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(From The Florida Catholic, November 21, 1986. Slightly edited.)

By Mark Rondeau - Special Writer

They’ve come from one of the world’s poorest countries to the world’s richest and found a different set of problems along with all the opportunity.

On the one hand, most of the approximately 4,000 Haitians in the Orlando area have much more here than they ever had in Haiti: steady, comparatively well-paying jobs — mostly in the hotel industry — and acceptable housing. On the other hand, they face a language and cultural barrier which sometimes makes it hard for them to communicate with people in business and government, and which sometimes makes it easy for the unscrupulous to take advantage of them.

These insights come from recent interviews with Father Rudi Cleare and Marie Valbrun, staff members of the Diocese of Orlando’s Haitian Community Ministry.

Father Cleare, the ministry’s coordinator, said that Haitians in the area encounter some discrimination, partly due to adverse perceptions of them stemming from the crack cocaine and AIDS problems.

Speaking of the crack problem, Mrs. Valbrun, who serves the ministry as an administrative assistant, said that a few bad Haitian elements threaten to wipe out the whole community’s good name.

Father Cleare said language and cultural differences sometimes make it possible for businesses and landlords to take advantage of Haitians. An additional factor is the economic naiveté of some, a result of coming from such a poor country, he said.

Haitians who become economically prosperous and try to move from substandard housing to an established neighborhood occasionally encounter discrimination, he said.

To help deal with these problems the diocese’s Haitian ministry provides a number of social services. Father Cleare said that the main focus of the ministry right now is to provide services to Haitians in Creole, their native language. Mrs. Valbrun said that often when a person has a medical or legal problem someone from the ministry will accompany them to the doctor, to a lawyer, or to court in order to help them overcome the language barrier.

The ministry also offers English classes and classes in basic Creole for those who are illiterate.

In addition, the community ministry provides immigration counseling, In recent years Haitians have had many problems with immigration to the United States, though some exceptions have been made, he said.

The recently passed immigration law, which grants amnesty to most categories of illegal aliens if they can prove U.S. residence since before Jan. 1, 1982, is providing a new challenge to the Haitian ministry. Right now it is helping those concerned get the necessary proof, and Father Cleare said he expects this effort to increase dramatically in the future. The ministry is working with the diocese to help fashion a way to deal with this growing concern, he added.

Despite some adverse publicity, Haitians are basically proud, stable, family-oriented people who are determined to build a good life for their families in the area and who have no plans to return to Haiti, Mrs. Valbrun said.

Though most Haitians in the area are poor, they don’t want public assistance, she pointed out.

“They do not like to be perceived as begging ... or as being the recipients of other people’s charity,” Father Cleare said. If the stigma of crack cocaine and AIDs that the Haitian community has unjustly acquired can be quickly overcome, he said, the Haitians will be seen as having a lot of to offer.

Most of the Haitians in the Orlando area have come here from Miami within the last two years because of the “deterioration” of that city and the fact that central Florida provides them with more job opportunities and a better place to raise their families, he said. He added that Haitian professionals have moved here from New York for the same reasons.

Father Cleare said the ministry has been in existence for about a year. It has three staff members, one phone line, and limited funding. “It’s hard to work with such limited funds,” Mrs. Valbrun said.

The ministry’s use of lay volunteers has been hindered by the language barrier,” Father Cleare said.

Spiritual needs

Since most Haitians are Catholic, the ministry also works to help meet their spiritual needs. It offers adult religious education, CCD for children, lay ministry training, and other services. The ministry also holds a Mass in Creole each week at St. James Cathedral in downtown Orlando.

Father Cleare said it is very important for the Haitians to be able to celebrate the liturgy in their own language.

At a recent Creole Mass in the chapel at St. James approximately 50 Haitians enthusiastically sang hymns, accompanied by a lone drum which provided a Caribbean beat.

In a homily given in English and translated into Creole, Father Cleare spoke of the crack problem and the threat it poses to the reputation of the Haitian community. “The newspaper never said, ‘It was one Haitian.’ They say, ‘the Haitian community.’ All of us.”

He urged the worshippers to work and pray to help those addicted, to keep the problem from growing, and to prevent more damage to the community’s reputation.

A number of Haitians at the ministry’s liturgy planning session, held each Friday, praised the ministry and its efforts.

Euphrodite Emerand, a recent arrival to the area from New York, said that while she felt out of place at her local parish. “I feel better here. Here I can do things ... I can help.”

Pierre Lemercier said that if he has any problems he feels he can turn to the ministry for help. Marc Celestin, who attends the ministry’s English education classes, said the ministry has helped him with many things. “If I have some problem, they help me,” he said.

Marie Godwin, who works as a housekeeper, said the ministry “helps us guide ourselves to God. ...It helps us not to do things that people on the street do.”

Fr. Cleare said the Haitian community in the Orlando area is going to grow, thus presenting a great opportunity for the Catholic Church in central Florida to reach out and receive “those who are not like us.” Through this ministry the area Church has an opportunity “to broaden its perspective on what constitutes the Body of Christ,” he added.

If the area Catholic Church properly ministers to the Haitian community, it will gain as much as the Haitians themselves, he added.

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