Haitians from Marsh Harbour, Abaco and Grand Bahama are now faced with the terrifying task of rebuilding their lives with no money, no support system and the complete annihilation of some of their communities. Heightened xenophobia has forced many of them to remain behind in what has become a virtual graveyard rather than face derision and discrimination on other islands.
It’s been nearly two weeks since Hurricane Dorian decimated Marsh Harbour, Abaco and badly destroyed parts of Grand Bahama. In fact, from all accounts, Abaco still mimics an environmental warzone.
Those who refuse to leave those islands sadly face a brewing health hazard, as scores of decaying bodies – human and otherwise – are strewn about like rubble.
In the wake of the disaster, Haitian Chargé d’Affaires, Dorval Darlier has suggested that the Minnis administration offer temporary asylum to undocumented migrants who were impacted by the storm.
He believes this is the best way to assist devastated Haitians living in Grand Bahama and Abaco, who lost everything due to the hurricane.
I believe it’s a sound idea. While I support legal migration, I believe there are times when we have to make exceptions in extraordinary circumstances. This happens to be an extraordinary circumstance.
Bahamians weren’t the only ones impacted by our recent national tragedy. It’s important for all of us to remember that.
In fact, it was the Haitians and Bahamians of Haitian descent, who were living in some of the poorest conditions on those islands prior to the storm, positioning them as some of the most vulnerable residents.
Bahamas’ Image Is Stained With Xenophobia
A troubling series of events had been brewing, long before Hurricane Dorian made landfall in The Bahamas, particularly as it related to the treatment of our Haitian brothers and sisters.
The reality is, The Bahamas’ glossy tourist image has historically been stained with xenophobia and this latest tragedy has aired our dirty laundry internationally.
There’s no sense in prettying up the facts because the world is watching. If we’re honest, we have to admit that our country has an embarrassing record as it relates to the treatment of Haitians.
Since the September 1 tragedy, many Haitians have expressed their frustration at the way they have been treated.
Haitian Community Not “Coping Very Well”
I interviewed Director of International Affairs for Rights Bahamas, Louby Georges for this column to get a full understanding of what many in the Haitian community are experiencing right now.
Georges’ is a Bahamian human rights activist of Haitian descent, who, as he puts it, has had the “full Haitian experience.” I think every Bahamian knows what that means.
Georges says the Haitian community isn’t coping very well due to a lot of rumours, misinformation and a void in leadership.
“Persons and organizations are being pulled in every direction possible. The people themselves are mourning the deaths of their brothers and sisters. There’s a sense of confusion, not knowing what is going to happen next,” he said.
“We’ve been receiving reports that favoritism, bias and preferential treatment have kicked in, and that Bahamians are being treated a little bit differently. I honestly cannot confirm that because I was not on the ground in Abaco. But, we’ve gotten firsthand accounts, though, from victims at Potter’s Cay Dock, at a few of the shelters through voice notes and watching their live videos, so I can only go by what the victims themselves have been saying.”
Following the storm’s passage, questions abounded about why many Haitians stayed behind in the impoverished shantytown known as The Mudd.
Georges said it’s quite simple: Abaco is all they know.
“Many Haitians that were residing in Abaco have never ever visited Nassau. Many of them have no family in Nassau. So, Abaco is all they know. They say they want to stay behind and help to clean up, help to rebuild and that whatever is happening there or supposed to happen there, they want to be a part of it, because this is all they know,” he said.
Hatred Rears Its Head During Crisis
In the aftermath of this latest tragedy, I have witnessed many people spewing hate-filled messages directed toward the Haitian community. I won’t repeat the things that have been said because I refuse to give such hurtful commentary a platform.
Georges says he, too, has seen a lot of hate-filled sentiments directed towards the Haitian community.
“It’s very sad and unfortunate that in a tragedy people would allow the nasty head of xenophobia that is in them and the hate and prejudice that is in them to come out,” he said.
“It looks bad on The Bahamas because a lot of those sentiments are being spewed on social media, particularly Facebook and the world is literally watching. This is a moment for us to be humble and to realize that just like Haiti, just like Antigua, just like any other country that has continuously been rocked by natural disasters, that we are just one natural disaster away from being in the same state of places like Haiti having to fight and try to recover and being dependent on the international community and countries.”
He continued, “In this time of tragedy, we see that lower income countries like Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago pledging $500,000, little St. Lucia pledging $100,000; the Haitian government, despite it all, pledging as they are going through a gas crisis, there are protests and manifestations going on right now in Haiti. Despite all of that, the government is still pledging money towards the recovery efforts here in The Bahamas. We’re all one.”
Georges has a point.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It ranks as the 16thpoorest country in the world out of 195 countries. It’s also a country that is gripped by poverty and is extremely vulnerable to natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes. In fact, Haiti has still not fully recovered from the 2010 earthquake that killed 316,000 people displaced 1.5 million of its citizens.
It’s been nearly 10 years since that catastrophe, and Haiti is still in need of humanitarian aid to assist its own people.
Yet, it is against that backdrop that Haiti pledged assistance.
The criticism also highlights the hypocrisy of some who are hoping for assistance and humanitarian aid from foreign countries all while condemning Haitians who are seeking the same.
“People should be a little more humbled by this, but sadly, they’re not. We cannot allow those people to distract us. There is a real conversation that we need to have. A lot of times people will say that Bahamians are loving people, Bahamians are positive. Many of us are. I know of more positive Bahamians than negative ones,” Georges said.
“But, we cannot allow the bad apples to continue to exist in a box with the good ones because they are going to contaminate the good ones. We need to weed them out. We need more Bahamian citizens to speak to them to have them understand that we are one people.”
Activist Urges Gov’t To Work With Haitian Community
The human rights activist has also advised the Haitian community to pool its resources and consolidate its efforts in order to better serve the victims of Hurricane Dorian.
He also said the government needs to recognize that the community still has its brass of leadership, as well as faces and voices that they recognize, listen to, respect and trust.
He said officials should be working very closely with various Haitian organizations, churches, Rights Bahamas and other individuals to speak to the Haitian community so that they can have a clear understanding of what’s going on.
“It’s not enough for the government to simply say they have translators or people to interpret. No, that is not enough because those individuals are still going to see that you came with your people who we don’t even know,” he said.
“Yes, they may have learned Creole, but when they see their trusted leadership, I think whatever is said would, rather than go into their heads, would go into their hearts, and they would believe and they would trust and I think that would put all of us in the country in a better position.
Georges also dispelled rumours that undocumented Haitians had been arrested and detained at the Carmichael Road Detention Centre and the prison.
“I know that to be a lie. That is not true. So there are many rumours circulating in the Haitian community. There’s a fear of being arrested. But, Rights Bahamas is doing the best that we can to nip that in the bud,” he said.
“I spoke to the Minister of Immigration directly and will continue what I’ve been doing, which is to send out audio clips and short videos to assist in putting that that baby to bed. The community at large needs to come together to consolidate its efforts. The church, the business sector, civil society, the embassy, all need to come together. We don’t need to be duplicating work.”