TAMPA — Lucile and Jean Oscar saved for years to open the restaurant she had dreamed of since she was a teenager.
The Haitian nationals moved to Tampa from Fort Pierce in 1999 and immediately noticed that while the area was a hotbed for Cuban food, dishes from their homeland were hard to come by. So while Lucile Oscar became a manager of a Hess Express in Brandon, they watched their expenses and saved every penny.
A year and a half ago, they opened the Kreyol Delight restaurant on Busch Boulevard. Step into the restaurant and you can order Sos Kabrit (stewed goat), Ke Bef (oxtail), Tasso Kabrit (goat chunks), Pwason Gro Sel (sauteed red snapper) and Diri Djon Djon (black rice).
“They didn’t have any Haitian restaurants when we moved here,” said Lucile, 33. “I was like, “This is the place to open it.’
The Oscars are part of a growing Haitian community of business owners, lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers and ministers who now call the area home.
“When we moved here in 1999, it (the Haitian community) was very small,” said Jean Oscar, 33. “But now it’s a huge population.”
Chances are that population will continue to grow.
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama announced the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will oversee the Haitian Family Reunification Parole Program to more quickly unify Haitians who are here and their families who stayed behind.
The program makes it easier for Haitians living in the United States who are legal citizens or legal permanent residents to petition to have their relatives come legally to the U.S. The change, long lobbied for by Haitian advocates, makes it easier for Haitian relatives to come to the United States, but the process still will be slower than many Haitians would like.
Once a petition is approved, the relatives still will usually remain in Haiti under a waiting period for two to 12 years, said Steven Forester, immigration policy coordinator for the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.
Haitians approved under the new program will be able to receive work permits. Advocates expect many will send money back to Haiti to help relatives there, many of whom are still suffering from the 2010 earthquake, Forester said.
“These people are coming anyway,” Forester said. “Family reunification is the backbone of our entire immigration system.”
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said much of her office’s work involves immigration issues for her constituency. Cubans, she said, are No. 1 in seeking immigration assistance from her office, but Haitians are a close second.
After the earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, her office was overwhelmed assisting family members in the Tampa area who were trying to get their relatives out of the country and helping local Haitians get information about their relatives. The earthquake killed an estimated 200,000 people.
“It was the most dramatic time in my office,” said Castor, whose husband,, Bill Lewis, has volunteered for mission work in Haiti through their church. “It was all hands on deck.”
U.S. Census figures from 2013 show more than 9,000 Haitians in Hillsborough County, nearly 1,500 in Pinellas County and just under 1,000 in Pasco County. The Pinellas figure is about a third higher than six years earlier; in Hillsborough and Pasco counties, the increase is more than 80 percent.
Castor and other community leaders say the numbers are even higher than the census figures show.
A 2004 study in Hillsborough County published by the Haitian-American Organization for Population Activities and Education estimated 20,000 Haitians called Hillsborough County home.
Linda Tavernier-Almada, president of the Haitian Association of Tampa Bay, said the population numbers for Haitians might be low for several reasons. Population counts sometimes classify Haitians as African Americans, she said, and language barriers sometimes hinder an accurate count.
Haitians also have historically distrusted the government because of their country’s long history of government corruption and abuses, she said.
“It’s a very secretive people,” said Tavernier-Almada, a University of South Florida professor of Africana studies. “It’s fear of being discovered, fear of being outed as Haitians.’’
For much of the general public, the word Haitians brings to mind boat people and voodoo, she said.
“For a long time, Haitians were pretending not to be Haitian because of the stigma,” Tavernier-Almada said.
But that’s changing, she said, especially with more Haitians who have succeeded in the U.S., established themselves professionally and accepted leadership roles.
Tavernier-Almada earned her college degrees, including her master’s and doctorate, from the University of California at Berkley. She has lived in the Tampa area for a little more than a year.
She immigrated to New York City from Haiti at the age of 10 with her parents. After she graduated high school, she returned to Haiti for several years.
“It’s only recently that Haitians have started to identify as Haitians,” Tavernier-Almada said. “We’re Haitian and proud of it.”
Tavernier-Almada said Haitians come to the Tampa Bay area for the same reasons most other immigrants do: opportunity. She said many of those moving to the area are coming from South Florida, especially Miami, where the Haitian community and businesses are becoming saturated.
“They come here and they are able to shine,” Tavernier-Almada said. “They are able to show their worth. … Here they can move up the social ladder.”
Two years ago, Esther Ternival and her husband, Ulrick Germain, formed the Greater Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce of Tampa Bay because they thought the growing number of Haitian’s businesses needed to organize to promote their businesses and culture.
“There are a lot of people that don’t know we exist (here),” said Ternival, the executive director of the chamber. “We don’t really make the noise.”
Ternival said she expects the Haitian community to continue to grow, in part because of the recent policy change making it easier for relatives to migrate and partly because the Haitian community is reaching critical mass.
“When somebody comes (here) they come because they have somebody that is established here,” said Germain, 42, chairman of the chamber.”We’re happy to see the Haitian community growing.”