The Newcomers Among Us: Experiences of Haitians Who Have Made Boston Their New Home

Tout otan tèt pa koupe gen espwa mete chapo!

An approximate translation into English might be "As long as the head is not cut off, it can hope to wear a hat."

This Haitian Kreyol proverb summed up a discussion that took place at the Center's most recent Newcomers Among Us seminar, held on March 4, 2005 at the Association for Haitian Women (Asosiyasyon Fanm Ayisyen nan Boston) in Dorchester. The fifth in the Newcomers series, this particular seminar focused on the experiences of Haitians who have made Boston their new home.

This evocative proverb arose during a spirited discussion of the challenges that have faced refugees and immigrants from Haiti as they attempt to integrate into the life of a Northeastern city. All participants were either first or second-generation Haitian immigrants or individuals who work in situations that bring them into regular contact with a Haitian population. Many professions were represented, including social service provision, medicine, education, guidance counseling, university research and teaching, non-profit management, and cultural consulting.

Participants spoke movingly of the low status that they feel the Haitian population continues to occupy in the eyes of mainstream America. The flight of many Haitian refugees by boat to the shores of the U.S. in the 1980's, and their often undeserved association with the emerging HIV pandemic, created a picture of Haitian immigrants that lingers in the American imagination and continues to serve as a barrier to their full social and economic integration.

Yet the conversation among participants reached far beyond complaints about the host society and its shortcomings. Haitian immigrants were quick to point out the things that their own community could do better, such as breaking down gender hierarchies and preserving those aspects of Haitian culture that will help the second generation to develop the inner strength necessary to face the hardships of life in an American city. Perhaps first and foremost, Haitians need to sustain their efforts to succeed in their new home and not feel beaten down by all that stands in their way. To return to the proverb, they need to persevere if they are to manage to put a hat on that empty head.

Carline Desiré, executive director of the Asosiyasyon Fanm Ayisyen nan Boston, encouraged Haitian immigrants to reach out to other immigrant groups. "There is more that unites than separates us," she claimed, adding that better immigration policies would be developed through work across the boundaries of immigrant populations, in Boston and elsewhere.

The Newcomers series, directed by Leigh Swigart, is part of a long-standing program at Brandeis University called Seminars in the Humanities and the Professions. The program uses literature as a lens through which seminar participants may view their work in new and constructive ways. The Newcomers Among Us series brings together people who work with immigrants and refugees in the Boston area with the aim of building a network of professionals who can advise and consult one another in this critical and growing field.