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Haitian groups helping newest immigrants from border stretched thin

BY SAM BOJARSKI AND ONZ CHÉRY

Volunteers at the nonprofit Haitian Americans United
Volunteers at the nonprofit Haitian Americans United for Progress (HAUP) bow their heads in prayer before serving a Thanksgiving meal. / Photo Credit: Courtesy: HAUP Facebook

BROOKLYN — It was late September when a Haitian mother walked into a Flatbush urgent care center seeking medical attention for her 10-day-old infant, born in Texas. The baby’s belly button had grown infected, so Dr. Lynchy Lezeau, a physician at the center, referred the mother to nearby Kings County Hospital. 

Both Lezeau and the staff at Kings County soon realized the family’s social needs, including stable housing and money for transportation. 

“That’s when the attending was telling me that this is the seventh family with the same story,” said Lezeau, who dug into his personal pockets to help. “I gave them some money to take care of the baby.” 

Wanting to do more, Lezeau, who runs the faith-based AHPROFHA medical clinic, reached out to friends. They referred him to Disaster Relief and Emergency Preparedness (DREP) — a newly-formed group that provides services to asylum seekers, including medical, legal and housing assistance.

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Numerous Haitian-led organizations throughout the diaspora are helping some of the 10,000 Haitian asylum seekers who arrived in the United States in 2021. Leaders say the task is overwhelming and supported primarily by money raised from community members and, in at least two cases, state governments. 

“I’m just bracing myself for the worse,” said Gepsie Metellus, executive director of the nonprofit Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center, in North Miami, Florida. “I can be concerned because I want to protect the members of my team who are overwhelmed by the number.”

Nonprofits overwhelmed, more money needed

Numerous nonprofits such as Haitian Americans United for Progress (HAUP) and Haitian American Community Coalition (HCC) have served asylum seekers with legal aid, mental health support and other services. They are among eight nonprofits in New York City who will receive a portion of the $1.5 million that the city has allocated to fund services for new immigrants. 

For HCC, the money could fund mental health and public benefits enrollment services, although the funds have not yet been disbursed, said Spencer Casseus, HCC director of development and community affairs. He is anticipating a busy year, despite the extra assistance.

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“There aren’t many Haitian organizations doing this type of work, there are only a handful of us, so I absolutely anticipate we’ll be busy this year,” Casseus said. “The money is great, but at the same time, we have to make sure we can deliver.” 

Through separate agreements, the state of Massachusetts and New York City, have committed to provide nearly $10 million in total to fund services for asylum seekers. 

In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill that directs $8 million in federal COVID-19 relief money to the Immigrant Family Services Institute (IFSI), a nonprofit in Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood, after the group advocated for help with housing and health care.

“That’s our job, we have to be the ones to be their voice and talk to others on their behalf,” said IFSI Executive Director Geralde Gabeau. “A lot of families are coming from all over the state to us.” 

From September to mid-December, IFSI served about 500 Haitian families in Massachusetts, she said, spending more than $1 million on their housing, health and legal services needs.

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Dr. Lynchy Lezeau (right) with other medical volunteers
Dr. Lynchy Lezeau (right) with other medical volunteers at Beraca Baptist Church. Photo by Sam Bojarski

Since the September migrant crisis, Sant La has launched an initiative called Solidarite Miami, to provide migrant families with resources and educate them about the immigration process. In all, Sant La has over $1.5 million in assets, most of which comes from individual contributions, gifts and grants, Guidestar data shows

Thus far, Sant La has raised over $5,200 from the community in South Florida. The trust Sant La has cultivated over the years has a lot to do with its ability to raise money, Metellus said. 

“Our community is very generous when you make the case, when you explain what you need and why, and if they trust the organizations,” Metellus said. 

New grassroots groups try to fill void

With established groups stretched thin, less formal groups have taken on some of the load. The public cannot track DREP’s fundraising, as it has not been registered as a nonprofit entity. 

A Whatsapp group with about 250 Haitian-American professionals in the New York City area helped coordinate volunteers and raise funds for DREP, said Monalisa Ferrari, a Brooklyn-based activist and educator who chairs the grassroots coalition. 

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“It’s collaborative work,” said Ferrari. “It’s Haitians helping Haitians.” 

Since early October, Beraca Baptist Church in Canarsie has served as a welcome center that DREP has used to connect asylum seekers with social services. And, group members and their connections have donated to help purchase food, transportation assistance and clothing for asylum seekers. But the coalition’s leadership has not shared the amount of money raised so far this year, despite requests via phone and email. 

One group, the Solidarite Haitiano-Americaine de Long Island (SHALI) in Nassau County has recently adjusted its service model to accommodate recent Haitian arrivals. 

When it formed in 2009, SHALI initially focused on promoting Haitian culture in Long Island. The group held events for Haitian Heritage Month and different holidays. But when the Biden administration extended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) earlier this year to undocumented Haitian residents, SHALI began helping with applications. 

And this fall, as Haitians began arriving from the border in Del Rio, Texas, SHALI started helping connect asylum seekers with legal assistance, The Haitian Times reported. “We must come together and help these people with their transition in the United States,” Marie Sonia Saint Rose-Bienvil, co-founder of SHALI, said in an interview

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While formally registered as a nonprofit since 2017, SHALI has not reported any financial assets or donations, according to Guidestar data

But having nonprofit status has proved invaluable to IFSI, which will soon receive the $8 million infusion of state money. Maintaining this status, and a record of transparency, has helped IFSI scale up its services. Since September, the nonprofit has doubled its staff, partly with help from community and state funding, said Gabeau. 

“If you don’t have that, it’s hard for you to really move to the next level,” Gabeau said. “If you are just grassroots and don’t have the status you can do a lot of work, but it’s hard for you to step up your work, in terms of getting funding.” 

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