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Archdiocese seeks to assist Haitian refugees


St Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Marsh Harbor, on Abaco Island, was damaged beyond use by Hurricane Dorian. The Archdiocese of Nassau continues to focus its relief efforts aiding Haitians relocated to shelters on other islands post-storm.

While economic and infrastructure repair has been slow on Abaco, a flurry of activity in early 2021 initiated the repair and reconstruction of St Francis and offers a hopeful sign to people on the island.

Along with this rebuilding, the Archdiocese distributed relief supplies from the church during an Easter 2021 outreach, signalling a return to active ministry in the parish.

Despite signs of hope, those who serve the Haitian population say the devastation and loss experienced during Dorian and in its aftermath is only one example of the hardships endured by Haitians in the Bahamas.

“The main problem is immigration,” said Fr Yves Gattereau of the Haitian community he serves on the island of Grand Bahama.

“My work has primarily been spiritual accompaniment in these first few months,” said Fr Gattereau. “I see people trying their best to live, but it is difficult. There are limits on the number of [Haitian] people allowed to stay, allowed to work in the Bahamas. Some will get paid under the table, but if they are caught it will mean jail or deportation.” As a result, he said, “People are afraid to come to church.”

Haitians face several barriers to obtaining regular legal status in the Bahamas. The cost of a work permit, currently priced at BSD$2,000 per year, is coupled with a lengthy and expensive process of applying for residency. Additionally, the constant threat of deportation looms heavy for those without proper documentation.

The Nassau Archdiocese has ministered to the Haitian community in the Bahamas for nearly seven decades. In the 1950s, in response to the growing number of Haitian migrants in the Bahamas, clerics from the Archdiocese visited Haiti to better understand why people were fleeing, learn the Haitian Creole language, and see how they might better serve the population spiritually and materially as they migrated into the Bahamas.

A Haitian apostolate was established in response to these inquiries and has served the community in the Bahamas ever since. And the need continues to grow. As of 2019, Haitians accounted for up to one-fifth of the total population in the Bahamas.

“For decades we’ve sought to offer a welcome to the Haitian people here,” Archbishop Patrick Pinder of Nassau told National Catholic Reporter (NCR). “As children of God we are obliged to respect their dignity and right to exist.”

The Archbishop said the Haitian population is important because “people are hardworking, not political in any way,” and many are hoping to make a better life for themselves and their families. This often means working unskilled or semi-skilled jobs in construction and landscaping that are open to migrant labour.

“Go to any job site and you’ll find Haitians,” he said. “It doesn’t take long to see and understand the Bahamian economy really needs the labour of the Haitian people and their presence in our communities. Still, it’s very difficult for them to receive the proper documentation for work visas and residency.”

To that end, the Archdiocese offers help to Haitians during their legal processes when possible, by providing official records linked to the sacraments of the Church, most importantly Baptism and Marriage. Education efforts and English as a second language courses are also offered as Haitians seek to integrate into society.

The Archbishop acknowledges The Bahamas is merely a “stopover” for some in the Haitian community as they attempt to save enough money to make the short 60-mile trip to the United States.

Yet for him, the humanity of those in the Haitian community is most important — whether they seek to stay in the Bahamas or migrate elsewhere, their worth goes beyond nationality or legal status. Empathy and compassion, he said, are at the root of the Church’s care for those fleeing instability in Haiti.

“We have and will continue to treat [Haitians in the Bahamas] exactly the way we would like to be treated if we were in their position,” Archbishop Pinder said.

(Adapted from National

Catholic Reporter)