- An island rich with beautiful views and smiling faces.
Haiti celebrates its 220th year of the flag, L'Union Fait la Force.
Written between the red and blue.
The country's guiding principle that with unity there is strength.
Our guests discuss the work they're doing to unite the Haitian community State side and a special look into immigration and the aid available to those that need it.
Coming up next on "Black Issues Forum."
- [Narrator] Black Issues Forum is a production of PBS North Carolina.
With support from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.
Quality public television has made possible through the financial contributions of viewers like you who invite you to join them in supporting PBS NC.
[upbeat music] ♪ - Welcome to "Black Issues Forum".
I'm Kenia Thompson.
Haitians around the world celebrate National Flag Day, expressing their pride, honoring their forefathers of the nation.
And a local Triangle group is ensuring that the tradition doesn't get lost.
But first, immigration issues in the United States have been a topic of significant debate and discussion for many years, especially when images of Haitians in boats being turned away time and time again at US Borders continue to flood the news.
To talk about where immigration stands today is immigration activist and criminal defense attorney Marie Pereira.
Welcome to the show.
- Good morning, thank you for having me.
I'm super excited.
- Of course, I'm grateful for the work that you do, as fellow Haitians, we definitely have to advocate for our community and for our people.
Talk about the Haitian Immigration Project that you founded in January of this year and share with us why you started this initiative and what's your focus?
- I started this initiative after the debacle under the Del Rio Bridge.
I think it was almost a year and a half, two years ago when I saw images of border patrol police on horseback and it appeared that they were whipping Haitian migrants in the water and treating them like they were animals.
It hurt me deeply and I sat down and I said, you know what?
What can I do from my end to do something about this?
Because I wasn't able to get up and go to the border and provide services.
And I said, you know what?
Eventually I'm going to start an organization that helps undocumented Haitian immigrants get work authorizations and temporary protective status applications completed.
Which is what I did.
And that's really what Haiti Immigration Project does.
We teach and educate immigrants who qualify for TPS and work authorization on how to complete the forms and submit them.
- Does define what TPS means for those that may not know what that is.
- TPS is Temporary Protective Status and it was issued to Haitians after the earthquake under the Obama administration.
And it basically says, because you are so zone is so destroyed and there is so much instability after the earthquake, we are allowing people who are here illegally to avoid deportation temporarily by protecting them.
It runs in 18 month cycles.
There's an application that you have to complete.
I believe it's the I821.
And once you complete it, it protects you from deportation but you have to be on the list of temporary protective status countries and it's just not Haiti.
There are a lot of countries that are in that category.
- Yeah, yeah, and there are a lot of issues that all immigrants face, right.
And so when we talk about the difficulties that are involved in the process of becoming a US citizen, what are some of those barriers that are causing that inability to make this happen quicker?
- Because there are no laws to control it.
Because what's happening is, even with TPS, for instance it's been provided for Haitians since 2010 I believe, the earthquake.
And since then there is no pathway to citizenship.
It's a temporary thing as it's called.
It protects them temporarily and every 18 months they have to reapply.
You would think it's been almost 13 years that they would say, okay, Haiti's not changing.
Things are still unstable, it's getting worse.
There's no housing security, gang violence, there's political unrest.
Just everything that a person would think, okay, we can't send people back to Haiti.
We know this right now.
So why not create a comprehensive type coalition, maybe something bipartisan in Congress that would allow them to have a pathway to citizenship or residency, it's not happening.
It's a bandaid on a gunshot wound for the last 13 years as far as I'm concerned.
- Yeah, no, I'd agree.
And historically there's been a lot of negative perceptions of undocumented or immigrant people especially Haitian people, and when we look at the influx of people that are migrating to this country, the treatment of the undocumented seem like it's worsening.
What are the contributing factors and is the public misinformed about who these people are and why they're looking for refuge?
- The public, they're misinformed, because at the end of the day, we have presidents saying, you know, Haitians are from feces-hole countries, right?
And we came here to create havoc, to suck the system out of money, to sit around and collect social services and commit crimes.
That's the perception that politicians are conveying to the public.
And then you have the images in the media, and it's that third world country where everyone is illiterate.
And we are coming here just to mooch off America and create havoc, crime, negativity.
That's what you think of when you think about Haiti because that's just the way the world puts it out there.
- Yeah, and that's exactly the reason why I wanted to have this episode because I wanted to show and depict a different image of who we are, right?
You know, you have obviously gone to school, gotten your degree, you're now advocating.
And when we talk about, you know, the immigrants and how they've been turned away constantly at the border, often, you know, there are numbers of Haitian immigrants that make it stateside.
Have you seen an increase since the unrest in Haiti?
Has there been an increase in people who are staying stateside and coming here?
Or are they venturing out to other countries because it's easier?
- They're venturing out to other countries.
After the earthquake, Chile, Brazil and these South American countries were very open because, you know what, they needed cheap labor.
And they were like, "Okay, come on Haitians.
We'll take care of you."
And then once the Haitians came over, and they didn't have the cheap labor anymore, and then Covid hit, then nobody wanted to see a Haitian in Brazil.
Nobody wanted to see a Haitian in Chile.
And they were saying, "Go back home."
And for those who stayed because they really had no home left to go back to in Haiti, they segregated them.
There was a lot of racism.
They weren't allowed to work.
They never really gave them a pathway to citizenship.
It was always a temporary residence.
As far as what I'm hearing from people from Chile and from Brazil, they were not treated kindly.
So then they took the wood, as they say, and they migrated through all those countries and the jungles to end up sometimes in California, sometimes in Texas, because they don't have anywhere else to go.
They left Haiti because of unrest.
There is still unrest in Haiti.
You have presidents being assassinated in their homes.
And still no one has really been held fully accountable for that.
You have gang violence, you have poverty, you have lack of healthcare, lack of food, housing insecurity.
Where are these people gonna go?
They're gonna take that trip on a leaky boat.
Or they're gonna run through a jungle where they're accosted by law enforcement authorities in the countries they're passing who are bandits waiting for them through the path to rob them, rape them, assault them and everything else you could think of before they get to that border and finally make it on the other side.
So yeah, to answer your question in my long breath because it's really aggravating me to even think about it, they're coming in masses because they're desperate.
They don't have anywhere else to go.
And Haiti is just getting worse and worse and worse.
There's nowhere else for them to go.
- Yeah, and it's unfortunate.
We see it every day pretty much.
You know, you talked about education being a major part of your platform.
What are three top things that someone who's looking for solace, looking for legal guidance, looking for, you know, an extension of that TPS, looking for stability, what are the top three things that they should know in this process?
- You should know that not everybody you see is looking out for your interests, because they see you come aboard, and they see that you have to complete this application to make yourself legal.
Because it's not like, you know, you just come in.
They let you in.
There's a timeframe.
When I say they, the immigration authorities.
There's a timeframe for you to apply for whatever benefits in terms of immigration relief you qualify for.
There are predators out there who are preying on people because they don't have knowledge.
They're anxious, they don't know where they are.
They're taking their money.
Make sure you go to a reputable, non-for-profit agency, and there are plenty of them out there who are willing and able to help you fill out the forms.
Make sure you connect with someone in New York that has knowledge or wherever state you land, that there are people there to help you.
You have family.
Because generally a person is not released unless they have someone here saying, "Okay, we'll welcome them.
They can come and stay with us."
So that person has to be your guide to bring you to the right non-for-profit.
Or if you have those kind of funds to get an attorney or to sit down at the computer and educate themselves to educate you.
Be careful because there are a lot of people out there who will take your money, fill out the forms wrong, never send the forms, don't help you follow up.
And then you are worse off than how you started.
Because money's scarce.
Be careful who you give your money to.
- Thank you.
Thank you so much, Marie.
Thank you for the work that you're doing, and we hope that at least this information will help at least one person.
So thank you very much.
- Thank you for having me again.
- Of course, of course.
- Thursday, May 18th, will mark the 220th anniversary of the creation of the Haitian flag during the Haitian Revolution in 1803.
Many rose to leadership during that time but it was after the capture of Toussaint Louverture when Jean-Jacques Dessalines continued the fight to victory in 1802.
The French troops were finally defeated in November of 1803 allowing the proclamation of Haiti's independence on January 1st, 1804 with the newly established flag flying high.
To talk about what it means to be Haitian and how creating a local community is bringing unification to the triangle, we welcome Haitian of the Triangle co-founders, Mirlesna Azor-Sterlin, and Vroselyn Benjamin.
- [Mirlesna] Hi.
Thank you for having us.
- Of course.
I'd love to start, Mirlesna with you.
Tell us about some of your favorite things about growing up Haitian and being part of this culture.
Hashtag Growing up Haitian.
I love living in Haiti.
I was born there and I love going to school and doing all things in community whether I was with my sibling or my parents or even with neighbors turned friends, or even, you know, school classmates.
So that's been really exciting to just have a bunch of different cousins that are so, so to speak that you can lean on and grow up with and have fun with.
So I really, really miss home.
And I know it's changed drastically too.
And if you don't mind sharing maybe some of your thoughts on the differences between what you experienced and what we see today.
- Oh, yeah, I'm definitely not sure about what's going on there now since I don't live there.
But I would venture out to say it's definitely different.
I do have friends who are still in Haiti and family members, and it's really a sense of panic, a lot of emotions surrounding what's next.
Nobody really know what's going to be next.
So it's really hard.
And for folks who live in the state there's a different level of trauma as well that you are experiencing, perhaps panic when your phone rings or even anticipation that something might go wrong.
So all in all, whether you live in Haiti which really right now, it is really difficult to live there or you live here, no one really is at peace, I would say.
Vroselyn, I wanna bring you in.
Talk to us about what it's like being Haitian, but to clarify, you were born in the States, right?
- So that perspective is different, same as mine.
Talk about what it was like and what are your some of your favorite memories about our culture.
Being born and raised in Boston, Boston, Massachusetts is like a hub for a lot of the Haitian population that live in the States.
So for me, it was pretty easy like being connected to my community.
I was raised, I went to a Haitian elementary school in Boston.
I went to a Haitian church for most of my life.
And it was easy to be connected to my culture in Boston because it was always being shared.
There's hundreds of restaurants, festivals, events.
So being able to be connected to my community is very crucial to my identity.
And it was something that I embrace and that I still embrace today.
- Yeah, it's definitely an identifying marker of who we are, or let's not, when we talk about, people ask me all the time what makes Haitian people so unique?
Like what is it different about us than others in the Caribbean?
What would you say are some unique qualities of Haiti and our people?
Have you seen us?
But really, I mean first Black Republic to have fought and abolished slavery.
I mean, that's a mouthful, but that's phenomenal.
And then that is something that is a compass for a lot of us we find pride in.
But we have beautiful beaches, beautiful climate, and people, person like Haitians are very expressive, work really hard, care for their families.
So we bring that essence in our workplace, in our businesses, in our activities.
So when you see us really, there's a sense of community and that we are gonna continue moving our history forward.
We are gonna continue to share our food with, you know whoever wants to eat it.
So technically Haitians are the first but also we have helped others.
So I think from the standpoint of history there's definitely a crucial piece that right now a lot of people are just finding out that not only we're the first and we've helped others and I really want that history to continue on and live on.
Vroselyn, as a Haitian American have you been able to balance the expectation of culture living in the States but also respecting the culture that we come from?
And I think that requires active effort because to maintain your culture is not something that you can just like, just do easily is you can't be lazy with it, basically.
And I really learned that moving to North Carolina several years ago, is that in Boston I was able to just easily find the foods, easily be connected to my people.
But moving to North Carolina I learned that I had to put active effort I had to practice my Haitian recipes that my mom taught me and learning new recipes.
But also that is what drove me to getting connected to Mirlesna one day.
Seeing that she was wearing her Haitian garb in a profile picture.
And I dm'ed her and I was like to be connected to my culture and to be active in my culture in America, it requires being in community.
That's what my family taught me.
They shared the language, the food, the culture, our traditions growing up.
So I, myself and Mirlesna co-founded the organization so then we could share that with one another and teach each other our traditions.
Teach and keep it alive.
- And get other people in the triangle and in North Carolina connected to our culture.
Yeah, well, to her point, you have a young son and I've seen you interact with him and incorporate him in all the things that are Haitian.
And so, when we talk about the importance of teaching our language and teaching that culture and continuing it on, how important is it for you to teach him those things?
- Yeah, it's definitely very important.
So definitely for me, if not me, then who?
That's a statement that I share a lot, even in the work that we do, the organization that we create.
If none of us step up to continue the work, to pass on the legacy, to teach the language, then who's going to do so?
And also, culture is a compass.
It helps us coexist and understand one another.
So if we don't do that at a young age, for folks to one day, perhaps he will leave the nest and be somewhere else, but he could still be remembering that mom and dad taught me X, Y and Z.
So I think it's really crucial.
And I would say if we do not pass specifically language and tradition and history, we are in big trouble.
And we can see that right now in American history what is currently happening.
So we definitely have to debunk myths.
We really have to share what has happened.
Even if it is painful, that is part of history.
But we do have to teach our young kids.
And you'll be surprised.
There are a lot of things they'll be picking up by the virtue of you practicing these things on the daily.
So for me, that is our household.
- Yeah, and that's good.
That's so good to keep it alive.
- The US census reports that over 6,000 Haitians live right here in North Carolina with numbers increasing yearly.
Specifically a large population lives in Mount Olive under that temporary protection status that Marie was talking about earlier from the US government after the disastrous 2010 earthquake.
With so many Haitians in the state, it's not a surprise that groups looking to bring us together have started to form.
So Mirlesna, you and Vroselyn co-founded Haitians of the Triangle, better known as HOTT.
Share with us the impetus of this partnership and the creation of the group.
I always say it was spontaneous.
Well, it was, but also now five years later, it is God's work.
But also it is important work.
I find myself talking daily about HOTT to many different individuals and we wanna live and breathe that essence of we wanna build community.
So for us, creating the organization, whether that's started spontaneous now, this is crucial time.
We have to advocate, we have to get together.
We have to share our culture, we have to teach, we have to pass down knowledge.
So it is becoming upon us that this duty that Vroselyn and I feel is important and critical, but also the next generation need to know their culture, again, as a compass to continue on to serve.
But also here in North Carolina, as you just mentioned, Kenia, 6,000 Haitian and growing.
So this state is ours.
We are here to stay.
It's our home and we wanna build in it and leave it better than we found it.
- Yeah, Vroselyn, one of the goal of HOTT is to plan and execute events for the community.
And in celebration of Flag Day next week, there will be a weekend that's packed with events.
Tell us about those events and why they're important to have.
We're having a three-part event series next weekend starting with on Haitian Flag Day, Thursday, May 18th at 7:00 PM.
We're meeting together, having a virtual trivia night.
And it's our time to just be able to test your knowledge about Haiti and its culture and all are welcome.
We'll be able to just test out your knowledge, see how much you know about Haiti, and hopefully, you'll be able to learn more for those that don't know.
And then on Friday, we're having our Rep Your Flag party at Nuvo Lounge and Bar.
We'll be having for the first time ever Vag Lavi coming to perform and three Haitian DJs in the local area that will be coming to provide the music.
And it's exciting.
I think it's important for us to have that party because Haitians, if you don't know a Haitian, we love to party and we love to celebrate and have a good time.
Despite all the tragedies and tribulations and the issues we have, you see a Haitian, they're smiling, they're dancing, they're having a good time.
So Rep Your Flag Party is our opportunity to raise our flag, have that pride and celebrate.
And then, we're wrapping up the weekend on Saturday, May 20th, from two to seven at Harold Ritter Park with our fourth annual family fun day.
And that is for us to come together with our family and friends.
We're gonna have a kids corner with various activities.
We're gonna have a soccer tournament, various Haitian cuisines and food that we'll be selling, a marketplace with different local community members and small businesses.
So that's just gonna be a good time for us to come together and just enjoy the day together.
So we definitely welcome everyone to come out.
- Yeah, definitely music and food is a big staple in our culture.
I'm excited for Bon Fritay, which is a food truck that'll be there.
Le Creole, and a few others that are gonna join.
So I'm excited for that too.
Well, we've talked about it already earlier, but we've seen devastating news and events in Haiti.
How much does it mean to have intentional images of positivity and unity during a time where that's not happening as much on Haitian soil?
So for me, for example, my personal pages and whatnot, I decided, or I chose, it's a choice that I made to not share all the negativity.
It's not to minimize it.
It is there, we know it exists.
It's in the back of our mind, right?
But I think for the sake of moving our culture, moving our country, moving our history forward it is, again, our duty and responsibility to sometimes debunk myth, but to also share positivity, to unify, to showcase that we can work together.
I mean, on our flag it does says L'Union fait la Force, and we're doing just that here in the community.
And why not showcase something beautiful that we are creating.
Again, we've been able to move our goals, to move our mission forward with the help of community.
And that is excellent, and that is something we need to showcase.
And so for me positivity is what we will keep bringing to the front.
We will be teaching individual, especially non-Haitian who don't know about our culture.
But when it comes time to step in and advocate for the things that are negatively impacting our brothers and sisters too, we'll be there.
And that's readily available on the news, on social media, and it's not really for us to keep spreading those type of negative images.
They do exist and they are here, but we are gonna continue to do the work and march forth.
Vroselyn, just about a minute left in the show.
Talk about what are some other objectives and desires that you guys want to have for HOTT, and how do you wanna be a resource to community?
- Yeah, we see our platform as a space to facilitate and bridge the gap.
So the Haitians Of The Triangle is intentionally building community.
And one of those things is creating events and having events for us to get the community together.
But it's also for non-Haitian community members to learn about the richness of our culture.
We also collaborate with local businesses and organizations to donate back to our state, to the diaspora, to people back at home.
So we do a lot of work for our people in stateside and also back at home.
- That's great.
That's so great.
Well, Vroselyn, Mirlesna, I thank you so much.
I'm excited to be part of HOTT as well, and I am so excited to connect with Haitian sisters here in the triangle.
So thank you for the work that you're doing, and for pulling this group together.
- Thank you.
- Thank you for having us.
- We invite you to engage with us on Instagram using the hashtag #BlackIssuesForum.
You can also find our full episodes on pbsnc.org/blackissuesforum, and on the PBS video app.
Thank you for watching.
I'm Kenia Thompson, I'll see you next time.
[upbeat music] ♪ ♪ ♪ - [Announcer] Black Issues Forum is a production of PBS North Carolina with support from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.
Quality public television is made possible through the financial contributions of viewers like you who invite you to join them in supporting PBS NC.