctors landed in Miami, but could get no closer. Ms. Lauture contacted the president of the United Airlines Cargo division, for whom she once worked, and was able to reach an agreement with United to provide seats on cargo planes, flying into Haiti as a military contractor, to get doctors and nurses into Haiti. Between Jan. 28 and 31, 35 to 40 doctors and nurses landed in Haiti through the efforts of the Haitian Congress and Ms. Lauture.
Transit of materials is becoming possible, and 6,000 pounds of medical supplies left on Feb. 7. And the mission of the Haitian Congress to Fortify Haiti continues, as more and more Haitian Americans return to Haiti and are welcomed.
The Congress is not the only organization of Haitian Americans looking to make a difference, and not the only one in which Mr. Jean-Baptiste is directly involved. He recently became the Chair of the National Haitian American Elected Officials Network. He traveled to Haiti with that organization on Feb. 6.