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After the Earthquake, Haiti?s Diaspora Finds a Welcoming Way Home

February 4, 2010; New York Times; After the Earthquake, Haiti?s Diaspora Finds a Welcoming Way Home; by Shaila Dewan.

MIAMI — Since leaving Haiti in 1974 and becoming a successful engineer here, Fritz Armand has often felt that his skills were unwelcome in his native country.

His efforts to build a desalination facility and a portable power plant in Haiti failed in part, he says, because of antipathy toward expatriates. He has been called “diaspore,” an insulting term. Under Haitian law, when he became an American citizen, he automatically “renounced” his birthplace.

For years, educated émigrés like Mr. Armand, from Miami to Montreal, have tried hard to play a more vital role in Haiti’s development, with little success.

But the earthquake has suddenly changed all that, reducing old hostilities to rubble. Depleted of leadership and talent, the Haitian government — once known for ejecting elected officials who held a United States passport — is begging its own for aid, and the Haitian-born have responded en masse.

“The diaspora must organize to help us,” Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said last week at a conference in Montreal. “I have no alternative. They have to be involved in Haiti; they have to be engaged.”

He need not have asked. Groups like the Haitian American Nurses Association, based in Miami, and the Haitian League in New Jersey have sent dozens of Creole-speaking doctors and nurses to help. In Canada, hundreds of Haitians who work for the government are pushing for a furlough program to allow them to help back home.

At the request of diaspora leaders, the Organization of American States will convene an international gathering of Haitian groups next month to map out plans for reconstruction and to ensure that the Haitian diaspora is included, not only by the government but also by contractors and nongovernmental organizations.

For his part, Mr. Armand, 53, the former director of public works for Opa-Locka, Fla., has spent contented days poring over uniform business codes and inspecting new types of construction materials, preparing to go with others in the Haitian-American Association of Engineers and Scientists to help inspect bridges and build sanitation systems for camps. This time, he will be in Haiti at the invitation of the minister of public works.

“Now that they have no choice but to let us in, that will allow them to see: They’re not all that bad,” Mr. Armand said. “They’re not coming to take my job. They’re coming to help.”

Still, the Haitian government’s new attitude has not erased all skepticism. Some in the diaspora say they have been kept at bay by fears that they would usurp jobs or expose corruption, while others say the negative sentiment has been a political tool, fanned for cynical ends. Whatever the reason, it did not ease the hurt when Haiti welcomed the billions of dollars that émigrés sent home but rebuffed their expertise.

To prove Haiti wants more than just money from its diaspora, said Chalmers Larose, a Haitian-born political science professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal, the government must follow up with policy changes.

“If I want to go to Haiti, I can go, but I would have to be a tourist,” Professor Larose said. “There is no agency to channel my expertise.”

The Haitian diaspora is estimated to be at least two million strong, with more than half a million Haitian-born people in the United States alone, heavily concentrated in South Florida and Brooklyn. In 2008, Haitians around the world sent at least $1.3 billion to Haiti, far more than the amount of foreign aid the country received, according to the World Bank.

While many Haitian expatriates, especially the illegal immigrants, remain poor, there is a robust elite of businessmen and professionals who view themselves as a recovering Haiti’s best hope.

“There are more Haitian doctors here than there are in Haiti,” said Jean-Robert Lafortune, the executive director of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition in Miami, who said the earthquake was a chance for new cooperative spirit to take hold.

Gerard Alphonse Ferere, a retired professor living in Boca Raton, Fla., said antipathy toward Haitians who left was limited to a small segment of the political and economic elite. Still, Mr. Ferere said, that small group can be pernicious.

Mr. Ferere was forced into exile with his wife in 1963, under threat of execution by the Duvaliers, who brutally ruled the country from the 1950s to the ’80s. When he returned after Jean-Claude Duvalier was ousted in 1986, he found that some questioned his loyalty.

“They said: ‘You are not Haitian anymore. We don’t want you. Where were you?’ ” Mr. Ferere recalled. “So I have been victimized twice.”

Mr. Ferere said the questioners were connected with the Duvalier government and wanted to discredit its opponents.

On an economic and political level, the diaspora could be threatening, said Harry Casimir, 30, a Haitian-born businessman who opened an information technology business there just before the earthquake.

“Once the elites have money and power,” Mr. Casimir said, “they’re scared of people like me, the younger generation and so on. Because we travel around the world and see how other governments function, and obviously most countries are not corrupt like Haiti.”

But several expatriates acknowledged that some of the fault might lie in a certain swagger on their own part.

“People in the diaspora may be coming with that complex of superiority, where they think, We know better; we can do it better,” said the Rev. Reginald Jean-Mary, pastor of Notre Dame d’Haiti in the Little Haiti section of Miami.

Yet Father Jean-Mary provoked murmurs of excitement Sunday at a packed high Mass here, when he proclaimed, “This is the moment to suspend politics, because we have had enough politics in Haiti.”

He added, “It’s time to open Haiti to the diaspora.”

Recently, countries like Mexico and Colombia have extended more rights, like the right to vote, to their expatriates, said Alex Stepick, a professor of global and social cultural studies at Florida International University. Even before the earthquake, Haiti had been inching in that direction, with groups like the Haitian Diaspora Unity Congress, meeting for its second time last year to discuss issues like health care, economic development and education.

Other signs of change came after President Bill Clinton’s appointment last May as the United Nations special envoy to Haiti. Mr. Clinton’s recruitment of large investors galvanized Haitian-born entrepreneurs. And last August, the United States Agency for International Development started a pilot program to provide a two-to-one match for investments by those in the Haitian diaspora in certain industries.

Most significant to many émigrés, a constitutional amendment that would have given them the right to vote and opened the door for them to run for office in Haiti had seemed headed for approval when the quake struck.

That agenda item is now on the back burner because, for now, nothing is more compelling than the chance to help rebuild the country — perhaps, if Mr. Armand has any say, with lightweight fiber-reinforced concrete and inexpensive solar-powered lights.

“We do our work here,” Mr. Armand said of his adopted land. “But, really, our heart is in Haiti.”

Robbie Brown contributed reporting from Atlanta.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

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