Haitian Americans worry about relatives and friends in Haiti amid violence

More than 30,000 people of Haitian ancestry call Georgia home

The Rev. Jean Cassamajor, pastor of Bethesda First Haitian Baptist Church in Austell, has tried to get his daughter out of Port-au-Prince for years.

Today, though, his efforts have become more urgent as a surge in gang violence has forced thousands to leave the Caribbean nation’s capital, and left many others frightened and hunkered down in their homes or wherever they can find refuge.

His 31-year-old daughter, a doctor, is unable to leave her home for fear of roving gangs. That means not going to the market for food or not going to her job at a local hospital.

He’s worried that if the gangs find out she’s a physician or that she has a father in the United States that she might be kidnapped or held for a ransom and “ask for money that you do not have.”

When she calls me I just say, ‘hello?’ and hold my breath until she says, ‘Hi, Dad.’ It’s going to take a miracle for her to come right now.”

The nation has been hit hard by relentless gang violence, the worst, some say, in decades. There have been kidnappings, murders and armed raids on pharmacies and hospitals. The violence has largely been in the capital city.

Others areas appear to be relatively safe, say Haitian Americans here.

Haiti, considered the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, has endured turmoil and trouble since it’s independence from France in 1804. It has experienced a litany of setbacks including foreign intervention and occupation, successful and unsuccessful coup attempts, presidential assassinations, depletion of natural resources, corrupt government, natural disasters, and now a surge in gang violence in its capital city Port-au-Prince.

A transitional council has been formed to pave the way for new leadership and to address spiraling violence and a looming humanitarian crisis.

The U.S. State Department has a level 4 warning, the highest available, against traveling to Haiti.

Atlanta-based CARE International has been in Haiti since 1954.

“Although the worst of the violence is in Port-au-Prince, all of the Haitian people are suffering from this emergency. This includes those in the provinces where supply chains and transportation of goods and people are either cut or severely disrupted by limited access and violence, as well as other disruptions,” Muhamed Bizimana, assistant director, CARE Haiti, said in a release.

“All this has spread the impact of the crisis to an unimaginable level,” he said.Time and again, the Haitian people are tested by crises. And time and again, they demonstrate incredible resilience.”

Nearly 31,000 people who identify as having Haitian ancestry live in Georgia, according to data from the Census Bureau’s 2021 American Community Survey estimates.

Chenet Nerette is the chief executive officer of Power102.Net - Haiti on Demand, community radio station in Snellville..

He’s trying to find ways to bring the Haitian American community and the larger Caribbean community together. The gang violence is not new in Haiti, but “now it’s out of control,” he said. “Young people are manipulated and there’s no way out for them. Corrupt politicians use the gangs for their own gain.”

Nerette was born in Haiti but has lived in the United States for 35 years, including 17 in metro Atlanta.

He said plans are in the early stages to hold a town hall meeting that will bring the Haitian American and other Caribbean communities together to see what they can do to help.

“We have to do whatever we can to rally and make our voices count,” he said.

The situation is very complex said Emmanuel Buteau, executive director of the Haitian Institute of Atlanta, and a theology professor at Xavier University in Louisiana.

Buteau was born in Port-au-Prince and raised in Port-à-Piment, He and his family emigrated to the United States on Christmas Eve 1993.

He last visited Haiti two months ago to lead a retreat for young people.

This time safety was such a big concern with the continuing violence that for the first time that he can remember, he spent most of his time in his hotel. He couldn’t visit the family home and some relatives had already fled to safer parts of the country.

He is collecting funds to send to a team on the ground to distribute hygiene items. He hopes to reach out to local Haitian congregations here but it’s open to anyone who wants to contribute.

He said he noticed there has not been as much media attention compared to wars between Russia and Ukraine and Israel against Hamas.

“Things would have to be extremely dire for us, before they pay us attention,” he said. “Ukraine gets play by play. We get every detail. It has to tbe he worst things ever before people pay attention. If the media had given us more attention the politicians would pay more attention.”

“Haiti has seen violence before,” he said. “That earlier violence was by European hands, American hands when the U.S. invaded Haiti. Even our independence came from the Haitian revolution. All these powerful nations had a hand in Haiti.”

Hard for people to help because “we can’t send things and even if you send money …to get money in people’s hand is hard. Banks are keeping fewer items and even cash.”

When Haiti declared its independence in 1804 it was “a beacon of light,” he said. “We shed our blood for freedom. Haiti has a rich history. There was promise in Haiti.”

He believes Haiti will survive this, too. He’s even making plans to return to Haiti this summer to start a youth orchestra. “This shows how hopeful I am,” he said. “Haiti cannot stand without the diaspora (getting involved.)”

Others are trying to help as well.

Louis Wilkenson’s nonprofit, Give to Haiti, has worked in Haiti for about 15 years, supporting farmers and education.

Wilkenson, a Haitian American who lives in Lawrenceville, has sent money to relatives and people he knows in and around the capital. Because of the gangs, there’s no way to send food or medical supplies since some flights have been suspended and it’s hard to get items into the port.

His nonprofit has sent money that is used to buy grains and crops to sustain farmers.

And it isn’t always easy.

The Rev. Frantzner Samedi was born in Port-au-Prince and came to U.S. in 2007 to further his education.

Samedi, who serves as co-pastor of First Haitian Baptist Church in Douglasville and Bible Baptist Fellowship, has cousins, aunts and uncles in Haiti.

“It’s getting worse by the second,” he said. “I spoke with a friend yesterday who is in hiding. He lost everything.” The gang tried to recruit his friend. When he declined they burned down his home and everything in it.

“He fled, by God’s grace, and his family was able to flee,” he said.