Celebrate Haiti. Celebrate Haiti Until Haiti Finds Home.

I am Haitian-American.



I never intended to intimately discuss this aspect of my identity when I started this blog. I initially wrote this post a few days after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti – I couldn’t return to it without crying. I was ashamed of my response, so I buried this entry away on my computer. I wanted to delete it because it felt too messy, disorganized, and emotional.

Trauma, however, is all of these things, and it is OK to honor chaos.

It has been six weeks since I wrote this, the emotions are still raw, but I have found a number of my family members – and that privilege of having most of my family alive begs that I turn up the volume on Haitian-American hushed voices.

I now find when I tell (or often, remind) people that I’m Haitian – the reaction is a  quiet exhaled ‘oh’, usually followed by an apology and grasping questions about the earthquake. I was absent from work and MIA from my classes – people want to know why, my only response I can come up with is, “I’m Haitian-American”

oh.


I hope your family is ok
?

Is all too often the followup question. I imagine that it is near impossible to come up with the ‘right’ response – most of my family is alive, some are dead or missing, few have a home or resources, many have infections, and suffer from acute PTSD. I remember shortly after the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, I suddenly remembered an acquaintance’s heritage and grabbed his hand during a dinner party and inexplicably said, “I’m so sorry” and he just nodded quietly back. Speaking to someone who may be in the midst of trauma and shocking loss is intimidating – particularly when that lost is blaring on every news channel, radio station, twitter feed and email.

All I can say is, “I’m not sure, but thanks for asking.”

When I say I am Haitian-American, I am saying that my father was politically imprisoned and tortured by the country he loved dearly and fought for viciously. When I say I am Haitian-American, I am saying that my father’s homes were burned to the ground by the TonTon Macoutes when he was a child – and the legacy of this trauma leaves him always looking for fire exits wherever he goes and sighing with relief whenever lit candles are extinguished before him. When I say I am Haitian-American I am saying that my mother was raised in the Haiti you see on TV every day: she lost siblings to preventative illnesses, grew up surrounded by grinding poverty and suffers profound guilt whenever she buys any luxury item in the US.

When I say I am Haitian-American, I am saying my most vivid dreams are often in Haitian kreyol and when I speak kreyol I cringe each time I hear my Americanized accent stultify the rhythmic hum of my family’s language.

When I say I am Haitian-American, I say I embody the spirit of a marvelous rebellion in 1804 and the disappointment of our dreams of independence shattered.

Shattered with each coup, each natural disaster, each embargo, each new wave of militias coming through people’s doors to steal their minimal belongings for a new corrupt president.

When I say I am Haitian-American, I admit to overtipping Haitian cab drivers, a hollow apology of unpacked classist guilt and an Americanized voyeurism to my father’s first few years in the United States: which he abruptly ended after being robbed at gunpoint by his cab customer. I say that my family is in the US in exile, we came to find comfort and never found home.

When I say I am Haitian-American, I am dragging you to every time Americans have winced or strained impatiently against my English-speaking family’s Haitian accents, I am bringing you to my ostentatious rage each time I witnessed it and my family gently hushing me from causing a scene so as to halt any further humiliation.

I am bringing you to confused faces when I correct people who call me African-American, to the people who say, “Well, you don’t look Haitian” and smile widely as if it is a compliment.

I am bringing you to rich stories, hours of full-belly laughter, romantic films and soaps in kreyol (no subtitles except the occasional verbal translation to the bored teenagers watching). I am giving you music that lifts people from their seats – dancing because the music has mystically healed every wound, shed all suppressed tears, and gave them a few minutes of peace. I give you the calm eyes of the Haitians who understand possession and know not to speak its name, as well as the startled Haitian-American eyes of those of us who don’t get it and foolishly blab about it on the internet.

I am giving you the worn muscles of my aunt who worked two full-timed jobs at two factories in the US to make her two bedroom apartment hospitable for as many extended relatives as she could fit. I give you her 64-year-old resilience, fatigue, osteoporosis and exhausted grin as I tell you she has worked various positions of grinding manual labor her whole life in the US – when in Haiti she dreamed of doing theater and still dances in characters for our family.

When I say I am Haitian-American – I say our concept of home has always been in flux. It has been full of hopes, faded memories from childhood, worn dog-eared pictures and baffling Hollywood portrayals of voodoo. I say that I devoured every book by Edwidge Danticat – my fingers tracing metaphors of a home I want and long for.

I am saying that I have watched the Haiti my parents knew and that I dreamed of collapse senselessly, with no words, no warnings, and mass death. I hear of people I knew dying, people I loved killed, children I hoped to teach more ‘bad English words’ to – missing. I hear my mothers strained voice every other hour, announcing who has been found, who is still missing— and lately: who we presume are dead. My father’s silence engulfs these calls and I hang up the phone abruptly so I can cry with no audience. I need for it to be a full and unapologetic catharsis: as hysterical and as chaotic as possible, so I sound brave after I’m done. I need to sound brave when I call my 12-year-old Haitian-American cousin (who cannot find his father) to give him empty reassurances so he can hopefully get some sleep. I realized my mother probably does this each time she calls me, and that each phone call to each younger Haitian-not-in-Haiti across the world has gone through this cleansing process. I also realize my American partner has barely slept either, so I try to silence the surges of sadness, even though they asked me to stop doing that.

When I say I am Haitian-American, I say that I cannot watch the news and use various scripts to block images whenever I read articles about Haiti, all I see is the death of dreams, the death of home. I see Haitian children being sent in 1,000 directions without their intricate family network being researched by messianic adoption agencies. I see their concept of home being destroyed by reckless adoptions that forego same-sex couples because of stupid laws. I see the hungry grasping desperately for resources, their images captured by opportunistic journalists who don’t bother asking their names and call them ‘looters’. I see Cuba, who the US does not report on, helping their neighbors despite their own poverty.

I close my eyes from the horror of the earthquake and reinvent these images.

I see the possibility of Haiti that Jean Dominique bellowed about throughout ‘The Agronomist’. I see the Haiti my mother paints – of the country side of Haiti: the occasionally cold night chills, the heavy ripe fruit hanging from trees, the epic storytelling sessions of my grandfather and great-grandfather, the mysterious women who wander farmland at night. I see the Haiti my father paints – Port-au-Prince, children recklessly playing soccer in the street – dodging brightly colored VW buses, blaring radios and people arguing loudly about politics while slamming their dominos down victoriously. I sense the Haiti I barely remember – pleasant smells, rolling blackouts, my mother laughing. The words dictatorship, coup, drug & human trafficking, debt, ‘victims’, ‘charred bodies’ all stay in the back drop of this reinvention – never-fading but it is no longer Haiti’s byline. Instead I see revolutionaries, heroes, my family and their friends are alive, burgeoning infrastructure, a shrinking gap between have & have-nots…

…and my aunt calls to say, ‘My god, can you believe what happened to me at work in Port-au-Prince’ instead of ‘No, we have not found them.’

What I am saying when I tell you I’m Haitian-American is – no need to respond by saying, “I’m sorry”. I love my country, fanatically, even if it currently belongs to no one and has never belonged to me.

Social justice, at its core, is about asking why people suffer. It asks – why there aren’t homes for everyone, particularly those who need a moment of rest and quiet. There homes can be real or symbolic, and far too many of us from various marginalized communities and of complex identities have been homeless for periods throughout our lives.

All that I ask of any of you is to: Celebrate Haiti. Celebrate Haiti until Haiti finds home.

Dec ’09 Milestone: Abstinence-Only Education

December 2009 was a landmark month in the US for the public health and harm reduction field. I wanted to highlighted one coup: End of years of abstinence only education.

pretty clever though

Obama allocated no money (zero) towards abstinence-only programs in his FY2010 budget request. No money. Nada. Zero. The history of federally-sponsored abstinence-only education is quite long, spanning as back as 1981. This is a dramatic and important move for the Obama Administration. In 2008 & 2009, the Bush Administration put almost a whopping $340million towards various abstinence-only-until-marriage educational programs and initiatives. Given the heaps and heaps and heaps and *even more heaps of evidence demonstrating that comprehensive education (including those that integrate abstinence into their curriculum) is more effective in decreasing unwanted pregnancy, STI, and HIV/AIDS rates among youth than abstinence only programs, this is quite a coup for public health and the future of healthy sex and sexuality education for youth.
*=pdf document

Many abstinence-only programs have not sufficiently tracked or compiled reliable and verifiable data since the 1980s about the usefulness of their interventions. This administration appears to be leaning more heavily towards science informing their policy decisions, so the suggestion for anti-comprehensive-sex-ed organizations would be: demonstrate that your position is effective in the short and longterm and it’ll be funded as well as in the past.

I’d be interested to read the reports.

Personally I am not opposed to abstinence being integrated into comprehensive sex ed. I’m impressed by people who do not engage in sexual activity either indefinitely or until marriage. Not because I believe that abstaining from sex is a virtue or especially more healthy than not engaging, but it is difficult to define yourself against what you’re being told to be. Sex is alluring and controversial, it is difficult to avoid it if one is tapped into any form of media or social interaction. It must be difficult to find acceptance and community as someone who either have no desire or interest in having sex or are actively resisting the temptation to have sex either indefinitely or until marriage. These interests and difficulties should be discussed in sex education curricula, to both create a safety net for the few who consistently choose not to engage but also to prevent the fairly high STI diagnoses among adolescents who take virginity pledges among the many for whom virginity pledges are a short term or a coerced commitment. Additionally, marriage is not the beginning and end of sexuality: people experience unintended pregnancies, unexpected STIs, and non-monogamy (either consensually or non).

In elementary school I decided to not have sex until marriage. I believed in this very seriously and believed my decision was sanctioned by God. Unfortunately, my decision was guided by how I defined sex, and my definition was limited exclusively to the knowledge I had access to. As I went to a privately-funded abstinence-only school, how sex was had and how babies are produced was a pretty vague concept to me, but I knew somehow nakedness was involved. My goal then became not to have a child out of wedlock. Technically, by my 10 year old standards, I have not violated this pledge as I am mostly likely infertile and still celebrate God, however I doubt I expected nearly two decades later to be teaching ‘so-called’ comprehensive sex-education to America’s children.

I am tempted to put America’s Children in italics. Let’s try it:

America’s Children!

More seriously, as a sex educator, my goals and the goals of many who receive family planning funding or work independently as sexuality activists and educators mirror that of ParentsForTruth, a major abstinence-only lobbying organization, who define abstinence-only education as:

  • Avoiding or getting out of dangerous, unhealthy, or abusive relationships
  • Developing skills to make good decisions
  • Setting goals for the future and taking realistic steps to reach them
  • Understanding and avoiding STDs
  • Information about contraceptives and their effectiveness against pregnancy and STDs

No brainer, these goals are admirable and difficult to argue against. I would add reducing the stigma of STDS/STIs and providing accessible treatment and support for those diagnosed or affected, but hey, close enough.

What is the difference between abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education then? The goals of comprehensive sex education is to provide the youth with an opportunity towards health through updated and reliable research. It seeks to give those seeking out sex education the answers to their questions and concerns as thoroughly as possible. Additionally, many who teach sex ed want to know what youth want to know and most youth want a broad range of information. Many youth bypass adultist barriers to information and teach comprehensive sex ed to their own peers.

Abstinence-only education does not allow this. My personal experience of abstinence-only education does not allow this. It instilled a terror of my own body, the bodies of others, and that my own moral and spiritual integrity was irreversibly linked to any type of sexual curiosity – and that any result that deviated from abstinence would lead to [insert various horrible things]. How is this healthy? Or effective?

Obama’s move is an awesome milestone in public health history.

Unfortunately, this big leap forward has not been met without resistance. A team of 10 senators, led by Orrin Hatch (R-UT),  included an amendment to the (now passed) Baucas health care reform bill that supports abstinence-only education (aka Title V funding). We’ll see how this pans out, I’m remaining blindly idealistic. Three tentative cheers: hip hip…. hip hip… hip-hip?

if I had a cartoon with Orrin Hatch it would be here!

Prevention that works – Syringe Exchanges in the news

Thanks to NYTimes magazine those of us in the prevention and education field of public health are getting good press. It has been a rough few months , and I’ll include ACORN in that rough patch as one of the mantras in Prevention is: “Housing IS prevention”.

Since that article launched last week, there has been more buzz about the valuable and difficult work that needle exchanges offer. I wanted to highlight a few of them, particularly as there are far too few needle exchanges across the US and the ones that do exist often face police harassment, community reprisal, staff burnout, funding cuts, and other threats to their existence. Or, more importantly, bills that are moving in the legislature to ban them

1. Physician’s for Human Rights: Tell Obama to end the Syringe Exchange Ban
2. Harm Reduction Coalition features a guest author who talks about how a needle exchange saved [their] life
3. Center for Global Health Policy on how needle programs curb the spread of HIV/AIDS across the globe.
4. Hume Leader: ‘Syringes: A Life saver, a study’
5. The Australian Drug Blog evaluates Australian government data on cost-effectiveness, return on investment and prevention in needle exchange programs
6. A TED talk by Marc Kosha has a more global focus on the re-use of syringes in low-resourced clinics. His proposal? Create a single-use low-cost syringe. This is important to include in this list as needle exchanges and syringe access not only impacts the people who public health/epidemiologists call IDUs (intravenous drug users). They’re an important target group in the public health field, but ‘syringe access’ is a very broad category.
7. Change.org: On Needle Exchanges: Another 1,000 foot mistake

There are many more, if you know of others, please post them in the comments.

If you’re in New England or can get to New York City, Harm Reduction Coalition is hosting a training on Syringe Access Services & Law Enforcement on Dec 3rd from 10am-5PM.

I’m impressed by the needle exchanges that admist all of the political turmoil and controversy over their existence are somehow able to find the time to set up wound care and narcan workshops for their clients. These educational workshops are usually in addition to providing their usual services. Thanks for the work that all of you do.

Broke but disciplined? Try out the Medical Peace Work certificate

Free to low-cost higher education? If you’re based in the United States (and many other countries) this would seem like a distant dream. Thankfully some US programs help those of us in the hole (or, those of us digging that higher education hole even deeper), but while licking those debt wounds there are free courses and even certificate programs available online. For free. If you’re a medical and/or public health professional (or want to be), particularly if you plan to or currently work internationally – you should look into ‘medical peace work‘.

Did I mention that this is free education? At your own pace? With substantive content? God bless Norway’s University of Tromsø.

I’ve always been in awe of public health professionals who work in high-stress low-resourced environments – this is a way to gain a foundational and conceptual understanding of violence prevention and health work in those kinds of spaces. Here is a snippet from their site:

As medical professionals we care for the life, health and wellbeing of our patients. Violence, weapons and war cause enormous suffering and misery, and endanger what is important for us.

It is therefore our professional responsibility to work towards the prevention of violence and the promotion of peace, human rights and human security.”

Brilliant.

I’ve enrolled, I’m performing at a snail pace – this is definitely graduate level work and not for those with a casual interest. Either way, if it peaks your interest, check it out. It is hard to find quality eucation like this, for free, online. All you need is a decent internet education and depending on your learning style: a quiet surrounding. If you enroll, let me know, and you and I can wreck our sleep hygiene together.

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