Manatee’s Haitians diverse, growing, grateful

cnudi@bradenton.comJanuary 31, 2010 

MANATEE — As tens of thousands in Haiti seek refuge from the disastrous earthquake that shook their country, Louines Joseph reflects on his good fortune.

He fled his small Haitian village in 1978, seeking a more secure future in Florida. His mother had just died and his father became ill, so he needed to help provide for his family.

“When I left I was young and tried to find a better life for me,” he said.

Joseph was 18 when he headed for Miami.

Trained at a trade school in Port-au-Prince, the young carpenter opened a cabinet shop. But after 12 years, Joseph decided to move again, fleeing the “cocaine street wars” plaguing the large metropolitan city.

His move to Manatee County was a matter of security for his family. He got into his car and just started driving — he had never heard of Bradenton before he found it.

“My kids were small and there was a lot of violence in Miami at the time,” Joseph said as he sat in his restaurant, the Blue Ribbon Chicken on 15th Street East in Bradenton. “I was looking for a quiet place for my kids to grow up.”

For Mesack Dieudonne, having friends and family in Manatee County made the choice to move here easy, along with weather similar to his Caribbean island homeland.

Dieudonne and his wife, Sonia, had immigrated from Haiti in late 2003 to Atlanta. In early 2004, they had a chance to visit friends and family in Florida.

“I saw the weather was good, so I decided to stay,” he said, chuckling.

More importantly, he had family here.

“And also because God had something in mind for me,” said Dieudonne, president of Let Us Take a Stand for God Ministry, a Manatee organization that coordinates activities among 12 area churches with mainly Haitian congregations. “God wanted me to serve the Haitian community here.”

Dieudonne and Joseph are part of a diverse, growing Haitian community in Manatee County.

Unlike other ethnic groups who have formed neighborhood enclaves, the Haitian community is more dispersed throughout the county. There are only estimates on how many live here — the Census includes Haitians with “Caribbean” — and they range from only 2,000 full-time residents, to as many as 12,000, especially during harvests.

“You find Haitians living in the Caribbean and African-American neighborhoods,” said Kathryn Dungy, professor of Caribbean and Latin American history at New College of Florida in Sarasota.

Churches play a big role in why many settle in Manatee.

“Haiti in general is highly religious, and that may be the link that brought them to Manatee County,” Dungy said.

That was the reason the Rev. Jean Claude Presendieu, pastor of Bethesda Haitian Evangelical Church, 3505 Fifth St. E., Bradenton, came to the Gulf Coast area.

Presendieu, married and in his early 30s, left his hometown of Cap-Haitien on the northern coast of the island nation in 1987 and settled in Fort Myers.

“The Lord sent me there for ministry work,” he said. “I was doing community service and some radio ministry work.”

He moved to Bradenton in 1990, and six years later opened a coffee house on 14th Street West that offered the Gospel with the refreshments.

In 2000, his growing congregation began sharing the sanctuary on Fifth Street with the United Brethren.

“The people of Manatee County are very accepting of Haitians,” Presendieu said. “I’ve found it a community where people are welcomed.”

Still, assimilating into the general population is not always easy for new immigrants.

“They try to get acclimated to their new surroundings, learn the language, and yet hold onto the past,” Dungy said.

Students have difficulties

Haitian students sometimes have a harder time in schools, because their first language at home is French or Creole.

“So quite often there is a lot of difficulty for the Haitian student,” Dungy said.

Children who speak Haitian Creole are the second-largest group of students in Manatee schools who speak English as a second language, said Kate Hoffman, coordinator of ESOL and migrant programs for the Manatee County School District.

The district has 10,000 students who speak Spanish as a first language; 800 students were either born in Haiti or are of Haitian descent.

But teachers use special techniques and strategies in the classroom to help all students who speak a foreign language, and Haitians tend to pick up English very quickly, Hoffman said.

“That is, in part, because of family involvement,” she said. “Also, in Haiti they are already learning a second language — French — and it’s always easier to pick up a new language after you have learned one.”

Haitian children are expected to do well in school.

“All Haitians have hopes for their children to go to college,” Joseph said. “It’s important to have an education.”

His 34-year-old daughter, Lousette Joseph, helps in the family restaurant business. Like many her age and younger, she was born in the United States and is more in tune with the American culture.

“Of course, there are some things the two generations see differently,” she said. “But the elders of the Haitian community try to teach their children the values they had from their country.

“They instill in us to be proud of where we came from and to help others,” said Lousette, who speaks Creole with her parents. “You can’t forget where you come from.”

Two decades of growth

That sense of family has brought more Haitians to this community over the past two decades. As one or two families move to an area, Dungy notes, they find jobs and set up a home. They write back that it is not a bad place.

Then the friends and family come, too.

Dieudonne estimates Manatee’s Haitian population is between 10,000 and 12,000. But the Rev. Jean Woady Louis, a priest who holds French-Creole Masses at three Catholic churches in the area, thinks there are only about 2,000 full-time residents.

Many of the Haitians are migrant farm workers and are in the area only during the picking season, Louis said. Many also work in the health-care industry and manufacturing.

It is because of job opportunities that many Haitians found Manatee County a good place to settle, according to Dungy.

Dieudonne worked at Tropicana and the patio furniture maker Tropitone before he entered the ministry full-time. Louines Joseph worked at several boat builders in Manatee County, including Wellcraft, before opening his restaurant when he was laid off.

Haitians will do whatever it takes to be successful in their new homeland, Joseph said.

“Haitians don’t settle for not improving,” he said. “We work hard for our families.”

Shirley McArthur, a nurse and member of Eternal Bread of Life Outreach in Sarasota, has helped coordinate several programs at Pastor Presendieu’s church to help Haitian families in the community.

“They are very good-hearted people,” McArthur said. “And they have a strong will to achieve good.”

And, regardless of any challenges or setbacks, the Haitian community here is grateful.

“They’re very appreciative of anything you do for them,” McArthur said.

Relief efforts inspire

The outpouring of donations in Manatee County to various relief efforts for their motherland has inspired the Haitian community.

Like most churches, Presendieu’s congregation has been collecting clothing, water, medical supplies, blankets and food since the disaster struck more than two weeks ago.

They have already sent one shipment, and the more than 100 boxes of supplies filling the church community room from floor to ceiling will be going this week.

“The generosity has been overwhelming,” Presendieu said. “They have great concern for Haiti.”

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