I first met Haitian expats Maurice Bonhomme and Jean Cayemitte in the kitchen at a dinner party, garnishing the tilapia, sweating and whispering intently. The host won the dinner at an auction held at the élite high school where Maurice and Jean spend the first half of their 16-hour workday as security guards, before they clock in the evening shift at an upmarket French restaurant downtown. They did not come out of the kitchen until the end of the meal, scrubbed pots in tow and brows moist with cooking grease. They gave the edentulous server’s smile and left, closing the door soundlessly behind them, taking care not to let in the Chicago cold.
Haitian expats have consistently comprised the largest giving source to Haiti, far exceeding that of any foreign donor before the quake
A few months later, I would be on a plane to Haiti with Maurice and Jean, where, after a week following their every move, I came to learn that there they would neither sweat, nor whisper, nor scrub, nor come and go quietly. Walking with them through the rubble-lined streets of Petit Goave, their rural hometown southwest of Port-au-Prince, one hears people singing out their names like an anthem, a reverent echolocation emitted blind through the nose. ‘Meee-o’ they call Maurice. Jean designated the clearest terms: ‘Here I am somebody. In the States, I am nobody.’ They hadn’t been home since the aftershock on 20 January flattened what little of the town the earthquake had spared the week before. Maurice said communication had remained scattershot. ‘I don’t know what to expect.’
The answer came unforgiving in the ride from Port-au-Prince to Petit Goave, a 40-mile stretch that cannot sheathe the claws of misery. When Maurice and Jean looked out at the shattered moonscape, they didn’t see it so much as gasp through its sunken lung, course through its jet meridians. This was home, erased. We were three months in from the quake and charred corpses said to be thieves no longer line curbsides. In their place now are the living – orphaned, homeless, maimed and desultory. Today, tin revetments upholster sheet-made shacks and in doing so concede the cruellest reality: this is not a passing hell but a purgatory taking root and anchoring its stakes before the rain.
While Maurice and Jean’s reuniting with their ravaged beloved offered a fascinating and complicated narrative bed, their exploits in post-quake Haiti were not fiscally grand. They’ve raised enough money in Chicago to get 500 tents to Petit Goave and are rebuilding the collapsed grammar school they’d been sustaining out of pocket from the US. Of course, there’s the dozens of people for whom they are emotionally indebted to do ‘a little something’ and those are stories within stories… There’s a lot you can’t say to fresh-faced NGO staff and a great deal of those were packing up anyway.
But the cumulative force of the Diaspora is both formidable and underreported. Haitian expats have consistently comprised the largest giving source to Haiti, far exceeding that of any foreign donor before the quake. According to a 2008 World Bank study, émigrés remitted roughly 30 per cent of Haiti’s GDP. This year they’re sending even more.
As compassion fatigue peaks and Haiti falls from the headlines, Maurice and Jean’s story comes to bear on the profusion of vows to not abandon Haiti, providing a realistic answer to the question of who would be inclined to take on such a sustained commitment.
Without increased legislative support from both the new and old countries, Haitian fists full of American-earned money alone will not take Haiti off its knees
But this is not a story about idealists and do-gooders. It’s about the two million expatriates whose mothers, lovers and reputations hang in the balance of a ruined birth land and how this socially obligates and emotionally incentivizes them to help. Amid the horror of Haiti, Maurice’s and Jean’s encounter was an elusive one, marked in equal parts by the pleasure and power of being ‘somebody’ and the empathic imagination that grows from being ‘nobody’.
Along the way, they discovered that without increased legislative support from both the new and old countries, Haitian fists full of American-earned money alone will not take Haiti off its knees. The Haitian Diaspora has a critical role in rebuilding their homeland, but crucial also is the need for legislation that supports their expanded role as the economic stability for Haiti during its protracted rebuilding phase.