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Migrants recount trauma of fleeing home

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Thousands of people have fled Haiti’s capital in recent weeks as gangs continue to run riot in a country plunged into political chaos. More than 2,000 thousand kilometres from Port-au-Prince, a community centre in New York’s Rockland County is welcoming Haitians who have fled the violence. But while they have finally reached the safety of the US, they also bear traumatic memories. 

The Konbit Neg Lakay community centre is one of the first stops that many Haitian migrants make after arriving in New York. The centre’s name means “Together for a Stronger Community” in Creole and it’s a welcoming place for people who have just fled the unrest and gang violence wracking Haiti.

The mural on the centre’s exterior wall brings a splash of colour to the Spring Valley neighbourhood in New York’s Rockland County.

Mural on the wall of Konbit Neg Lakay Haitian Community Centre in Spring Valley, Rockland County, New York on 20 March 2024.
Mural on the wall of Konbit Neg Lakay Haitian Community Centre in Spring Valley, Rockland County, New York on 20 March 2024. © Jessica Le Masurier

It depicts an idyllic scene of rural life in Haiti but the centre’s director Renold Julien experienced some tough times in the country of his birth.

He was an activist in Haiti during what has come to be called the Papa/Baby Doc dictatorship years. From the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier was succeeded by son, Jean-Claude, “Baby Doc”, the Haitian regime became synonymous with torture and killings.

Julian left his homeland almost four decades ago for a new life in the US. He opened his community centre, to help other Haitians navigate their arrival in New York, 37 years ago.

The centre receives grants from foundations and NGOs but it struggles to raise enough funds to meet ever increasing demands. For Julien, Konbit Neg Lakay is a work of devotion. 

Konbit Neg Lakay provides newly arrived Haitians with immigration and job services, professional training and language classes. “Everything that an immigrant needs, we have it here,” Julien explains. It struggles to raise enough funds to meet ever increasing demands but for Julien: “It’s a privilege for me to help my brothers and sisters.”

‘We ran to escape from them’

Several Haitians migrants come through a US humanitarian programme but they need a sponsor, Julien explains. Others travel through Mexico and then claim asylum in the US.

A dozen new arrivals from Haiti walk through the centre’s doors every week – many have lost family members to the gang violence back home.

“It has been extremely busy here due to the situation in Haiti because thousands of Haitians have been forced to leave,” says Julien as he  introduces three women who need advice on how to get a job and other essential information.

One of them is a soft-spoken medical student who arrived in the US in November 2023. Kartika Sari Rene, 22, did not want to leave Haiti. She was in her third year of medical school, when her studies were cut short. 

“I was walking with some friends and then some kidnappers were passing by,” she says. “We ran to escape from them. We hid from them. It was really awful.”

Rene’s father was terrified for her safety and forced her to leave the country. She came to the US with her mother, sponsored by family members living in New York. She has started learning English and has obtained a certificate to work as a personal care aide. 

For now, her dream of becoming a pediatrician is on hold. “I love to help people. I can’t stand to see people suffer,” she explains. 

Her friends at medical school in Haiti have also had to pause their studies. It is too dangerous for them to leave their homes.

‘Long, difficult and uncomfortable journey’

Haitian beautician Josette Bienaise also had to flee the country after a traumatic experience. She was shopping in the market when armed gang members started shooting at vendors. “Pap, pap pap,” she says, recounting her experience that day. “I lay down on the ground terrified and prayed. I can still feel the fear in my body.”

In the Konbit Neg Lakay hallway, Jean Marc Mathurin leans against a wall as he recounts the arduous journey that he made to walk through these doors to safety.

“They killed my father,” he confides in a low voice. “He was leaving work at the airport, and they wanted to take his money. He said no, and they murdered him. Then they came and burnt our home. My mother suffered so much she became ill, her sickness killed her.” 

Haitian migrant Jean Marc Mathurin at Konbit Neg Lakay Community Centre in Spring Valley, Rockland Country, New York 20 March 2024.
Haitian migrant Jean Marc Mathurin at Konbit Neg Lakay Community Centre in Spring Valley, Rockland Country, New York 20 March 2024. © Jessica Le Masurier

Mathurin finds a photo of his mother in a hospital bed on his phone and videos of his two young children and the three sisters he left behind in Haiti. He arrived in New York with nothing. He is claiming asylum in the US, but it will be many months before he can legally work here and start sending money back home to his loved ones.

Each time he eats, he thinks of his family going hungry. “People in Haiti sell their homes to make the journey here thinking they will arrive in the US with something but they spend every penny along the way, or thieves steal their money and they get here with nothing, if they even make it here. Some of them get sent back home,” he explains.

There were many times along his escape from Haiti when Mathurin thought he would not make it. He took a flight from Port-au-Prince to Nicaragua, where he travelled mainly on foot to Honduras, Guatemala and into Mexico. “It was a long, difficult and uncomfortable journey.”

When he got to the Rio Grande, in Mexico, he thought it might be impossible to cross. He describes the buoys, erected by the local authorities to thwart migrants, anchored to the riverbed. The buoys have blades that cut you if you try to climb over them, he said.

Mathurin is unable to forget the horrors he witnessed. “There are those who know how to swim, and those who don’t,” he says. “In front of me were two men, a Venezuelan and a Haitian, and they drowned right in front of me.” 

It’s a trauma he likened to his ancestral land. “Haiti is a country that’s drowning. It’s a child without a mother or father. When you have a mum and dad, they tell you not to go out late, not to fall in with the wrong crowd. Haiti is an orphan.”

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