Moved by footage of US Customs and Border Protection agents driving Haitian refugees back into the Rio Grande River on the border with Mexico last year, Vanessa Jean Louis reflected on how she could help her fellow Haitians.
Jean Louis and a community of first-generation Haitian Americans in Irvington teamed up to buy groceries for recent Haitian migrants so they could prepare their first Thanksgiving dinner. The migrants, unlike immigrants who are legal here, are asylum seekers who have not been repatriated to Haiti and have no legal status in the US. They live in a real limbo.
“Many of those people came to the United States with nothing, just like my father came many years ago,” said Luis Antilus, who co-sponsored the event and helped distribute food. Antilus, who is Haitian American and serves on the Irvington school board, said his community wanted to give their Haitian brothers and sisters their first taste of Thanksgiving in America.
They had over 130 grocery bags filled with rice, cereal, beans and cooking oil. They gave away over 75 turkeys and they had other types of meat products there as well. They served about 130 families and when they ran out of food, the needy were given $50 in cash so they could go grocery shopping. Jean Louis said that depending on the size of their family, they could make several meals from the donations they received.
Last October, Jean Luis traveled to Texas to help process incoming asylum seekers. There were no Haitians the day she was there, so instead she helped the Honduran families who showed up. However, Jean Louis knew that a day at the border would not be enough if she really wanted to make a difference to her fellow Haitians.
Since that trip, she has spent her free time helping newly arrived migrants in New Jersey with basic needs: food, clothing, and shelter. She uses her own money and donations from like-minded members of the community. This year, Jean Louis took a bold step and started a non-profit organization.
“I founded Children of Haitian Immigrants (COHI),” she said. “The reason I started the nonprofit is that there has been an influx of Haitian migrants to the United States from places like Central and South America. They clearly lacked resources, so I founded COHI to fill the gaps.”
Jean Louis’s organization provides clothing, helps translate forms for parents, and helps enroll children in school. They have held community baby showers for pregnant migrants and a backpacking trip in partnership with the International Rescue Committee and other organizations such as Baby2Baby.
Many of the migrants have come here because of the insecurity in Haiti at the moment. People are fleeing the country. Gangs have taken over harbors and neighborhoods in an effort to survive, but sometimes their tactics work against them. The country is in the middle of a cholera outbreak and children are dying.
According to the US Census, approximately 40,850 Haitian-Americans live in New Jersey, most of whom live in or near East Orange, Irvington, and Paterson, and COHI is doing what it can to help their community. Jean Louis says they will set up a legal clinic for the migrants early next year so they can get help applying for asylum. The purpose of the migrants is to be here legally.
“They travel many, many miles on foot to come here for a better life,” Antilus said. ‘They are our brothers and sisters, we can’t leave them without something. Our job is to provide them with resources and make sure they succeed.”
Jean Louis was visibly tired at the end of the event. She said she had just returned from a business trip to Chicago and had little sleep, but she said she needs no credit for hosting these events. She is grateful to be able to do this work with the support of her community.
Ande Richards wants to hear from New Jersey’s communities of color, people with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ communities, and those who feel undervalued by traditional media. She can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @anderichards.
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