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Elmont’s Haitian families struggle during pandemic

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Elmont’s Haitian population has had to struggle with language barriers, financial and mental stress as the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected minority communities.

“Many immigrants across Long Island work in essential roles that put them at risk for exposure or live in precarious housing situations with exposed workers," said Samantha Pfaff-Goldstein, the immigrant community navigator for the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN). "Then these families and individuals have to deal with difficulties and fears in accessing health care services or meeting their basic needs."

She explained that language-access issues have caused significant difficulties for many immigrants over the years, which was essential during the pandemic. Though English and Spanish resources are common, health information in languages such as Haitian Creole are rare to come by, a notable problem in towns like Elmont, which is home to one of the largest Haitian populations in the country.

Mimi Pierre-Johnson, president and CEO of the Elmont Cultural Center, said language barriers are a key issue affecting the Haitian community, and expressed concern for senior citizens and the mental health of the larger Haitian community, which has struggled in recent months.

“There is a sense of sadness and fear when you speak to people that are accustomed to fighting for the right to exist, whether at work, politically, and most of all, family,” she said, adding that remote learning and working from home has been a daunting challenge. “I now have a sense of urgency greater than before to make sure our community gets the information and help it needs to prepare them for a Covid-19 world.”

Additionally, the community has had to deal with financial losses, which have been a significant stressor for many entrepreneurs who are working to build new lives on Long Island. “It’s been a mentally overwhelming time,” said Maryse Emmanuel-Garcy, co-founder and executive director of the Haitian American Family of Long Island. “One of the hardest things is for the families who have not been able to go through burial rights and are trying to cope with grief.”

At the same time, CARACEN officials have said that immigrant populations have been left out of government programs designed to help people struggling during the pandemic. “Around 85 percent of the CARACEN clients we spoke with in the early weeks of closures were under-employed or unemployed,” Pierre-Johnson said, “many immigrant workers don’t qualify for unemployment insurance benefits.”

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, for example, she said, as one that excluded mixed-status families from receiving stimulus checks. 

So, to help, Sewanhaka High School has been providing social, emotional and academic support to all of its students during the endemic, and of Haitian families in particular. “Sewanhaka’s Haitian population is a strong, vibrant and caring community,” Principal Christopher Salinas said. “I cannot underscore the devastation this pandemic has wrought on communities such as ours.”

He said it widened the gap in learning and development “in particular for families who don’t have ready access to resources in transitioning to remote learning,” noting that the school administration is keenly aware of these disparities and has therefore made equity a primary focus.

"This year has brought with it extreme difficulties,” said Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages. “While Haitian-Americans are collaborating here to provide the necessary critical services, there is also a sense of anxiety because of the potential effects this pandemic could have on Haiti as well.”

She stressed the resiliency of the Haitian-American people, expressing confidence in the community’s strength. "The Covid-19 crisis has forced us to share resources and advocate for each other in new ways, and I look forward to engaging with all of our stakeholders so that we may continue to build on our organizing."