Aftershock Reaches Haitians in U.S.
*By Linda Unger
February 10, 2010—Immediately following the January 12 earthquake in Haiti, Rev. Thomas Toussaint waited and wept with congregants who called or came by the Haitian mission he pastors in Orlando, Florida. Like them, Toussiant was born in Haiti and shared the worry and fear of the faithful of Berea Mission; it would be four days before the United Methodist minister would know for sure that his own family members had survived the 7.0 temblor.
“My phone started ringing,” recalls Toussaint, who also is an immigration clinic coordinator for Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON), a program of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). “They would say, ‘I called my mom, my dad, my sisters, my brothers, but I can’t reach anyone. Please help me.’ I held a service that night. Everyone was crying because we didn’t know what had happened to our loved ones. ”
The outpouring of grief was matched by an outpouring of solidarity, the pastor says. “The American people showed us their love. They called, came, supported us and comforted us.”
Though most of the people of Berea Mission finally received word about the fate of family and friends, their grief was not allayed but compounded by new concerns, says Toussaint, who was born in Cap-Hatien and has led the congregation of 160 since 2000.
“Surviving relatives in Haiti are now calling their family members here and asking for money and support. These people work in the tourism industry, in hotels and restaurants. They have low incomes and high expenses,” explains Toussaint.
“They are trying both to support their families here and take care of their relatives in Haiti,” he continues. “And they’re trying to navigate the immigration system for themselves and for family members who want to join them.”
UMC, UMCOR Extend a Helping Hand
A host of issues now faces these communities and those who would continue to support them through volunteer and professional services and networks. United Methodist Church annual conference disaster response coordinators are seeking to identify and respond to specific needs of these communities and of repatriated U.S. citizens who also have Haitian citizenship. And UMCOR is there to support their efforts.
In a recent conference call with UMCOR personnel, the disaster response coordinators shared concerns for providing or relaying emotional and spiritual support, economic assistance and help with medical problems. They raised a number of issues related to immigration, especially with regard to the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) the US government has offered Haitian immigrants who have lived in the U.S. since at least the date of the earthquake.
Catherine Earl, UMCOR executive secretary for U.S. disaster response, participated in the phone call. “UMCOR’s role is to support the conferences in ministering to the suffering,” she says. “Our hope is to be able to help our conferences find ways to support those in their midst who are in need feel connected and whole.”
TPS Registration Urgent
Helping undocumented Haitians register for TPS is one of the most pressing needs, as the registration is period is limited to just six months from the date of the government posting. That means that paperwork must be filed and fees paid before July 20, 2010. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that as many as 200,000 Haitian immigrants are eligible for TPS.
UMCOR’s Justice for Our Neighbors ministry partners with annual conferences and local churches to help sojourners navigate the complex immigration system in the United States. The program is based in the Methodist tradition of the Five Points Mission that served immigrants in New York City in the 1850s.
JFON Director Panravee Vongjaroenrat says JFON can provide important support at this time of urgent need to help Haitian immigrants take advantage of a small window to apply for TPS and gain a great measure of stability.
“There are a lot of Haitians living in Florida, Stamford (Connecticut), New York City, Boston, Chicago, and around the Washington, DC - Maryland area,” Vongjaroenrat says. “JFON will be holding a number of immigration clinics specifically for Haitian TPS. It all depends on churches in those areas requesting the clinics. They can contact JFON for more information."
Pastor Toussaint is looking forward to hosting a JFON clinic later this month in Orlando, at which he expects volunteers will help some 140 to 200 Haitian immigrants register for protected status.
“At this point, we are trying to go on,” he says. “The people need consoling. We try to energize and console them. We realize that we have to draw closer to God, to serve God. This is the time,” he says. “We need to serve God even more than before.”
*Linda Unger is staff writer for UMCOR