haitian flag, flag day, Flatbush Haitians
A woman wears a Haitian Flag mask during the parade for Life of Hope's Haitian-American Heritage and Flag Day Celebration on May 15, 2021 in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

By Garry Pierre-Pierre | The Conversation

I don’t know if I’m the only one to notice, but it seems as though the fervor of Haitian Heritage Month has increased tenfold this year. Contrary to my expectation that 2021’s celebrations would be fewer and tamed, the opposite has come to pass. 

Social media posts featuring photos of Haiti’s flag are ubiquitous. Events galore are taking place, in person and online, all across the U.S., especially on the east coast. Even Niagara Falls was illuminated in the flag’s red and blue colors, the first time in history, to the delight of our Haitian-Canadian counterparts.

I was buoyed by this collective coming together because Haiti has left us precious little to celebrate as it careens toward more uncertainty. 

The feel-good displays of pride have been contagious, and hopefully it will lead to a movement where we can be part of the solution for a better Haiti. 

I also found hope in this generation’s desire not to let what’s happening in Haiti define who we are and to put actions behind their words. On May 18, the date Haiti’s flag was first sewn, The Haitian Times organized a virtual event to discuss the flag’s motto, “L’union Fait La Force.” In English, “In unity there is strength.” 

The conversation was scheduled to last one hour but it went on for a half-hour beyond because there was so much ground to cover. Yet, it still felt that we could have gone longer. Haiti’s opportunities took center stage as we discussed the role that the U.S diaspora can play, working in partnership with like-minded individuals in Haiti. 

Everyone agreed that Haiti needs a robust civil society that is engaging and setting a collective agenda. 

Call for stronger policy advocacy in D.C.

In the diaspora, we have our own work to do. Despite our sending remittances in the billions of dollars to Haiti every year, we need to be stronger, savvier and more sophisticated when it comes to forming organizations that can lobby Washington to enact better policy vis-à-vis Haiti. 

If you look at Haiti’s morass it is no different than Ireland and Italy were a century or so ago. Ireland, in the words of my colleague Niall O’Dowd of the Irish Central news group, “was the original shithole country.” It took the work of the Irish diaspora’s deep engagement to restore the shine to the Emerald Isle. 

Italy, a republic younger than Haiti, was the sender of immigrants the world over, particularly to the Americas. The country was in disarray as people looked for better pasture elsewhere. Eventually, these Italian immigrants also helped change Italy’s narrative. 

Israel’s existence is a testimony of the strength of its diaspora. The undying support that Israel has in the U.S. Congress and White House is also reflective of the work of the U.S. Jews. 

The reality is that we’re not there yet as Haitian-Americans. We’re a relatively new group of immigrants who went from an exile to an immigrant group, navigating a new system, learning a new language and assimilating in a society where black people face an extra challenge because of the color of their skin. And we’ve been going through these shifts at an accelerated pace.

Standing united

The Haitian Times panel on Flag Day, featured Wyclef Jean, the Grammy Awards winner musician as well as Dr. Yveline Alexis, a professor at Oberlin College and yours truly. It was moderated by our own Macollvie J. Neel.

But to me, Wyclef was not the only star on the panel. I was deeply honored to have met Dave Fils-Aimé and Nedgine Paul Deroly. Both are highly educated at elite American universities and they chose to return home to do God’s work in a place with little hope. 

Deroly holds degrees from Yale and Harvard and co-founded Anseye Pou Haiti, or Teach for Haiti. In 2014, she was named among the top global social innovators by Echoing Green. 

“We believe that we can look inward to push forward … ,” she told Harvard Ed. magazine in 2016. “[We want] students to value and be proud of where they come from.”

Deroly set out to tackle the country’s education challenges, including a lack of teacher training and glaring inequities in schooling, particularly in the rural areas in which nearly 70% of Haitians live. 

The organization recruits an all-Haitian group of existing teachers and recent graduates to become fellows, focusing on underserved rural areas. After a two-year program of pedagogical and leadership training, more than 75% of the fellows return to their communities — not just as teachers, but as civic leaders — with the knowledge and skills needed to spread educational equity and drive change in their communities.

Fils-Aimé is also a graduate of Yale and Harvard who returned to Haiti in 2012 initially to work with the United Nations Development Programme and a year later he launched the organization, Basketball to Uplift the Youth using basketball as a conduit to educate and mentor underprivileged young people in Haiti. 

Fils-Aimé shared many great insights on the reality in Haiti as someone who has lived there for  nearly decade. But Fils-Aimé got to the core of the situation in Haiti with a simple basketball game that he organized between his boys and students from one of Haiti’s elite high schools.

To me, it wasn’t just a game. It was a kind of social bonding between two groups whose paths in life would have never crossed. After the game the students realized that they share many of the same interests and exchanged contact information and hope to remain friends for a long time.

This is what I meant last week when I opined that Haiti is in dire need of a truth and reconciliation commission like South Africa did after the Apartheid system was dismantled under withering boycott from the world. 

I returned to this point because a friend who is weighing a presidential run was skeptical about the idea and didn’t think it was feasible to do in Haiti.

“Mission impossible, because we are all maroons,” the friend wrote to me via WhatsApp, referring to Haitians’ propensity for distrusting each other. “ It takes an empowered group of competent people with integrity who are accountable to each other without any ruse. The big problem is how to go to the elections and win with armed gangs in the pay of 2 to 3 bosses who fight among themselves to keep or take power.”

People like Fils-Aimé and Deroly make me smile with optimism, at least on Haitian Heritage Month. 

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