Americas

In Their Words: Haitian Immigrants in New York Describe Perilous Escape

As a young man, Dieu Nalio Chery fell in love with photography while working in his uncle’s photo studio in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. But after a powerful earthquake devastated the country in 2010, he turned what had been a freelance pursuit into a profession, going to work for The Associated Press in Haiti.

For the next decade, he crisscrossed the island nation, documenting major news events and focusing on human rights issues as they emerged. In a country with a literacy rate of 61 percent, Mr. Chery’s photographs were a potent means of informing the public. Last year, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for photography for his images of unrest there.

Then in July, he had to flee Haiti after gangs threatened his life. He is now living in New York on a cultural exchange visa and has turned his attention to documenting Haitians who have been living in the city since the federal government extended special protections to them under the Temporary Protection Status, or TPS, program.

His subjects had previously been threatened with deportation, and he wanted to capture their fears and dreams at a moment when they are relieved to be in the United States as Haiti grapples with the continuing upheaval caused by another earthquake and the assassination of the country’s president.

“It is a boon for those undocumented Haitians who can now legally work, be educated and receive health care in the U.S.” Mr. Chery, 39, said. “I am one of the examples of people who left Haiti under threat and insecurity. I didn’t pass the same way with these people, but I am one of them. I feel what they are feeling.”

Here are his subjects’ stories in their own words, translated from Haitian Creole, condensed and edited for clarity.

“I will never forget this trip.”

Jerry Mondestin, 23

I spent one month on the trip because I didn’t have a visa to go straight to Mexico. We were around 100 Haitians together. Sometimes we took buses and walked. The worst part of this trip is between Colombia and Panama.

I left them and walked with five friends., but the road was very difficult. I walked up to the mountains and crossed rivers, and there was a lot of mud. I saw a dead body in the river, but I drank that water later anyway. It was my only one option until I crossed the forest.

When I arrived in Mexico, the authorities took me along with the others to jail, and after 13 days they gave us papers to go to immigration for legal entry papers. On July 23, I crossed the border via Yuma, Arizona, and the U.S. authority put us in jail and after 10 days they released us with legal entry papers.

“In Haiti, it’s a struggle every day.”

Joanne Joseph, 38

Even if I am safe here, I am suffering due to my father and my sister who are in Haiti, and the situation of Haiti is more complicated than you can imagine. First, it’s a different lifestyle, a different culture. Here in New York, everything is very accessible. Opportunities are limitless.

In Haiti, it’s a struggle every day. Even some of the things as simple as going to a grocery store, going to the bank, going to a gas station to fill the tank of your car, can be complicated with the kidnappings that can happen anytime to anyone.

“Here in New York it’s different, I have peace in my mind.”

Anette Telemarque, 72

I prefer to stop watching the images of Haitians from the Texas border because they affected my health situation. But from the little I saw and from what I’ve heard, it’s like the slavery time; it’s an inhuman treatment.

You could get killed by a bullet from nowhere when you are in Haiti, even inside the home. You don’t need to be in the street to be a victim of the insecurity. They can kidnap you at any time; they don’t need to know who you are to kidnap you. They kidnap everybody, rich or poor.

I was suffering in Haiti because I didn’t have a minimum of freedom. Every time I had to go out, I thought about the kidnapping, the gangs in the streets. And with the spreading of the coronavirus, people in public transportation don’t want to wear masks. I was at risk everywhere. But here in New York, it’s different. I have peace in my mind.

“I look at my daughter and I smile, and I tell her that she will have a better future.”

Athis Wester, 28

I was really scared to walk inside the forest. I paid a group of Cubans to guide and to secure my family in the forest to avoid robbery and rape.

In the middle of the forest, I asked God to take my life rather than going back to Haiti because I felt weakness after I saw fresh dead bodies on the road and I thought that I suffered enough to be alive.

I think that I am a hero after dealing with this journey. I can’t say it is the best thing that happened in my life but benefiting from the TPS is one of the best accomplishments in my life. I am very happy after this long trip, where I spent all the money that I worked for during almost five years in Chile. I look at my daughter and I smile, and I tell her that she will have a better future.

“I was lucky a bit because the people we paid to guide us had weapons to secure us.”

Darny Civil, 25

Planning for the trip, I needed a minimum of $3,000 for each person. I must pay for buses, boat, guide to cross the forest, and I have to pay police and military, who I describe as legal thieves. It was exaggerated in Bolivia, where the police had to fight with us to check our pockets and bags and took everything they wanted.

Arriving in Colombia was the beginning of the hell, where you have to buy a machete, oil against snakes, a tent, serum for rehydration and food before starting to cross the forest. I was exposed to all kinds of danger. Some people had worse experiences than me, like men watching thieves rape their wives. I was lucky a bit because the people we paid to guide us had weapons to secure us.

Dealing with all these bad experiences and then arriving in Texas to face deportation is worse than death.

Since the first day in the forest, I thought that I should not be on this trip, which is like going to face the devil with no expectation of what could happen to you. Every day, I walked from 6 a.m. .to 6 p.m. Then we set up our tent to sleep. I was in a group of 13 Haitians; later it became more than 2,000 people.

I walked up a mountain for six hours with my heavy backpack and my wife, Elide, who was two months pregnant, under heavy rain, and the road was muddy. But I was focused on the destination, even though we were suffering.

The worst experience for me was arriving under the bridge at the border with the caravan of thousands of people in the dust under the sun. I had to cross the river to buy food because my wife was starving, and I took the risk to cross to the side of Mexico to buy food, and the water was under my neck, and I don’t know how to swim.

“Some die of thirst or starvation. Children died while on the shoulders of their parents.”

Elide Altidor, 34

If you choose to make this trip, it is because you know what you want. Some people who were sick died on the way, because they didn’t have enough energy to resist. Some died of thirst or starvation. Children died while on the shoulders of their parents. Thieves in the forest raped the women. We saw dead bodies of Haitians along the way. That is a lot, and the list of dangers is longer than what you can imagine. I preferred to die in the forest than to go back to Haiti in the hands of gangs.

I will work hard and if one day my country is stable, I will go back to Haiti because I love Haiti.

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