‘Why don’t we go to the roots of Haiti’s problems before we’re jumping to conclusions?’

Kwot Anwey, Gabriel Martins, Molly Siegel

In partnership with Boston University students, Where Mainstream Media Fails is a four-part series highlighting critical issues in underserved communities across Boston that have gone underreported. This series comments on how mainstream media continues to ignore or misrepresent Boston’s racially and ethnically diverse communities. 

Each piece is merely a starting point for MA Latino News’ reporters, and hopefully other Boston-centered newsrooms, that inspires a deeper dive into complex issues that uniquely impact diverse and historically underrepresented communities across the city.


PART 2: MATTAPAN’S HAITIAN-AMERICAN COMMUNITY 


Past the busy road of Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan, on a side street surrounded by auto body shops, there is a green warehouse with a low drumming rhythm coming from it. There are no big banners or elaborate decorations, just a worn sign that says “The Voice of the Gospel Tabernacle.”

Service starts in five minutes. The music swells and women in yellow dresses summon the congregation to their feet.

 “Merci Seigneur! Merci Seigneur! Hallelujah! Hallelujah,” a woman in a white blazer shouts. 

The growing congregation stands and waves their hands. They sing in Haitian Creole. Worship has started, with families hand in hand with each other. Some have been here for decades, others for days.

Mattapan’s Haitian community has been overwhelmed with the recent wave of immigration into the city. After decades of political unrest exploded in their native country, families look to their local leaders for guidance. Yet, as shelters housing newly arriving immigrants fill up, reporters have been missing from the picture. 

This is not an isolated incident, nor has it improved. Local leaders in Mattapan have been overwhelmed with trying to meet migrants’ needs as they arrive in Boston, and they’re looking to the press to shed light on these issues. Most leaders have said that media coverage on Mattapan’s growing community has not been as extensive as they had hoped. 

“Why don’t we go to the roots of Haiti’s problems before we’re jumping to conclusions?” said Deputy Director James Colimon of Global Affairs & Protocol for the City of Boston. “What sells is the fact that [they] can say, ‘Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. They are from a shithole country’, pardon my French. That’s not constructive to anybody.”


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At the Immigrant Family Services Institute Inc., workers have been providing assistance to migrants as they filter into the city. The center’s makeshift cubicles separate the different departments that address everything from adult education to legal affairs. 

Dieufort Fleurissant, who heads The Voice of the Gospel Tabernacle church in Mattapan, has been responding to the needs of recently arrived migrants. His phone doesn’t stop ringing. 

“When I say we work eight days a week, I mean it,” said Fleurissant, who is popularly known as Pastor Keke.

He’s been running around the city helping in any way that he can, like taking the time to meet with local politicians and other immigrant advocacy groups, but plenty of work lies ahead for the pastor as he attempts to highlight the plight of the community.

“When it comes to immigration, we all come together,” he said. “They don’t have to start from the bottom.”

“La vie continue, La vie continue,” says a man in a brown blazer as he laughs with Fleurissant. 

Life continues, life continues.

People hug and kiss one another, and parents chase their kids around. The congregation begins to sway with the music. Hands are raised. People clap along with the drum’s rhythms. 

The band stops playing for a moment, but the singing carries on. For one verse—the only verse sung in English—they sing, “In the name of Jesus, break every chain, break every chain, break every chain.” They repeat this over and over until the song ends.

Boston’s media coverage of the local Haitian community and the conflict, including brutal gang violence, in their mainland often conveys political commentary that questions US and French intervention. On occasion, there are feature pieces that focus on immigrants’ detrimental inability to find work. In rare circumstances, reporters will spotlight a naturalized immigrant or first-generation citizen who has found success. 

Mattapan is not the same as it once was, when crime was the major story. Yet, the same negative portrayals of the neighborhood remain. An online search of the words “Mattapan” or “Haitian” on the websites of Boston’s larger media outlets shows articles that are primarily centered around crime, with fewer stories focusing on the full scope of the local Haitian-American community.

“The media is very reactive to the Haitian community,” Colimon said. “It’s only when something happens and it’s usually not for something good.”

Repetitive and superficial coverage on marginalized communities perpetuates harmful stereotypes, while in-depth stories on migrants’ complex experiences can build people’s empathy and knowledge of such growing local communities. Otherwise, it is difficult to understand the hardships a person faces when leaving their homeland and traveling, in perilous conditions, to a new place where they don’t know a single person. 

“Our country—native country of Haiti—is in crisis,” said Boston City Councilor At-Large Ruthzee Louijeune. “So, it’s often times really hard being able to hold both a sense of pride in your culture and a desire to do the work to make things better for folks here, and a sense of heartbreak about what’s happening in Haiti.” 

Le Foyer, a bakery sitting somewhat secluded off of Blue Hill Avenue, is a staple in the community with its irresistible offerings—giant oatmeal raisin and white macadamia cookies are made in-house. 

With no indoor seating, people come in and out, filing into a single line leading up to the register. Atop the bakery case and on the wall behind it, are photos and certificates recognizing the business’ impact on the community. The cashier proudly wears a large necklace recollected of Haiti as its adorned with white, red and blue beads. 

That Haitian pride is also on full display at Bon Appetit Restaurant on Livingstone Street and Blue Hill Avenue. The walls are lined with Haitian flags, sports memorabilia, and promotional posters for local DJ’s. TVs showcase the daily news, while a stand features a tourist guide of Haiti and a pair of slides with the Haitian seal on them, reading “In Union, There is Strength”.

Pride permeates the atmosphere of both the cafe and the restaurant, as well as the food that they serve. 

An inexpensive order of “poulet” and the hypnotizing sounds of Kompa flows from the speakers, transporting Haitian residents back to their homeland. 

“You will definitely find the largest Haitian population in Mattapan,” Fleurissant said. “It’s like an economic hub… people love to come to Mattapan because they’ll be able to shop cultural food.”

As of 2017, there are around 25,000 Haitians in Boston—making up 3.7% of the city’s population—according to the Boston Planning and Development Agency. Of that percentage, nearly all Haitians in Boston reside in Mattapan and Dorchester. 

“We are on [the] third and fourth generations of Haitians in Boston,” Louijeune said. “Students in school, either their grandparents or great grandparents are from Haiti. I think showing our longevity too is important.”

Boston is home to the third largest Haitian community in the nation, serving as a hub for those fleeing conflict in the mainland, which continues to escalate. 

With tensions in Haiti rising in the past couple of years, a surplus of migrants have been coming to Boston to not just find a new home, but a new life entirely. 

“Understand, Haiti in general has been going through lots of turmoil,” said Fleurissant. “Evil situations continue to permeate in Haiti that have not received any coverage from the mainstream media.”

Currently, an alliance of gangs—who refer to themselves as “Viv Ansanm”, meaning “Live Together”—have been agitating to oust the current Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who announced his intent to resign on March 12. Gang members have subjected civilians to acts of kidnapping, theft, physical assault, and armed violence.

“If I was in Haiti right now, I would want to get out as soon as possible because it’s hell on earth,” said Colimon.  “However, is that the solution? It’s a bandaid on a wet wound.”

Many of the Haitian migrants who arrive in Boston end up in Fleurissant’s church.

In fact, churches in the area provide what the media cannot. They have become more than places of worship. They’re havens of support for newly arrived immigrants who need help assimilating into the city.

“As a pastor, I am always hopeful,” said Fleurissant. “I can see a bright future for Haitians in Boston…I draw my strength from God; things will definitely change.”

On a recent Sunday, churchgoers entered the worship room and filled the aisles of foldable chairs in Total Health Christian Ministries in Mattapan. The band, dressed in variations of the same hues of blue and red as the Haitian flag, sang and played their memorized music. 

Worshippers shouted passionately as the piano’s melody and the crash of drum cymbals flooded the room.

Fleurissant, speaking on the importance of solidarity and what it means to put others’ needs above your own, preaches. His hands act as extensions of his words. Keke takes off his glasses, pointing at the audience and himself, stressing forgiveness and self-reflection.

After the sermon, he introduces a trio of reporters to five migrant families who have recently arrived in Boston and had been staying at a shelter within the Melnea A. Cass Recreational Complex.

The migrants gather in a stockroom in the basement of the church.  

One of the migrants, Joseph Wanboche, was the most vocal of the group. The other four families were hesitant to speak. But they said Wanboche’s story was no different from their own. 

Speaking through a translator, Wanboche described the long and tortuous journey to get to America with his wife and toddler.

“[This is] not something that we want to do,” he said. “We don’t want to leave our country behind, but it’s something that we need to do in order to survive.”

He endured a journey many Haitian immigrants have taken. He said he escaped his homeland, leaving his parents behind. For a time, he lived in Chile, before fleeing from one country to another. At one point, he said he and his family trekked through Panamanian jungles where they were surrounded by dangerous animals. 

“I had to leave my country due to the violence,” Wanboche said. “The police were asking for money to transfer to the U.S.”

Wanboche emphasized that as migrants, they do not have enough resources in Boston to find permanent housing. While some migrants have families here, who are ready to receive them, they have yet to find economic opportunities. 

“All the glory goes to God,” Wanboche said. “He was the only one that helped me through the journey. I was coming here with only my family and nobody else was helping me.”

Wanboche’s toddler clinged to his side. His son had seen the same things along the way. That night, he would sleep with his parents in an overcrowded shelter.


This story is part of a student reporting series on how underrepresented communities are covered in the media. Student reporters were part of Professor Meghan Irons’ Reporting in Depth class at Boston University.