Springfield’s Haitian population evolving from strangers to neighbors

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Lyonise Mauro and her 4-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son cuddle in front of the television, watching cartoons, while the aroma of spiced chicken with vegetables permeates their small apartment.

This isn’t simply play time for this refugee family; the Haitian subtitles are helping them to learn English. Even the most ordinary moments in family life are leading them to one goal: starting a new life in Springfield after fleeing the gun violence in their native Haiti.

The scene of domestic tranquility seems far removed from the debate raging at Springfield City Hall about the city’s rapidly-growing Haitian immigrant population (estimated between 5,000 to 10,000). Mauro and her husband, J.C., have paid scant attention to the angry voices talking about an “invasion,” or referring to their Haitian neighbors with a disdainfully-accented them. The family has been too preoccupied with the day-to-day demands of daily life: caring for their children, learning English, looking for work.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Other members of the burgeoning Haitian community find themselves feeling more wary, particularly after the recent tragic school bus crash that claimed the life of 11-year-old Aiden Clark and injured dozens of others. Hermanio Joseph, a Haitian immigrant driving without a license, has been charged with vehicular homicide.

“There is apprehension in the Haitian community,” said Nettie Carter-Smith, director of community relations for the Rocking Horse Community Health Center. “People are more aware and conscious of the things that they do and the places that they go. My prayer is that Haitians don’t become the scapegoat for this tragedy.”

Despite the backlash, the Mauro family feels much safer in Springfield than they did back home in Haiti. “The people of Springfield have welcomed me very warmly,” she said. “I have never been personally attacked.”

‘We need them’

Many community leaders hope the people of Springfield will come to see their new neighbors for who they are, what they have been through, and how they can enrich the community.

“We may seem like a challenge, but we are an opportunity,” said Johnson Salomon, a native of Haiti who now works as a Rocking Horse patient advocate. “We come with almost nothing, but we are a hard-working people. We aren’t here to invade or to take over anything; we are fighting hard to survive and to contribute to the community. Our children will be going to school here and will become future teachers and medical professionals and police officers.”

The Haitian immigrants already are making tremendous contributions to the community, according to those working closely with them. The Rev. John MacQuarrie, pastor for all Springfield and South Charleston Catholic churches, said that Haitians attend each of the nine weekend Masses that he celebrates.

The joyful spirit of their worship has proven infectious, MacQuarrie said: “Their culture and their Catholic faith are rich and deep. We want them to be a part of us and to feel welcome. These are talented, often professional people, with much to offer. They fled because their jobs are gone, or they can’t perform their work in safety.”

Springfield already is seeing a positive impact in its workforce and population numbers, according to Amanda Ambrosio, community health and social impact manager for Rocking Horse. “Honestly, we need them,” she said. “We need people who want to pour back into our city. We thought the population numbers would inevitably decline, and the opposite is happening. I also appreciate the way that they will help my son to open up to new cultures.”

Concurred Dr. Yamini Teegala, chief medical officer of Rocking Horse Community Health Center, “They are bringing a new group of younger individuals to the city. They are part of our economic fabric now, and they are bringing some amount of life back.”

Resource challenges

Resources have been stretched thin, Teegala acknowledged, as the number of Haitian patients has more than tripled during the past several years. “With the sheer speed and volume we have had to face, and the challenges in the ability to communicate, to it’s like running another whole operation,” she said.

Cultural sensitivity has been an important part of the learning curve, Teegala observed, as when the diabetes educator encouraged patients to eat more fruits and vegetables. “What we didn’t take into account is that the vegetables in the Haitian diet tend to be very starchy, such as potatoes and yams.”

Language itself has proven the biggest barrier, and Rocking Horse recently hired a fifth employee who can speak Haitian Creole. When the language barrier is removed, advocates say, it is far easier to appreciate the shared humanity between cultures.

“They just want to provide the same things for their families that we all do — safety, security, and the ability to prosper that would not be possible back in Haiti,” Ambrosio said.

Mauro’s story

Mauro had already been through so much before ever arriving in Springfield. Her husband emigrated first, seeking asylum in Florida; she followed nearly a year later. “It was a tough decision for him to leave Haiti first,” she recalled. “It was such a hard thing not having him close to me. I was afraid I would lose him.”

Mauro was pregnant with her second child when she moved to Springfield last year with her husband and toddler daughter. They were often hungry and in need of housing; her sister-in-law’s home was bursting at the seams with the addition of their family.

“I couldn’t come to my doctor appointments because I didn’t have transportation,” she said through an interpreter. “I used to cry a lot because I didn’t have any resources, and I was worried about the future. I had no place to live and no food — only a lot of worry.”

Her luck changed when she sought care at the Rocking Horse Community Health Center and was paired with Salomon as her patient advocate. At last she had an agency that could provide proper health care and help her to apply for community resources. Patient advocates would drop off boxes of food at her home. “She never let me lift the boxes, because she knew I was pregnant,” Mauro recalled, smiling at the memory of the small kindness. “The presence of Rocking Horse is super important in our community.”

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Mauro talks with her mother in Haiti every day, and she worries about the safety of family members left behind. She often reminisces about her childhood in Haiti, when she could run free in the countryside.

“Today you can’t drive from the south side of town to the north side without being in danger,” Salomon said. “We are hoping this will change, but right now the situation is beyond what you can imagine. Think of all the challenges that Haitians have faced, and yet still we stand.”

From strangers to neighbors

Mauro has registered her daughter in preschool and hopes to attend English classes that are being offered at local churches or the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

“When I have learned English, I want to go back to school to become a nurse and work in a nursing home,” she said. “When we were babies, the older ones took care of us. Honoring the elders is a big part of Haitian culture. If someone did not respect their parents, no one would want to be friends with them.”

It is that spirit, MacQuarrie believes, that ultimately will cause the people of Springfield to embrace their Haitian neighbors. “The reaction certainly has been mixed,” the priest conceded. “When people come from another country, people often misunderstand them. While there is a lot of prejudice, there are a lot of welcoming people here.”

People need look no further than the gospels to understand how to respond to their new neighbors. “Think of the great suffering they have been through, from tsunamis to earthquakes, and try to see the face of the Lord in them,” MacQuarrie said. “Learn to love those who are different, and learn to welcome the stranger in our midst.”

See our series on immigration and the growing Haitian community in Springfield:

Haitian immigrants in Springfield face complex immigration system and long delays

Springfield’s Haitian population evolving from strangers to neighbors

‘I’m really thankful’: Immigrants sworn in as U.S. citizens at Constitution Day ceremony

PHOTOS: Immigrants take an oath to become U.S. citizens

Clark County works to provide driving education for local Haitians

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