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2011-01-01 issue:

Shirk uses her French, Creole to help Haitians

After January 2010 earthquake, many Haitians moved to New York City.

by Sara Versluis

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Every Thursday, Sylvia Shirk, Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship pastor, takes the No. 5 train to the end of the line in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and walks three blocks south to the Haitian Family Support Center. It's a long trip, by New York City standards, but a relatively short path to helping those affected by the earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010.

After the earthquake, many Haitians moved to New York City––home to one of the largest Haitian communities in the United States. The Haitian Family Support Center (HFSC) is a vital link for those still struggling to obtain legal status, work and some semblance of order after the earthquake. HFSC provides a variety of legal and social services, including assistance with immigration status petitions, sponsoring relatives, housing requests and applying for medical and food stamp benefits. Shirk, who speaks Creole and French, has served as a translator at the center since last February. Her part-time work is funded by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) East Coast.

HFSC opened just days after the earthquake, as Verel Montauban, pastor of the Haitian First Church of New York, began to realize that his congregation was in crisis. Many members had lost family, and many more took in friends and family who arrived in the weeks and months after the catastrophe. HFSC, which is supported by a coalition of organizations and volunteers, has since served more than 1,000 individuals. Funding is only secured through April, but clients' needs are ongoing.

Eighteen-year-old Genevieve Blain arrived in the United States last spring and still feels like she can feel the earth move. She visited HFSC with her parents to continue work on their applications for deferred action status, which essentially guarantees a stay from deportation while petitioners file for U.S. residency, work or citizenship benefits. Another program grants temporary immigration status but is limited to Haitians who lived in the United States prior to the earthquake. Without legal status, immigrants cannot apply for work permits.

There are many like the Blains, who arrived in the United States on tourist visas or as guardians of U.S. citizen children. Unable to work, they often rely on friends and family for lodging and financial support—a difficulty compounded by the challenges of life in New York City and its small apartments, thin paychecks and $2.25 bus fares.

"Families are frustrated," says Marilyn Pierre director of HFSC. "People are trying to find work, even something minimum wage, so they can give something to the people they are staying with."

Shirk translates interviews that try to ascertain clients' material and economic losses, but their stories also detail  emotional and physical anguish. "There's been more than one time we've been in tears," says Shirk. There are bright spots, too—a mother reunited with her children after years of separation—and stories of strength—a woman talks about life after the quake, when she lived with her neighbors in an empty lot. To scare away potential intruders, they periodically banged on pots and pans.

As Shirk shared stories with her congregation, they sought additional ways to support Haitians in the city. One member paid to ship 95 MCC school kits to HFSC. Others provided notary services, French translations, clothing and money, and sold homemade cupcakes on the street in Manhattan. "So many [from the congregation] jumped on board," says Shirk. The proceeds from the bake sale—over $700—were matched by Everence and went toward paying rent for a family Shirk met at HFSC.

While the majority of MCC's response has gone to relief efforts in Haiti, MCC East Coast has also supported outreach to Haitians in Philadelphia and southern Florida. Shirk’s service was supported through the end of 2010, but she and MCC are hopeful that her translation work can continue.

One year after the earthquake, there's just misery after misery, says Shirk. "Unfortunately, the need for funds continues to be very timely."

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