Ed note: ColorLines blogger Michelle Chen recently returned from Leogane, Haiti, where she worked with an international volunteer team run by Hands On Disaster Response, a grassroots organization that helps rebuild earthquake-stricken communities. She’s been posting reflections on her short time there, six months after the quake.
During my stay in Leogane, Haiti, with Hands On Disaster Response, one local volunteer stood out to me. With flawless English and a name that smacked more of doowop than Kreyol, Shooby Leroy Jean-Pierre was something of an oddity. I learned later that he’d spent most of his life in Miami and was in fact a fairly recent transplant to Leogane. So one afternoon, I asked him to tell me how he wound up at the epicenter of the earthquake.
Shooby’s story isn’t all that remarkable; he’s not the first immigrant who grew up in the United States and later "returned" to his birthplace. But since we often think of immigration only in terms of people entering America, leaving their past lives behind, his struggle to live in two worlds struck me as the flipside of Haiti’s vast diaspora–certainly the opposite of what his family originally wished for him. The layers of tragedy and serendipity folding into his life reveal how the immigration system can split families geographically, while forcing young people to choose between a shadow existence in America and a life of alienation in a land they barely know. Shooby made choices that, in retrospect, may seem both inevitable and unimaginable.
Born in Haiti and brought to Florida by his aunt when he was one year old, Shooby grew up in Florida surrounded by other extended family members who had made the same journey. His mother, as well as a younger brother still in Haiti, were a distant presence.
"I didn’t know my mom at all," he said, recalling that when he was a kid, "the few times that I did talk to her, she was speaking Kreyol, I was speaking English, so it was real hard to have a communication with her, so I never had it."
Most of his family, he said, crossed over to the United States with the help of his aunt, who headed a small charity in Haiti and regularly traveled between between the two countries. His aunt spoke sometimes about helping Shooby gain legal status, too. He’s not sure why it never happened. Speculating that his relatives just couldn’t come up with the money to go through the legal process for him, he said, "I had no idea why that didn’t get resolved. Now in Leogane, he added, "That’s something that I think about every day."
It wasn’t until he graduated high school in 2002 that he discovered what it really meant to be undocumented. "I never had a work permit, I never had a social security card, I never had a temporary visa… I was illegal in the United States ever since I got in," he said. "The only thing that I was able to do was go to school. And I did, and I finished. After I finished, I was unable to pursue my education, and that was a big downfall for me."
Today, the DREAM Act legislation currently proposed in Congress could allow undocumented youth to qualify for legal status in order to complete their education. Eight years ago, though, that door was firmly shut; Shooby had hit a wall.
"Personally, [going back to Haiti] was something that I didn’t want to do," he recalled. "At the same time, I was encouraged to do it…. I felt like there was basically nothing left for me, ’cause my mom had died." The idea of going to school and working for his family had always been a motivation for him in America, he said, but "when my mom died I felt like everything just collapsed."
Though many undocumented young people fear being suddenly deported to a country they left as babies, it was ultimately family pressure, not the law, that drove Shooby to return to Haiti. The main motivation for moving back was to take care of his younger brother, who had been under the care of his mother until her death. And then, shortly after Shooby stepped into his mother’s role as his brother’s caregiver, his aunt died of cancer; Shooby lost the woman who had raised him as a son.
So Shooby drifted into Leogane, a humble town just outside of Port-au-Prince, to settle into a life that, compared to Miami, was rough, poor and sluggish. And then one day in January, Leogane crumbled to the ground in less than a minute.
"The earthquake changed my life," he said. "Upside down, flipped me up, flipped me down, spread me out, put me back together, and started making me walk again,"
In the weeks following the quake, he started looking for odd jobs with the NGOs who had moved into the area, and he stumbled on Hands On. The volunteer-led group has focused mostly on clearing rubble, but has also delved into community-based service work, like aiding a local hospital and training teachers in the community about disaster preparedness and creative therapy for traumatized children. Shooby joined the crew of local volunteers, mostly young men from the area, which Hands On engages as part of an effort to build ties with the local community.
It’s not a paying gig, but Shooby hopes to work his international connections to get into a firefighter’s academy in Canada. In one of the recent volunteer-led disaster-preparedness trainings at a local school, Shooby gave a lesson on fire safety in 100-degree heat, translating "stop, drop and roll" into his relearned Kreyol, caking his arms in dust as he rolled away an imaginary fire on the bare cement floor.
In his spare time Shooby works on his hip hop group, Next Revolution. It doesn’t take much prodding to get him to perform a verse:
So I take my time and I put my life on the line
I rewrite my thoughts to make my next move
and I pay my dues just to see where I stand on my lifeline
It’s difficult picturing Shooby charging into a burning building in some chilly Canadian province. But it wouldn’t be the first time fate threw him into an alien setting. I asked him if he felt more Haitian or more American.
"Because of my personal background, I feel that I’m just me, going through life. Because this is not the first incident [of] someone to leave their home country and growing up somewhere else and coming back to their home country but with… a different mentality and a different view on life. So I’m still the same person, if I grew up anywhere in the world."
Still, it seems like Haiti is a place that Shooby will always be fated to return to in some way, a country whose constant cycle of crisis and hope exert a relentless centripetal pull on him. As a child of the diaspora, maybe he could have grown up anywhere outside Haiti. But some places make you grow up faster than others.