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Area Haitians Call for Action Before Mass Deportation

  • Before eating their Thanksgiving meal, Bise Wood Saint Eugene, right, and his family, three-year-old Reina, bottom, Mertichela, left, and eight-year-old Wood, top, all of Lebanon, N.H., say grace on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017, at the Saint Eugene's home in Lebanon. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bise Wood Saint Eugene, of Lebanon, N.H., talks during an interview on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017, at his home in Lebanon, N.H. Saint Eugene is currently waiting for a hearing to be granted an asylum status in the United States from Haiti. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bise Wood Saint Eugene, of Lebanon, N.H., shows his American Red Cross credential during an interview on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017, at his home in Lebanon, N.H. Saint Eugene is currently waiting for a hearing to be granted an asylum status in the United States from Haiti. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bise Wood Saint Eugene, of Lebanon, N.H., talks during an interview on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017, at his home in Lebanon, N.H. Saint Eugene is currently waiting for a hearing to be granted an asylum status in the United States from Haiti. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, November 23, 2017

Lebanon — Aroma-wise, it was a typical Thanksgiving at the Saint Eugene household, in Lebanon: The air was warm and well-seasoned with the smell of roasting turkey, which drifted out from where Mertichela Saint Eugene was cooking up a storm in the kitchen. Three-year-old Reina and 8-year-old Wood were padding around the house, chattering to themselves.

Meanwhile, though, Mertichela’s husband, Bise Wood Saint Eugene, sat in the living room and reflected on what the next 18 months would bring for his mother country, Haiti, when it re-absorbs its nearly 60,000 citizens who have been living in the United States with Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, since the 2010 earthquake that devastated the small Caribbean nation.

The Department of Homeland Security announced on Monday that it will not renew the TPS that has allowed tens of thousands of Haitians to live in the U.S. with provisional legal residency for nearly eight years. The program expires in July 2019, so Haitians who have been granted this protected status must leave the U.S. within in the next 18 months, or face deportation.

“I have mixed feelings about the decision,” said Saint Eugene, who isn’t directly affected by the termination of Haiti’s TPS but is still “in limbo,” as he put it. Since he moved to the United States almost four years ago, when his civil rights work in Haiti put him in harm’s way, he’s been waiting for a hearing that ultimately will determine whether he will be granted asylum status to remain in the country.

“There are a lot of things to fix in Haiti. Even 20 years would not be enough time,” he said. Haiti, while a place of rich culture and historical importance, is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. In addition to the earthquake, Haiti has recently been ravaged by political corruption, hurricane damage and a host of disease outbreaks, including cholera, diphtheria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

“The Haitian people do not deserve what we are suffering. ... Not one person would want to go back to that,” he said.

He noted that relief efforts in Haiti have not only been poorly coordinated, but have barely alleviated any suffering, with millions of dollars in promised aid never being delivered.

“Haiti is used to broken promises,” he said. “Haiti’s legacy in history is written in bold.”

Still, Saint Eugene is hopeful that by the time the July 2019 deadline rolls around, the U.S. government will have started taking meaningful steps “to help get Haiti back on its feet,” he said. “There are many ways to approach the deadline to make it beneficial, but if we think of it only as a deadline, it will only cause more suffering. Practical action needs to be taken.”

TPS, which has been renewed by every administration since President George Bush signed it into law in 1990, is meant to ensure that U.S. newcomers will not be forced back to countries ravaged by armed conflict, natural disasters or other “extraordinary” circumstances of danger. Other TPS-designated countries with pending expiration dates include Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center has at least two employees from Haiti who are in the Upper Valley thanks to TPS, according to hospital spokesman Rick Adams. He said the Lebanon hospital is hoping to find other types of visa programs that might be applied to the workers.

“We’re looking at what those potential authorizations might be to try to minimize the impact on those folks’ employment,” Adams said on Wednesday.

But even Haitians in the Upper Valley who are not directly affected by Monday’s announcement — like Saint Eugene — feel a personal stake in the outcome.

So does Frantz Thelismond, a Haitian immigrant who works at the Dartmouth College post office. Thelismond was saddened, but not surprised, to hear the Department of Homeland Security’s announcement. He feels the situation in Haiti needs more than 18 months’ worth of work to become “livable for human beings,” and he suspects the decision reflects President Donald Trump’s bias against immigrants of color.

“I’m surprised (the Trump administration) waited so long to do this. I knew it was a matter of time before we got to the part of ... cleansing the country,” he said in a phone interview on Thursday. “It’s a joke, you know, to tell them it’s fine now to go back. Can you tell them how they are going to live? Can you tell them what jobs will be there? Will they be persecuted by the justice system, by the government? Will there be food for them to eat and feed their family?”

Thelismond, who now lives in White River Junction, has lived in the United States for more than 50 years.

“So just a little while,” he joked, but his reasons for leaving Haiti were gravely serious. “Someone from the government came and kicked the door down, and took my father and killed him and we never saw him again,” he recalled. He and his family feared they would be targeted next.

“It is very, very disturbing. ... Even after you leave, there is a nightmare still inside your heart, knowing this is where your life was and you can’t even go back, you can’t go back to where you were born and raised, because it’s very difficult to go back. There’s people killing everybody,” he said, adding that the dangerous conditions of his youth persist today — in part because the Haitian people are still living in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. “There are so many of us who go back who disappear, who are kidnapped, beaten, taken away and held for ransom. And it’s still in despair, almost eight years after the earthquake, the situation is still in despair. So this is the point where we’re at. We are not at a point of reconstruction.”

Thelismond has not been back to Haiti in many years, but he keeps in contact with his friends and distant relatives who still live there. He does not believe that the 18-month deadline will lead the Trump administration to work with the Haitian government, or any other government, to invest in improving living conditions in Haiti, but he does believe in the power of individuals to create meaningful, community-level change. Recently, he sent money to one of his contacts in Haiti, who used it to open a soup kitchen.

“It was only open one day a week for a month because that’s what I could afford,” he said. But his dollars went directly toward providing a much-needed life necessity, more so than if he’d made a donation through a questionable organization, such as the Red Cross, which he said is not transparent about how it uses its donations and notoriously mismanages its aid projects.

“Especially for places like Haiti, the only way to get help ... is through good people feeling bad and wanting to help directly,” he said. He encouraged Valley News readers who’d like to be part of such grassroots efforts to get in touch with him; he has connections with a number of on-the-ground people and organizations.

Chelsey Kivland, an assistant professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College whose research focuses on street politics and violence in Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince, expressed deep concerns about Monday’s announcement, “mainly because the effects of the earthquake are not temporary,” she said in phone interview on Thursday. “I do understand that TPS is something that’s not supposed to last forever, but at the same time, it’s supposed to expire when the effects of the disaster have expired, and that is not the case in Haiti. Conditions are such there that the country should continue to qualify for TPS.”

Kivland, who knows Saint Eugene through Dartmouth, described him as someone who is able to stay positive even in troubling times, and commended his optimism. She thinks that if a silver lining does exist in this situation, it’s that many Haitians with TPS have the kind of education and skills that could contribute to bettering life in Haiti once they return.

“At the same time, that means really making an effort to provide spaces for them to find employment,” she said. “The decision to revoke TPS hasn’t come with any corollary decision to invest in Haiti’s infrastructure and public works and development so that it can absorb this influx of its brothers and sisters. ... I’m reluctant to say that that is on the horizon.”

Rep. George Sykes, D-Lebanon, was among the concerned Upper Valley citizens to spring into action after the earthquake. Initially intending to stay for a month, he ended up spending nearly two years there. He said that, based on the high levels of unemployment and homelessness that already plague the country, there is “no way” that Haiti will be ready to re-absorb 60,000 citizens in 18 months.

“Aside from shining a bright light on what’s going on, the next piece is that we should be trying to contact our elected representatives and Congress. Perhaps some legislative solution can be found,” Sykes said, though he isn’t sure what that solution might be, or if there is one. He encouraged people to call their elected officials to express their concerns about the termination of TPS for Haiti.

In the meantime, Saint Eugene chooses to see the next 18 months as an opportunity for the U.S. and other governments to actively begin revitalizing the struggling nation.

“It’s a difficult situation,” he said. “But there’s hope.”

In the kitchen, his three-year-old daughter was singing. “She likes to sing in both languages,” he said.

To help fund community-level efforts to improve living conditions in Haiti, contact Frantz Thelismond at frantzthelismondsr@yahoo.com.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.