Many mid-sized cities like Indianapolis, whose metro areas are growing quickly with immigrants, find it a challenge to keep pace with the newcomers’ needs. Meanwhile, the latter struggle to adapt financially and culturally.
INDIANAPOLIS—William Dejoie left Haiti for Chile in 2017 for a better life. He worked on a farm there, and, with his wife Franchette Alexandre, created a business selling lottery tickets and renting houses. But when business declined in 2019, they headed north to America – taking a 5,000-mile, eighth-month trek across two continents, in the middle of a pandemic. They survived a mugging as they crossed the Darien Gap, lived in a Panama refugee camp for months, where Alexandre bore their first child, a boy, and finally arrived in March 2020, at the Texas border.
But when Dejoie, who didn’t speak English, tried to ask a man working in his yard if the man needed additional help, the man came out with a dog and a gun. Luckily, a Haitian passerby advised Dejoie, saying, ‘If you run, he will kill you.’
In contrast, there’s Rachel Menelas, a former Brooklynite who came last year with her 6-year-old daughter, boyfriend and mother. She felt drawn to Indy as a better place to raise a family, afford a home and have a stable life. To reach those goals, the certified nurse assistant whose sister, Jenny Menelas, works in the Mayor’s office as a Neighborhood Advocate — is studying to become a qualified medical assistant.
“I feel like I’ve become part of something bigger than myself,” the East Side resident said, about her career here.
The immigrant population of Marion County, in which Indianapolis lies, experienced significant growth in size and diversity over the past 10 years, according to the city’s Immigrant Welcome Center (IWC). Just last month, the Lilly Endowment announced a grant of $1 million to IWC. Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett also opened an office dedicated to International and Latino Affairs and hired more Neighborhood Advocates, who smooth out difficulties for residents and businesses, many of which are owned by immigrants.
Indianapolis, in certain ways, is facing the challenges that many midsize cities throughout the U.S. are facing as a “new frontier” for arriving immigrants. They are leaving or bypassing swollen megalopolises in Florida, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, California and Texas for jobs and lower costs of living. Like Dejoie, many often arrive with little money or English language skills. The endurance of arduous journeys, physically or emotionally, and an unclear immigration process leave many vulnerable to abuse as they navigate cultural, legal and logistical challenges once here.
Leaders across governmental levels are aware of these new arrivals and provide varying support. Indiana’s Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) says that the state is “very accommodating, very welcoming” to immigrants, noting their attraction to Indiana’s universities and employers. He also said that he wants to increase awareness and access for those in Indiana who are detached from resources such as healthcare or employment. State officials did not respond to requests from The Haitian Times for immigrant programs offered by the state for which Haitians might qualify.
The Mayor, who spoke at this year’s Flag Day Celebration, said Haitian immigrants had strengthened the city’s diversity and inclusion, a point of its pride.
“There are numerous examples I could cite of Indy’s Haitian population contributing to the success of the city,” Hogsett said. “From holding business symposiums, to speaking at a local university on the importance of community engagement, to feeding hundreds of students during Hispanic Heritage month at a local charter school — Haitian community members are dedicated to contributing to Indianapolis’ future.”
Assistance available, but lags in many area
For Dejoie and his family, navigating American systems is a new journey, fraught with triumphs and trials.
“I have my cousin who got scammed by two Haitians,” Dejoie said. “And many Haitian people [have] become panhandlers in Indianapolis. They don’t go to work.”
Dafney Lavache has seen odysseys like Dejoie and Alexandre’s play out repeatedly among residents of the West Side and East Side, the two Indianapolis neighborhoods where most Haitians live. As the Director of Community Engagement at the Haitian Association of Indiana (HAINDY), Lavache often guides immigrants with housing, legal, transportation and employment needs. With housing, for example, many lack privacy because they are paying to sleep in someone’s living room.
“It’s just a hot mess in the Haitian community,” said Lavache, who immigrated from Haiti when she was 12. “It’s us hurting each other. And I don’t think that’s going to end anytime soon, because I think there’s much [that] Haitians have gone through.”
Here, where buses whiz along 38th Street in the heart of the city, a leisurely drive reveals countless international grocery stores, a fair share of Mexican restaurants and Haitian-owned businesses such as Nice Cut Barbershop. The thoroughfare connects the Haitian community on the East Side to the other part, about 20 miles away. The West Side includes Speedway, one of four independent cities within Indianapolis, home to Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the offices of HAINDY.
Three zip codes generally define the West Side and two, the East. Some Indy residents refer to the East Side as the area where most Haitian immigrants get their footing to start, later moving to the West Side. But without recently acquired income data, it isn’t possible to accurately profile the socioeconomics of the residents there.
In either area, drive into any of the apartment complexes or look into the backyards of the homes on a Sunday afternoon, and you’ll see Haitians sitting out under the trees on a summer day and talking, while konpa plays in the background. It’s a familiar Haitian scene.
Several Haitian-led organizations are responding to the needs of both the newcomers to America and transplants from Haitian hubs on the coast. The founders of the Jaspen Group, an Indy-based employment staffing firm, came up with its business plan as they watched the Haitian population grow. It focused on helping Haitian immigrants get jobs with employers in need of manual labor such as Faurecia USA, an automotive technology company. Moise Dugé, Jaspen’s CEO, said the company staffs companies with temporary workers –— charging a fee only to the employer. It fills about 4,000 jobs each year in positions that run the spectrum from human resources through tech to light manufacturing.
A number of community leaders helped found or are involved with HAINDY, which began in 2008. Leonce Jean-Baptiste, for example, is HAINDY’s board vice-chair and vice president of sales and marketing for Jaspen. Jean-Baptiste, who left Port-au-Prince in 1994 and acquired an MBA in the U.S., noted the low cost of living and professional opportunities that make Indianapolis desirable.
“It’s a place where it’s peaceful. You can raise a family, build a house, if that’s your goal, and you could achieve your American dream without having to suffer,” he said.
HAINDY, a nonprofit, struggles from its own lack of resources to meet all newcomers’ needs despite its leaders’ dedication. So it’s not unreasonable to hear of one of the board members trying to find a sofa for a newly arrived family. With an annual revenue of $163,000 in 2022, HAINDY offers numerous programs to Haitians throughout the community, estimated by HAINDY at more than 20,000 people. The group currently or has offered art and dance classes, a small business symposium, pandemic relief money and hosts the Flag Day Festival, said Jean-Baptiste.
“We are here for everyone,” said Jean-Hérard Gervé, one of the organization’s founding members. “We are not yet serving all of the people, but we are open to everyone.”
One issue is that everyone is arriving at different stages of their journey, with different skills, traits and resources. Lavache said the majority of newcomers do not yet have permits to work, which can take up to eight months to be processed. Other support services, such as healthcare and food stamps, follow with that process, which leaves a long and difficult time for a newcomer to survive.
“About two and a half years ago, we noticed our first big influx of Haitian neighbors,” said Kathy Bender, a food manager at Laundry & More, a church-affiliated group that helps the indigent and low-income residents wash their clothes and bedding, and connects them to community resources such as food and job training.
“It took us a while to kind of figure out how we could speak to each other,” Bender said about the Haitian families, who have become the primary population the organization now serves. “Hopefully, they feel like they have a safe place here and they can meet other people and learn to dialogue and trust. It’s a slow process. But we hope that’s what we’re doing here, helping them to understand everybody gets a turn.”
More problems call for more funding, education
Lavache began with HAINDY as a dance instructor and moved to the Jaspen Group before returning to the association in her present position. While at Jaspen she created a Facebook page, “Nan Lakou Indiana,” to support Haitian-owned Indiana businesses because the city is hospitable to Haitian American businesses, Lavache said. Yet, she said, “Haitian businesses are getting shut down daily because they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do.”
The amount of paperwork and restrictive codes, created by local and state governments, often surprises Haitian entrepreneurs who had businesses in Haiti or in a country like Chile or Brazil. Some new arrivals drive around people who don’t have cars yet for a fee, but the drivers won’t have a license or insurance, said Lavache. Some overcharge passengers. She has been told of pastors who brought Haitian immigrants from other states in vans, rented houses for them and charged them $700 to $800 per month for a room that 20 people shared.
Then, there were the barbershops. A select few ran after-parties with strippers and gambling, never thinking permits were necessary or that there were rules against such activities.
Some immigrants have even offered Lavache bribes to help fill out their asylum papers, because that’s the way business is often done — at least in Haiti.
“We’re not easy to work with, so it’s embarrassing,” she said. “I thought it was, like, the white people that take advantage of Haitians. But now I understand it’s just Haitians. It’s Ayisyen kap fè Ayisyen abi – Creole for Haitians abusing Haitians — and this is what makes our work harder.”
The Lilly Endowment grant to the IWC resulted, in part, from data reported in “The Unmet Needs of our Immigrant Neighbors 2023.” It found that challenges for immigrant youth and families included legal status, financial stability, cultural adjustment, mental health, limited English skills, lack of affordable housing and fear of accessing resources. The money will help strengthen grassroots organizations such as HAINDY, address immigrants’ needs and educate the community about welcoming and serving their immigrant neighbors.
IWC’s Chief Executive Officer, Gurinder Kaur, said it seemed effective to help fund organizations, because, “They have been doing the good work and have the trust of the community but don’t have the capacity to be able to address the needs.”
The Mayor’s office works closely with Haitian community leaders both outside and within the administration, including Jenny Menelas, a Neighborhood Advocate, and Martine Bernard-Tucker, director, Office of Public Health and Safety. Its Office of International & Latino Affairs partners with the IWC on a program aimed at empowering and connecting immigrants in Indiana with community leaders and city leadership. One of this year’s participants is of Haitian descent.
Despite the travails that so many immigrants like Dejoie endure and that Lavache, in her job, sees and hears about, she remains optimistic.
“I’m sure every one of us is an immigrant because we all came from Haiti,” Lavache said. “Just pretend you’re that person and see what they must endure — especially if they [need work papers]. I wish people showed more love, understanding, passion and minor sensitivity towards others. Once you provide help, love, and passion, you will get it back.”
For many Indy Haitians, their lives here do become “ the American Dream.” At a minimum, it is much more stable and secure than life in Haiti.
Dejoie is living in that in-between phase, but closer to the former. Now a father of 2, he has applied for asylum and has been granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which allows him to work and pay taxes. He holds down two jobs — one at a construction site and at Honda, the automaker. He took classes in English and in construction, dreaming of starting a business so he can spend some time with his family.
“I am pleased I can speak English now,” he said, in Creole, but with pride in his voice. “I went to an English school and got the award for Student of the Month for my involvement in the class.”
This story is part of the Haitians in America series looking at Haitians and Haitian Americans across the United States. Financial support for this work is provided by the Ford Foundation.
Editor’s note: Haitian population data for Indianapolis vary as the influx of immigrants into the city happened after the most recent Census, taken in 2020. These figures are estimates provided by HAINDY, which arrived at them using its links to the community and service providers.