Correction: The article was changed to reflect that the school only closed temporarily as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, it successfully reopened in September.
Between the earthquake on Aug. 14, the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, a gang security crisis and a global pandemic, Haitian-born DePaul alum Paul Carisma said many “feel as though the country is cursed, that it can’t catch a break.”
Carisma is aware that the place he grew up in and calls home is known to most of the world only from occasional news reports on the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. But with the country’s situation at a tipping point, more than 10,000 migrants brought their desperation to the United States’ door, according to the New York Times.
The mass migration brought a lot of media attention to Haiti, but Carisma said these issues have been building up for a long time. When the pandemic hit in 2020, he said that it was overshadowed by the existing humanitarian issues, and ended up exacerbating them.
“Corona is not the issue in Haiti,” he said. “While it is present, people don’t really think of it or care for it.”
Laura Hartman, 58, is a professor emerita from the Department of Management & Entrepreneurship at DePaul. She went to Haiti in the late 2000s to represent the university in a microfinance project called Zafen to commemorate the death of St. Vincent de Paul, and she was struck by the gap in the quality of life and education levels that held many Haitian entrepreneurs back from running an effective business. According to Partners in Literacy Haiti, the country’s literacy rate is 61 percent.
“They had great ideas for small businesses and we could give them small loans, but many of them were illiterate, and their education was so poor that it was very sad,” Hartman said. “So I was really frustrated by this. In 2009, we began talking about building a school.”
DePaul allowed her time to go to Haiti and follow through with her idea, and it opened on Oct. 17, 2011 as the School of Choice. It was modeled after Francis W. Parker, a K-12 private school in Chicago where both Hartman and her daughter went to high school.
“I thought, ‘Why should children in Haiti have any less quality of an education as my daughter or me?’ They deserve a high quality education, I don’t care where they were born or how much money or how little money they were born with,” she said. “And it’s called l’Ecole de Choix, the School of Choice, because education gives you choices, and choices give you dignity.”
Hartman agreed with Carisma that Haiti’s problems already ran deep when the School of Choice was ordered to close on March 13, 2020, as a result of Covid-19. The school successfully reopened this past September for classes.
“People had such trouble getting food, getting health supplies — everything was closed,” she said. “When schools are closed, kids are home with parents, it’s troublesome, parents can’t go to work, there’s massive unemployment to begin with, no one can make money.”
The School of Choice was one of the only employers to keep paying their workers when it shut down temporarily. Otherwise, people were left to navigate an impossible environment on their own.
Hartman said the difference between living conditions in Haiti and the U.S. is so large she “can’t even talk about it” because it is impossible to compare. 59 percent of Haiti’s population lives under the poverty line and more than 24 percent lives in a situation of extreme poverty, according to Relief Web.
“I don’t even have words for it,” she said. “It’s so suffocating in its danger, in its impact on everyone’s daily life, and these are people at all levels of the economy. It’s not like you can protect yourself if you have a job or a home. They’re leaving because it’s so inhumane and intolerable and they can no longer live under those conditions.”
“When you’re in poverty in Chicago, there’s social service agencies, a safety net, there are things you can do. You can be really poor, but you can go to a church, or welfare agency. In Haiti, there’s nothing. You can starve. I’ve seen students who show up at 5 years old and they are literally starving. Their hair has turned orange. They’re malnourished. They’re not on the doctor’s charts,” Hartman added.
Hartman said this desperation can cause an increase in crime. When the New York Times reported on 17 people from Christian Aid Ministries kidnapped on Oct. 13, kidnappings were already a large concern in Haitian’s day-to-day life, and a deciding factor for many making the journey north. According to Hartman, “there is no isolated incident when you’re talking about Haiti.”
“When people can’t feed their families, things deteriorate,” she said. “And while we’d like to think that many of us would not resort to crime, and wouldn’t resort to gang and criminal behavior, simply because of poverty, some people are distressed, and act out of that distress. It does not mean that poverty equals criminal behavior, but there are certain behaviors that happen when people are under stress. You are more prone to upheaval. And then they are angrier at the government for not stepping in. You can imagine how this will spiral downward.”
Carisma agrees that it’s not an isolated incident, particularly when referring to the kidnapping of missionaries..
“This has been going on for the last couple months,” he said. “Now, the international community is hearing about it, because a group of foreigners were affected and it got headlined.”
While in the past, kidnappers would generally target those with means, or perceived means, Carisma said that now, no one feels safe.
“Lately it’s become random and chaotic, borderline terrorism,” he said. “And it’s every day, every week. It’s definitely different. It’s a lot more, and a lot more taxing. That’s why most people, by 6 or 7 p.m., at least in Port-au-Prince, are off the streets.”
Hartman said kidnappings are something she has to think about constantly as she travels between her home in Sint Maarten and her school in Haiti. She has kidnapping ransom insurance, and she and her campus director have to drive separately.
“I’ve been stopped on the road, held at gunpoint, but this is just part of what you do,” she said. “You figure out that it’s a risk. Someone asked me if I’m safe, and you know, I’m as safe as I can be.”
According to Carisma, on top of kidnappings, the void left by the president’s assassination has allowed the gangs to control main roads and demand a tariff for common resources from the southern part of the country like gas, plantains, chickens, eggs and coffee. Often, people are not able to afford the extra cost.
Hartman stressed that Haitians do not want to leave their homes — they are being forced to.
“Imagine how intolerable their life must be in Haiti for them to deal with the issues that we have in the U.S.,” she said. “And they’re unwanted. Imagine what they’re seeing, and they still make the trek, they still come across. And they know how hard it is, and while I am not one of them, there are many people in the U.S. who have made it clear that they don’t want these Haitians.”
Hartman has chosen to stay because now that she has a connection to this place and people, and the financial ability to help them, she feels a calling to.
“I understand why Haitians want to leave, but if I leave, and I stop working there, then [the gangs] really have won,” she said. “Because then we all just abandon this country to darkness, and we can’t. I have to persist, I have to stay, because if I leave then darkness wins. I have a generation of students that I’m telling, they need to grow up and lead this country to a better future. And if I’m not willing to be there with them, what am I going to do, abandon Haiti to them? Then I’m just being hypocritical.”
Carisma felt the same way. Although he was able to come to the U.S. to get an education, and has family in America, he never really considered leaving Haiti behind.
“Haiti is home,” he said. “The challenges here can be tiring and exhausting. There definitely is Haiti fatigue. And so certain days it’s easier, certain days it’s challenging, and regardless of when I was at DePaul, for undergrad or masters, Haiti has always been home and Haiti will be home for me.”
Because of this, he said his perspective on U.S. immigration policy is complicated.
“Haiti doesn’t have the means or capacity to take in individuals and provide support and assistance,” he said. “It’s a really hard thing to answer. I know that the U.S. isn’t going to take in everyone. So my only answer is to treat those individuals with dignity and respect, and to do what is possible.”
Political science professor Joe Tafoya focuses on Latino politics and immigration, and saw immigration policy play out when he was a student at the University of Texas at Austin.
“The fact that the U.S. has not done as much as it could have to develop and uphold democracy and government in Haiti is to the detriment of the living conditions that people deal with,” he said. “We know that people sacrifice so much to migrate to the U.S., so those who got here are doing it out of desperation.”
While President Joe Biden’s administration has stopped separating children from their families, allocated more resources to ease the strain on the system and worked to make detention centers more accommodating, it is still leaning on Trump-era policies like Remain in Mexico, which means asylum seekers have to wait in Mexico for their papers to be processed, Tafoya said.
But Haitians were not even afforded the treatment that this policy would extend. While Puerto Ricans, with their connection to the U.S., have been able to cross over freely after natural disasters, and migrants from other Latin American countries are processed at the border, however slowly, Haitian immigrants were simply sent back, Tafoya said.
“I think that the reason the Biden administration responded so swiftly, literally deporting everyone overnight, is because that would send a signal to the rest of Latin America,” he said. “It was also trying to get ahead of public opinion. So it’s paying attention.”
The intense level of need and the presence of political instability alongside natural disasters sets Haiti apart and would cause a lot of strain on an already burdened immigration system. Still, the unequal treatment is telling, and has been noticed by activist organizations, Tafoya said.
Black Lives Matter published an article on Sept. 22 condemning not only the deportations, but also the use of force against migrants peacefully assembled at the border, saying, “we are reminded that policing and immigration are inextricably linked and that migration is rife with anti-Blackness.”
This connection, Tafoya said, brings the issue home, since it puts the attitude of the U.S. government towards different groups on display.
“The policy has attributed different value, different worth, to these different types of people from Latin America,” he said. “And this could be an example of the way similar U.S. policy could treat other people in other cases. We’re thinking of this social desirability of certain populations over others. That is an amazing cause for alarm.”
For Haitians in the U.S., Tafoya said the immediate deportations could cause alarm that temporary protected status, which allows many Haitians to stay here, would not be provided to future Haitian generations.
“We know from really good political science, that once the government extends a benefit, that’s it; it’s very hard to take it back,” he said. “So the people who have temporary protected status are not going to get that taken away, because it’ll make for bad headlines. But about the possibility of extending temporary protected status to other folks — the fact that that didn’t occur means that that safety valve in immigration policy is not going to be a tool that the government uses.”
As of 2018, there were 687,000 Haitians living in the U.S. according to Migration Policy Institute. Carisma said he would challenge the DePaul community to keep Haiti in mind, because the issue is close to home for many in the city that is our campus.
“Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the founder of Chicago, came from Haiti,” he said. “So for Chicago, while Haiti is an island far away and only comes up in the news when they want to talk about the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haitians have been part of the city’s fabric for years, and will be. How you decide to treat your neighbor, and the individuals in your surroundings who are the least fortunate, have the least access to health, education and opportunity, eventually becomes a reflection of you.”