Friday, January 15, 2010

Bittersweet Acceptance...My Life As A Haitian-American

This week has been a very difficult one, not only for me but also for the world. I received a call from someone who asked “Do you still have relatives in Haiti?” “Why?” I replied. “Turn on CNN!” they said…and with that, my life changed. That’s when I learned that a devastating earthquake had ripped through the small island nation known as Haiti…my island.

I am the eldest daughter of Haitian immigrants who came to this country in the early seventies in pursuit of a better life. The lure of the United States is a common one in Haiti because the US symbolizes everything that is longed for…financial stability, democracy, and opportunity. My hardworking parents achieved all of this, while never letting me or my brother forget about the beautiful country from which they came, or the rich cultural history and customs that make us special. Although I was born and raised here in the states, I speak the Haitian languages fluently, live and breathe the culture, and LOVE my Caribbean heritage.

The only problem is that despite how proud I am to be a Haitian-American, the greater world around me seemed to associate it with everything negative. In fact, the only time I heard Haiti mentioned was when it was cited as the poorest and most illiterate nation in the western hemisphere. I’ll never forget the time in the early eighties when health officials came to my elementary school to discuss the AIDS epidemic. At that time, little was known about AIDS and H.I.V., and officials were trying to calm the public pandemonium. As I sat in the assembly with a room full of my 5th grade peers, the staff used an overhead projector to display a large map of Haiti on the wall. They cited that there were three types of people that acquired AIDS…homosexuals, hemophiliacs……and Haitians. Knowing my background, the class began to oooohhhh and aaaahhhhh while snickering. Picture me sitting with my eyes full of tears while everybody (including teachers) looked at me with disgust…simply because I was Haitian.

That was then…

Today at one of my schools, the fifth grade class held an assembly and talked about the tragedy that occurred. The 11-year-old moderator asked all of us who are Haitian to stand while each 5th grader waved a handmade Haitian flag. I, along with a handful of students stood up. We each looked in each other’s eyes and were instantly bonded through our common anguish. I can honestly say that this is the first time in my entire career that I lost my composure in front of students. The tears streamed down my face, and I unsuccessfully tried to secretly wipe them away. It was futile because there were so many emotions running through me in that moment. Seeing these kids waving the Haitian flag blew me away. I could not help but to draw parallels to being that 5th grader who others shunned because of my heritage to now being supported because of it. It is simply bittersweet that now people finally care about something that I’ve loved and treasured for my entire life.
As tragic as it is, what is happening in Haiti can offer an opportune time to discuss the importance of empathy and service with children. Treating others as they would want to be treated is such an important life skill. You can collect cans or loose change as a family to raise money for those in need. Or perhaps volunteering in your home town at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter is something that you and your kids can do together. Whatever you choose…simply choose to do something to help those that are less fortunate. Trust and believe that in this day and time…the person(s) in need could someday very well be you.


  1. Gaetane, I don't know why it's saying 0 reactions because I commented earlier. But just in case you didn't see it, I said that this was a great piece. I am appalled at how they treated you in grade school but like you said, that was the past. How great of the school to let the kids do that. I continue to pray for you and your family and all of Haiti.

  2. Hi Gaétane,

    Thanks for sharing your experience today with us. It is always encouraging to see good emerge from tragedy. Although I don't share your origins, I do share your pain. The last two days have been very tough for me. Every since I was a child, I have been affected by the suffering of others. Plus, having young children and then seeing the faces of children their ages in all of the's hard. I can't really imagine what it's like to lose suddenly my wife and one or all three of my girls. I do hope and pray that since all eyes are on Haiti now, perhaps much of the debt that much of the 'Americas' owe her will be paid.

    Be Encouraged Further,

    Your cousin,


  3. Kristen and Chip....

    I honestly shed some tears in reading your responses. It touches me to know that what I wrote affected you because I always speak from my heart. No doubt...this issue is personal. However, the fact that neither one of you is Haitian but understand my truly comforting!

    No Words Can Explain My Gratitude...

  4. Thanks for sharing, G. As I read this article, I couldn't help the tears streaming down my face either.



  5. Thank you so much for reading Cris!


  6. Gaetane,
    You are truly an inspiration to all and I thank God every day that our paths have crossed. Know that you and your family are always in our thoughts and prayers. God Bless my friend.

  7. Dear Gaetane,

    This is your cousin Erica. This is the second time I am reading this in the past 3 days, and yet I am shedding tears again. I am not entirely sure why, but this catastrophe is affecting me more emotionally, and probing me greatly to rise to action, than any other natural disaster that has happened in the past decade. I mean I always feel compassion and the desire to help in these unfortunate situations. But this somehow feels different...more intense.

    As you touched on earlier, this may indeed be an opportunity to make Haiti a greater place than before. Perhaps the human sacrifices that were made in this earthquake is a catalyst for significant, positive change in the lives of other Haitians. While I do think some Americans are only rising to the occasion so that America can prove it is not always the bad guy, still in the end these efforts may be for the greater good for the quality of Haitian life.
    Also, if you know other people who live in Harlem, they can donate both money and goods to Pastors for Peace at 418 West 145th street (Next to Convent Baptist Church) .

    I know you are swamped, but left a message on your home phone a couple of days ago. I will try again today.

    Much Love. Wishing you Peace of Body and Mind.

  8. Anny---I also feel blessed to have crossed your path as well, and I am so appreciative of your prayers. As you know, this week has been rough for me and my family. However, with supportive friends like yourself...I grow stronger each day.

    Erica---Such powerful words! I agree with you that there simply has to be a positive that comes from this tragedy. Thank you so much for reaching out to me. I have been in an emotional funk for several days, but your support has helped to lift my spirits. THANK YOU!!!!


  9. Madeline Michele Eubanks -HoveyJanuary 19, 2010 at 4:53 PM

    Prayers go out to every victim and their families in the Haiti tragedy.So sad.