City University of New York: Haiti Conference. Friday November 9th
“We had Haiti at this university this week,” announced Jean Francois, one of the organizing committee of the 24th Annual Conference of the Haitian Studies Association (HSA) welcoming attendees to CUNY, Jamaica, New York. “No lights, no gasoline, damaged homes, displaced people sleeping here on the floor in the atrium.”
It was indeed all surreally apposite. Superstorm Sandy, that killed at least 54 people in Haiti, ravaged what crops remained after Hurricane Isaac and made tens of thousands more Haitians homeless, had, as we all arrived, killed 125 in New York and New Jersey, left millions without power, gasoline, heat and even homes after tracking northwards.
Hillside Avenue, one of the thoroughfares that connect the Haitian Diaspora of the New York boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, bore more than a passing resemblance to downtown Port-au-Prince. There were lines at every petrol station, with one pump at each dedicated to serving a queue of locals carrying jerry cans, rubbish lay everywhere, much of it sodden household goods, carpets and furniture, while sporadic, jammed public transport crawled through streets with intermittent traffic lights.
The occasional Haitian flag on homes and shop fronts completed the symmetry. Open the New York Post, the city’s leading tabloid and you’re confronted with a color photo of US marines “storming” Rockaway Beach less just two miles from here. It looked uncannily like the October 1994 shot when US troops landed to “depose” the Haitian coup leaders whose exit had preceded them by prior arrangement: same uniforms, same landing craft, and yes, even the same cloudless sky. Maybe it was.
We assembled to the conference theme – Haiti beyond Borders: Challenges and Progress across the Diaspora – feeling not only a particular and very real empathy for Haitians, but a personal and political connection. “The same storm that devastated Haiti, has now reaped its destruction amongst its Diaspora,” noted Marc Prou, Executive Director of HSA. “We have been forcefully reminded that the human being is equally vulnerable anywhere and everywhere. We are all connected by much more than our heritage.”