Haitian Network Group of Detroit assists Haitians in the city. Events such as the July 30-31 festival.
By Michael Cleverley
A couple of years ago, a woman traveling from Florida to Canada with her son found herself stuck in Detroit when the northern border closed due to the pandemic. But fortunately for the pair, the Haitian Network Group of Detroit (HNGD) helped them find a place to live and held a fundraiser to help them get by until the border reopened nearly two years later.
“Whenever we come across people in that situation, we try to help either with interpretation, translation or bring some clothing,” said Margareth Corkery, co-founder and vice president of HNGD. “It’s only normal that those of us who are fortunate enough to not have to deal with immigration issues do everything possible to give a hand to other Haitians who seek our support.”
In recent years, the number of Haitians coming to Detroit has steadily increased to form a small community that HNGD works hard to serve. For some, like the mother and son headed to Canada, Detroit is a draw because of its proximity to Windsor, a city in Ontario, across the Detroit River. For most Haitians, Motown is yet another opportunity to live and work decently in a city more affordable than some coastal enclaves most Haitians in the U.S. call home.
The number of Haitian-owned businesses that have opened, the formation of groups like HNGD and the Haitian Art and Craft Festival coming up July 30 and 31 are all strong indicators of the community’s vibrancy.
“When you grow up in a place and don’t live there anymore, you tend to be nostalgic about the stuff you used to experience,” Corkery said. “So we try to recreate certain things that we love from there.”
Upcoming festival showcases Haiti
One of those things is the Haitian Art and Craft Festival that happens every two years. Haitian artists from throughout the U.S. — and for the first time this year, artists directly from Haiti — showcase and sell their work. The goal is to educate both non-Haitians and younger generation Haitian Americans about Haiti and Haitian culture.
The festival, which began in 2015, is open and free to the public. Storytelling, art workshops and traditional Haitian games offer entertainment for kids.
A rara band will provide live entertainment on the festival grounds at Riley Park and Sundquist Pavilion in Farmington, a suburb about 22 miles from Detroit. Attendees are welcome to join the performers as they march, sing and dance in procession.
“Give us a chance,” Corkery said. “We’ll teach you what we’re about. Yes, we have problems. But there’s problems everywhere.”
To make sure Detroiters have a better sense of Haiti, invited guests include Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib and Sara Bowman, the mayor of Farmington, who will be making some welcoming remarks on the first day to engage with the community. Besides the artists, many local Haitian-owned businesses participate, displaying their wares for the near 1000 attendees expected over the two days.
Corkery, whose HNGD group organizes the event, says it’s an opportunity for people to see the positive aspects of Haiti and instill pride in being Haitian. In a way, Corkery added, Haiti and Detroit do have a certain reputation in common.
“I always equate Haiti to Detroit because when you hear Detroit, people say, ‘Why are you going to Detroit? It’s violent,’” Corkery said. “It’s a beautiful place. It has history. It has character. You need to get to know it.”
Haitian small businesses expected
Over the years, many Haitians have done just that. They’ve chosen to settle in the city to work in a variety of fields, including its iconic automotive industry, as the midwestern city itself undergoes a rebirth. Some have gone into other fields such as real estate, travel and healthcare.
Still, others run small businesses.
Edens Gaston is among those, and he’ll be at the festival. The owner of Mr. Creole, a food truck, travels throughout Michigan plying event-goers with dishes of Jamaican jerk chicken, curry chicken and rice and beans. Gaston’s goal is to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant where he can have consistent year-round business, since Michigan’s harsh winters aren’t conducive for a food truck.
Carline Dugue owns Marabou International, a haircare product line that uses natural ingredients. She’s testing the products with women of different ethnicities to see if it is suitable for various hair types. Dugue will be at the festival selling her product.
Dugue said she designed the business to give back to her homeland, being sure to buy castor seeds from Haiti, even though she could get them cheaper from another country.
“I wanted to maintain that relationship with my country and help boost the economy by supporting those farmers,” Dugue said. “That’s the best way I could give back to my country right now.”