Sussex chicken plants offer Haitians escape from turmoil, but many want more, PATRICIA V. RIVERA reports for The News Journal.
Seaford businessman Fritz Dameus, recalls the day that inspired him to sign up for night English classes. The year was 1991 and the Haitian immigrant was pleased to have found a job at Perdue Farms in Milford. He reported to his job the first day knowing he’d have to spend most of his time deboning chicken.
He never realized how much the work would wear on him in a short amount of time.
“At break, I took my boots off, clocked out and went home. I thought ‘I didn’t give up everything I have in Haiti for this kind of life,’ ” he said.
First he studied English, then he pursued an associate’s degree in refrigeration. When he returned to Perdue, he found a better job in the sanitation department, which required more technical skills.
In 2004, he opened a Haitian music shop in Seaford, and now he’s hoping to start a new venture for his wife.
In many ways, Dameus has followed the same path as other Haitians who found their way to a better lot in life through the chicken processing plants in Sussex County.
As they became more prosperous, they encouraged friends and family from abroad to join them in southern Delaware.
That’s one of the reasons their population in the state has grown into the thousands. Their numbers and better jobs are now vaulting Haitians into the ranks of Delaware’s middle class. But their journey here has been anything but easy.
Like Dameus, Haitians have found various reasons to escape their picturesque but volatile homeland, which has seen bloody dictatorships, uprisings and assassinations. Haiti saw a major exodus starting in the late 1970s with people fleeing the repression and violence of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, a dictator who ruled Haiti until 1986.
As conditions in Haiti worsened – particularly after the armed revolt against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide that claimed 1,000 lives – more émigrés found their way to the United States.
”So many people leave for political reasons. In Haiti they will kill you because of your political affiliation. If they don’t kill you, they’ll kidnap you and terrorize your family,” said Roland Edouard, a 56-year-old Haitian immigrant who is the head of the Haitian Ministries for the Church of the Nazarene.
Finding a new home
The situations he describes are among the reasons why many have left and why some of them are calling the United States and places like Delaware, home. The 2000 Census showed that the United States has 419,317 residents born in Haiti now living in the country. In Delaware, census numbers from the year 2000 show that some 1,378 Delawareans name Haiti as their place of birth, and that doesn’t include their American-born descendants. That number is estimated to be about 5,000, according to study undertaken by Salisbury University.
Their hub, where some two-thirds of them live, is in western Sussex County although communities also exist in Milford, Dover and Wilmington. In fact, Creole, a pidginized form of French, is the second-most widely spoken language among immigrant children in schools throughout Delaware, according to a survey compiled by the U.S. Department of Education.
Haitians who have fled their nation, which occupies one-third of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean, leave with the idea that in the United States their lives, personal and financial, will improve.
“When you come to the United States and you get an education you can do so many things,” said Edouard, who left Haiti in 1979 as a young pastor just out of bible school. “In Haiti, you can’t get a good job unless you have a family member who works for the government.”
Haiti, once a jewel in the French empire, is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Close to 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, and 42 percent of children younger than 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition, according to the United Nation’s World Food Programme. An average annual salary is less than $600.
And even those with good paying jobs find that their luck can dry out at any moment.
Gerald Casimir, 43, of Seaford, once managed a large filling station/auto part shop in Haiti, making the equivalent of about $2,000 monthly in the early 1990s.
“I lived very well,” he said proudly. Then in 1991Aristide, the democratically elected president, was ousted in a violent military coup.
The bread and butter of Casimir’s businesses disappeared in a moment.
‘This is my home now’
Casimir was one of the lucky ones. He had just visited friends in Delaware.
“I didn’t expect to return so quickly but at that point I did have a visa but I didn’t have a lot of other choices so I came over,” he said.
The man who once managed a large and prosperous business became an hourly worker on a poultry processing line.
He worked his way into DuPont in Seaford, where he oversees an assembly line as a contract manager. He’s expecting his wife and two children, who have waited years for a visa, to arrive soon.
“When they arrive, I will feel complete,” he said.
An election is scheduled for Jan. 9 in Haiti and Casimir worries. He and other Haitians gather at the storefront church office that Edouard rents on High Street in Seaford. Inside the aging, wood-paneled rooms, they talk politics. The bloody revolt against Aristide that ravaged their island nation and forced an international crisis, gave them a lot to talk about for months.
They’re frustrated by the violence that plagues the land of their birth, but they’re equally worried about developments in their adopted land.
“We talk a lot of U.S. politics, Social Security and other issues that affects our lives here,” Casimir said. “I’m not going anywhere. This is my home now.”
Though their fate in their new country seems to have taken a turn, émigrés from Haiti have had to overcome many obstacles during their sojourns to other places.
One of the top ones has been the discrimination they’ve faced in this country, said Tamara Thompson, project coordinator for the National Coalition for Haitian Rights in New York.
She and other Haitian activists have long been working to change the laws so that Haitians receive the same protection as other groups, in particular, their Caribbean neighbors to the west, the Cubans. While Cuban immigrants can remain in the country if they reach U.S. soil, Haitians are sent back. But some Haitian leaders feel that given the unrest in Haiti, it’s too dangerous to return Haitian refugees to their homeland.
Even those who arrive legally face overt discrimination.
“Haitians face a triple whammy. They’re foreigners. They’re black and they speak Creole, a language that not a lot of people know,” Thompson said.
In the United States, some Haitians say, they often realize for the first time that the color of their skin makes a difference.
As a result, Haitians throughout the United States tend to keep a low profile, often living in areas where they can blend in with other populations of darker-skinned people. In Delaware, that happened to be Sussex County, where they arrived in the 1970s.
Not only were locals unfamiliar with folks who spoke other languages, they were suspicious of them as well. To make matters worse, some Haitians sold drugs, tainting the image of the immigrant community.
In 1987, an unemployed Haitian went undercover for the Seaford Police Department, according to a newspaper account. He bought crack from other Haitians and put his countrymen in the headlines. That same year, police arrested several Haitians on drug charges.
Word also spread that Haitians dealt with Voodoo. Most of Haiti’s population is said to practice Voodoo, which worships one creator and many spirits.
Haitians in Delaware also did not receive much help from other communities in their efforts to become full partners in Delaware society. Cynthia Edouard, Roland’s wife, noted that groups from different communities united in the early 1990s to form La Esperanza and La Casita centers in Georgetown, which helps Latinos adjust to their new environment. But Haitians, to this date, don’t have a similar Haitian-centric institution.
“Haitians in Sussex County have been ignored and neglected,” she said.
Many have instead turned to churches to find the strength to deal with prejudice and discrimination.
In Delaware, places of worship that bear the name Haitian have cropped up. Although Haitians are traditionally Catholic, many here have turned to Protestant churches such as Golgotha Haitian Church in Laurel, Eben-Ezer Haitian Seventh-day Adventist Church in Seaford and First Evangelical Haitian Church in Milford.
“The churches are like a safe haven for us. That’s where we go for all our needs,” said Sonid Blanchard, 20, of Seaford.
Dameus, the Seaford businessman, never went to church in his homeland. Here, however, he rises early every Sunday with his wife and two children to attend church.
“If you want to see other Haitians here you go to church. That’s just the way it is.”
And like other immigrants, Haitians have found education as a way to help them in their new land.
Haitian community members say they’re putting the hope of their future in the state on a crop of about 20 to 30 young Haitians who are attending college. The group gathered at a church in Federalsburg, Md., over the Thanksgiving break for a homecoming of sorts to discuss their experiences.
Among them was Blanchard, an education major at Wilmington College.
“I had to go to college,” she said.
She felt pressure not only from her parents but from elders in the Haitian community to ensure a future that comes with an advanced degree.
“We tell our young people at church you must go to college if you want to be anyone,” said Cynthia Edouard.
Roland Edouard said in another 10 years, he wants to see a vibrant Haitian community in the state.
The population will easily double with more immigration and reproduction, he said.
And with that more shops that cater to Haitians will line the towns in Sussex County, he says. Some doctors, lawyers and elected officials will speak Haitian Creole. They will understand the struggles of the people they work for, he said.
But that’s still years away.
“The community will mature and will be very vibrant,” he said. “We will have Haitians at all levels of society.”