Josette: A Family in Limbo

Photo by Jonathan Vit

Josette is a Haitian immigrant who asked that her face not be shown. Her tourist visa expires this month.

By Jonathan Vit

Josette was lying in bed, sick with malaria, when the ground began to shake. She recalls watching the walls of her Port-au-Prince home shudder in the quake, swaying dangerously close to collapse.

“We were shouting Jesus, Jesus, Jesus until the end,” Josette said.

After the shaking stopped, Josette ran into the streets with her family. Many of her neighbors were dead, trapped in the rubble of their collapsed homes. The National Palace was destroyed. It was only a ten-minute walk from her Magloire Ambroise Avenue home, but Josette watched the footage of television.

She was too afraid to step outside for long.

“I thought it was the end of the world,” Josette, 47, said.

But for Josette, surviving the 2010 earthquake that decimated Haiti was only the beginning of a longer struggle.

She arrived in New York City — like thousands of other recent Haitian immigrants — on a tourist visa shortly after the earthquake. It was a chance to escape the chaos of post-earthquake Port-au-Prince, a city awash in bouts of Cholera, crime and disorder at the time.

But living in the United States on a tourist visa hasn’t been easy.

Josette can’t legally work. Neither can her husband Ronald, 52. Instead the two live with their two children, Sasha, 15, and Tchanny, 12, in a cramped Brooklyn apartment. They survive off handouts and loans from friends and loved ones scattered along the east cost of the United States.

“I am not safe here,” Josette said. “ I cannot work, my visa expires this month. I am not safe.”

Her mother and father remained in Port-au-Prince, living in the tent cities set up after the earthquake. Her father, Mitchel, died in January of prostate cancer. Her mother refuses to leave the tents, partially out of fear of another earthquake, partially because she has nowhere else to go.

“She has a problem after the earthquake, a traumatic problem,” Josette said. “She is sick.”

Josette knows her mother would fare better in New York City. But without proper status, there is nothing she can do but wait.

“I cannot help where I am, because of my situation,” Josette said. “One year I don’t see my mother. I’m an only child, she doesn’t have anyone else. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to think.”

It’s a similar story among the estimated 3,000 Haitian immigrants who fled to New York City — home to the largest Haitian population in the United States — immediately following the earthquake. Recent arrivals were allowed to enter the states on a tourist visa, only to find no clear path to legal residency.

Early arrivals were told to apply for deferred action, which allows survivors of natural disasters to live and work in the United States for a year. Others applied for the Haitian Temporary Protective Status program. That program allowed Haitian citizens to live and work in the states for 18 months, but many immigrants — Josette included — were unable to qualify.

Now, thanks, in part, to the successful lobbying of Haitian-born councilman Mathieu Eugene, the U.S. government has extended the TPS program for another 18 months. The program was set to expire in July of 2011.

Marilyn Pierre, director of the Haitian Family Resource Center, called the extension “a miracle.”

“In the Haitian community we thought a lot of people look down on the Haitian culture, that we didn’t have a voice,” Pierre said, “This is a new day.”

Josette was riding the B41 bus — heading to the resource center — when she heard the news.

“When I was listening to the news I said thanks to God, thanks to God,” Josette said.

It is still unclear whether Josette will benefit from the TPS extension. She was unable to apply for the status the first time around, due to stipulations that Haitian immigrants had to be in the United States when the magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck.

But the news is still a ray of hope, something Josette — and Haitians like her — haven’t seen in some time.

“I am patient, I am patient,” Josette said. “I wait.”


Comments are closed.