Scores of Haitian immigrants settle, find hope in Uniondale

The Uniondale Public Library has become a cultural center for many Haitian immigrants in the community. Above, a cooking demonstration on how to make diri djondjon, or Haitian black mushroom rice, with cook Maritza Desroches. // Photo by Fatima Moien/Long Island Advocate

By Fatima Moien

Editor’s note: This is part four in a long-term series on Uniondale by Hofstra University graduate journalism students enrolled in Community Journalism this past fall.

The year 1986 was one of many inflection points for Haiti, when a widespread movement against President Jean-Claude Duvalier swept him out of office, and he was flown on a U.S. Air Force jet to France in February that year. From this chaos, 16-year-old Frantz Dorsainvil left his homeland behind eight months later, in November, and made his way through customs and baggage claims to the United States, settling in Westbury.

At first, the culture shock of America stung for the teenager, but slowly he adjusted. In 1992, the year that duly elected Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in a violent coup d’état, Dorsainvil moved from Westbury to Uniondale, where he has been ever since.

Now, Dr. Frantz Dorsainvil, who received his doctorate in education from Dowling College in 2015, is assistant principal of Walnut Street Elementary School in Uniondale and has published a book on his immigrant struggles and experiences, “College Still Matters: From ELL to Ed.D. (English Language Learner to Doctorate Degree).”

Waves of Haitian immigrants have settled on Long Island since the tumultuous 1980s and ’90s. The Island is now home to more than 20,000 Haitian immigrants, with many settling in Uniondale, according to Newsday. With their arrival, these immigrants have brought Haiti’s rich culture to the Island in national dishes like diri djon djon, or Haitian black mushroom rice, and dances infused with Haitian Creole music.

According to the 2020 census, Uniondale is home to 32,473 residents, of whom 11,885 are Black or African American, and 12,934 residents are Latino or Hispanic.

Haiti, a former French colony, shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean. The Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 solidified the freedom of slaves, maroons (escaped slaves who formed their own communities) and other people of color in Haiti as the first independent nation in Latin America and the Caribbean — and the second-oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere after the United States.

The past nearly four decades since Dorsainvil’s arrival in the U.S. have been a time of extreme uncertainty and fear for Haiti, as the nation of 11.4 million has had to cope with political unrest, harrowing natural disasters and disease. In January 2022, the country faced a micro civil war following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

Dorsainvil said he feels a deep sense of nostalgia when he thinks of his homeland, and he desperately wants to aid his fellow Haitians there, but politics make that trying. “There was a lot of frustration building among Haitian professionals, being that we have the skills, the talent and the intelligence,” he said. “We have the resources to be able to help our brothers and sisters back home, but the political situation, for whatever it is, you know, is not allowing us the opportunity to help.”

For many, if not most, Haitian immigrants, the U.S. is their final destination after leaving their home country, according to the Migration Policy Institute. As of 2018, there were 687,000 Haitian immigrants living in the U.S. The mid-2020 estimate was 705,000.

Of the recent natural disasters in Haiti, the most perilous was the 2010 earthquake, which registered 7 on the Richter scale, thus classifying it as a major quake. It killed roughly 220,000 people, according to the United Nations.

In August 2021, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services granted an extension of Temporary Protected Status for Haitian immigrants. The status, which does not confer citizenship, prevents immigrants from countries facing war, environmental disaster or an epidemic from being deported from the U.S. Other TPS-designated countries include Afghanistan, Ukraine and Yemen.

“We have the resources to be able to help our brothers and sisters back home, but the political situation, for whatever it is, you know, is not allowing us the opportunity to help.”

Dr. Frantz Dorsainvil, Haitian immigrant

Given the number of Haitian immigrants who have settled in Uniondale, the local public library is working to incorporate Haitian culture and history into its programs, with a large mural of scenes from Haiti at the building’s front entrance. The library works with local nonprofits and schools to serve people from all backgrounds throughout the community.

Mural of Haiti by local Haitian artist Frenal Mezilas at the Uniondale Library. // Photo by Fatima Moien/Long Island Advocate

Deborah Kinirons, bilingual community outreach librarian at the Uniondale Library, introduced the practice of translating all library documents and announcements in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole for patrons.

Kinirons spoke of her experience receiving an appreciation email from a patron, who expressed joy in reading notices in Haitian Creole. “I realized, well, we have this other community, too. So, what we [translate] in Spanish, we need to do it in Creole as well,” Kinirons said. “It made me feel good; it was nice.”

To help ensure that young Haitian immigrants can connect with their heritage, the library offers an array of literature in French and Haitian Creole.

The languages are two distinct tongues. Haitian Creole, a mixture of French and local dialect, was the primary language of the enslaved people who were forced to work in the sugar, coffee and indigo plantations during the French colonial period (1659-1804). Today, Creole and French are Haiti’s two official languages.

The Uniondale Library offers books in Haitian Creole, French and Spanish, in addition to its wide array of English language materials. // Photo by Fatima Moien/Long Island Advocate

The Uniondale Library has also partnered with the nonprofit Nassau Literacy in Wantagh to provide access to English language materials for adults of all backgrounds and levels of English proficiency.

Marie Sonia Saint Rose-Bienvil, better known as Sonia, is executive director of Solidarite Haitiano-Americaine de Long Island Inc., a nonprofit that serves the Haitian community. The organization has helped more than 50 families from Haiti settle in Uniondale, assisting them in filling out immigration paperwork, connecting with food pantries, and applying for medical insurance and other government assistance programs.

“When we first started, we were young, and we said we wanted to promote Haitian culture,” Saint Rose-Bienvil said. “But now we recognize that there are needs for other things.”

Haiti has grown increasingly unstable in recent years because of gang violence, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. An estimated 200 gangs operate across the country, kidnapping and killing politicians, journalists, foreign aid workers and average Haitians alike. The fear and threat of gang violence has led thousands of Haitians to flee the country.

Amid this backdrop, SHALI “is still standing,” Saint Rose-Bienvil said, “and even though we don’t have all the resources, we’re able to make a difference in the community. Imagine if we weren’t there to provide the help we’re providing. It would have been worse for our community.”