Canada’s Haitian immigrants battle to repatriate families

By James Stairs

Montreal (dpa) – Montreal’s Haitian community is still in shock, two weeks after the earthquake that destroyed large swathes of the country, and searching for ways to help their homeland as it recovers.

In Montreal’s North End, a continent away from the devastation, the disaster is still very much close to home.

‘Our community is still in so much pain,’ Margorie Villefranche, a Haitian-Canadian community worker said Tuesday, a day after Montreal hosted an international conference dedicated to rebuilding Haiti.

‘But the shock is passing, and we are now searching for ways to start over again and help.’

Villefranche is a programme director with Maison d’Haiti, or Haiti House, a community centre that until January 12 was dedicated to providing information and job training to newly arrived immigrants.

As news of the earthquake began to filter in, ‘we instantly transformed from a community centre in to a crisis centre,’ she said.

According to Statistics Canada, there are 100,000 Haitian-born Canadians. The real number, many say, is as high as 140,000. Of that number, 80 per cent live in Montreal, where francophone culture and a large Haitian community have long been a logical destination for people leaving the Caribbean island.

Unable to contact family members in Haiti, frantic Haitians living in Montreal flocked to the community centre, desperate for information. Psychologists were brought in to help people cope as the bad news started coming in the following days.

The scenes repeated themselves in countless other locations around Montreal. Church basements were filled with people, unable to contact relatives after the mobile telephone network collapsed.

‘So many of us feel so guilty,’ Villefranche says. ‘There is so much pain there, and we cannot do anything.’

At least 150,000 Haitians are believed to have died in the seven- magnitude earthquake. As many as three million people were directly affected by the disaster, with an estimated 1 million Haitians believed to have lost their homes.

Most of the economic and social infrastructure of the nation has been destroyed or badly damaged.

Watching from afar, many Haitian-Canadians are desperately trying to help by bringing relatives to the safety of Canada. In the hours and days after the earthquake, the Canadian embassy in Port-au-Prince was mobbed by Haitians hoping to escape.

But in recent days, as the communications network in Haiti has improved and families are being reunited, the extent of the damage is becoming clearer.

Banks began reopening across the country this week, and, despite long lines, money can now be sent to homeless relatives.

What people want most, Villefranche says, is to get loved ones out of Haiti.

‘This has become our struggle,’ she says.

In the days following the disaster, Canadian immigration officials announced plans to fast-track Haitian immigrants wanting to travel to Canada.

But the pledge hasn’t proven to be as clear-cut as it sounded.

Documents for new applications proving that Haitians have family in Canada were often lost in the earthquake. Medical clearance and genetic tests required during normal immigration procedures have not been waived, making it virtually impossible, critics say, for Haitians to arrange for family to join them in Canada, even if they were eligible to apply.

Canadian immigration rules allow for spouses, parents and children of relatives to be reunited with family living in Canada. Children under 18 who have been orphaned by the disaster are also eligible.

Calls on the Canadian government to extend the eligibility provisions to include other family members and to waive the medical examination that accompanies an immigration application have not been heeded.

Kelly Fraser, a spokesperson with Citizenship Canada, said that the government was currently processing 8,000 refugee claims from Haiti and had prioritized the country by expediting immigration applications. The rush to help relatives has also led to opportunism.

When an advertisement appeared last week in a Montreal newspaper advertising expedited immigration services, hundreds of desperate Haitian-Canadians mobbed the building willing to pay for faster service.

A day later, the building was empty after Immigration Canada explained that the company, in fact, had no power to fast-track applications. Despite the difficulties and stress, Villefranche says, people are not angry with Canada or the Canadian government.

‘How can we be angry,’ she asked, ‘at a country that has been so good to us as a community for so long?’

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