By Rachele Viard

On Oct. 3, Congresswoman Val Demings held a Haitian Town Hall meeting at Oak Ridge High School in Orlando, Florida.  

“With over 350,000 Haitian-born residents in Orange County, also given the increase in violence in Haiti and other troubling conditions on the ground, as well as the looming deadline for TPS, [it’s] important to speak directly with the Haitian community about their concerns,” Demings said. “Though TPS wasn’t the only issue discussed, other issues like healthcare, education, and job opportunities critical for the Haitian community and for all Central Floridians were also addressed. I invited a group of expert presenters because it’s important for all members of our community to have access to resources and opportunities.”  

The congresswoman was joined by leaders in the Haitian community including Orange County Commissioner, Victoria Siplin; Dr. Marie-Jose Francois, President/CEO of The Center for Multicultural Wellness and Prevention Inc. (CMWP); and Josue Raymond, Assistant Director at Orange Technical College – Orlando.

During her address Demings quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saying “what affects one directly, affects all of us indirectly.” 

She argued that America is made stronger by its diverse communities. She also addressed the civil unrest and fuel shortage going on in Haiti. Haitians have been protesting over the past several months over fuel shortages, which has exacerbated an already dire economic situation.

Siplin was elected to the Board of County Commissioners in 2014, appointed Vice-Mayor in 2017, and currently serves as Chairwoman of the National Haitian American Elected Officials Network (NHAEON). Siplin was born to Haitian parents in the Bahamas and grew up in Central Florida.  She spoke on her personal experiences with immigration, and strongly encouraged residents to get involved in government.

Demings believes that every person living should have quality health care, and Francois discussed the importance of access to healthcare, prevention, as well as treatment.

Education is the most important tool to increase our odds for success. Raymond spoke on the importance of alternative educational opportunities and a GED, stating that Orlando Technical College offers over 60 such programs.

Wilna Destin, also a guest speaker, came to Orlando from Haiti 19 years ago. She currently works as a labor organizer for UNITE HERE 737.  She has two U.S. citizen children, age 11 & 14, owns a home, and pays taxes. Destin spoke passionately about her desire to not uproot her children from their Central Florida community.  Unfortunately though, she is currently among hundreds of thousands who face the threat of deportation after TPS was revoked. An advocate for TPS, she’s encouraging Congress to create a permanent solution—something Congresswoman Demings is working on.  with Congresswoman Frederica Wilson and Congressman Alcee Hastings.  

Elaborating on her thoughts on the issue of TPS,  Demings shared, “It is wrongheaded and unfair to force Haitian members of our community to return to Haiti on short notice during a period of unrest.  I am co-sponsoring a bipartisan legislation with Congresswoman Frederica Wilson and Congressman Alcee Hastings to stop the administration from ending TPS until the current lawsuit is resolved, plus another 18 months. I’ll keep fighting to protect persons living and working in Congressional District 10.”

Haitian Consul Max Charles, Dr. Idler Bonhomme of the Greater Haitian American Chamber of Commerce, nonprofit organizations including the Haitian Nurses Association were in attendance.

Demings is no stranger to Haiti. Prior to the 2010 earthquake, she visited the nation on a mission trip with her church.   

Born into a Haitian family in Stone Mountain GA. , Rachele visited Haiti several times in her youth and connected to the country and the culture. She moved to Haiti in 2009, where she put her English degree to use as a writer, using her voice and pen to promote tourism in the country and highlight the richness of the Haitian culture and people.

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