Paul Neufeld Weaver: Understand the context of Haitians arriving in Lima area

Why have recent years seen such an exodus of people from Haiti? The answer to this question can help us understand the context in which many from that Caribbean nation have arrived in Northwest Ohio recently.

Haiti has an amazing and notable history. It shares with the United States the distinction of being one of the earliest nations in the New World to achieve independence from their European colonizers. Inspired by the example of the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776 and by the French Revolution (Liberty, Equality and Fraternity) of 1789, Haitians rose up against their French colonizers in 1791 and declared their independence in 1802.

After multiple wars against several invading European armies, Haiti achieved independence in 1804, becoming only the second nation in the Americas to do so. Haiti’s independence was notable because it was achieved by Black people who had been enslaved for centuries to work the sugar plantations, supplying untold riches to their French masters.

Haiti’s independence was threatening, not only to European colonizers but to those in the New World who were at the top of the social ladder. The still new United States, for example, refused to recognize Haitian independence because the specter of slaves throwing off their masters and establishing a free nation was threatening to slave owners in the South. It wasn’t until 1863 that the U.S. recognized Haiti, the same year as Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Unfortunately, Haiti’s status as a pariah nation prevented it from experiencing the kind of development which the U.S. and later some of the newly independent Spanish-speaking countries experienced. After independence, Haiti was still expected to pay back France for the loss of capital signified by the freeing of its enslaved people. This meant much of Haiti’s earnings were used in payment to foreign creditors.

Although by the 20th century, many nations did recognize and establish relations with Haiti, the road was still rough. From 1911 to 1934, U.S. Marines occupied Haiti to “protect U.S. interests.” When they withdrew, authoritarian governments were left in power, which did little to improve the lives of the Haitians. When, in 1990, Haitians finally got a democratically elected president, he was overthrown, and Haiti descended into chaos.

In the last few years, this chaos has worsened as there is now practically no effective national government. Rival gangs battle over power and control, leaving little to no security for the people of Haiti. This has led to a massive emigration of people looking for safety and a better future for their children.

Haitians coming to Northwest Ohio are among the many who have made it to the United States and are seeking asylum. Under the Refugee Act of 1980, U.S. law grants refugee status or asylum to all those who flee their home countries because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on nationality, political persuasion, race, religion or membership in a social group. It is under this act that many of those who have come from Haiti are seeking refuge in this country.

Haitians are just one of the recent groups which have come to the U.S. for similar reasons for centuries. Ever since William Penn declared his colony to be a haven for those fleeing persecution and seeking freedom, people have come from many different countries. In fact, my own ancestors came to Pennsylvania from Germany and Switzerland nearly 200 years ago seeking the religious freedom offered by Penn.

At the core of our values in this country is the idea that all are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Those rights were provided to my ancestors and to so many others since then who subsequently added to the layers of amazing culture and traditions which make this country what it is today.

Immigrants come, ready to work hard, desiring to learn how to become part of their new communities and seeking to make their own contributions. Just as people in our communities have welcomed Germans seeking religious freedom and Irish fleeing the potato famine during the 1800s, southern and eastern Europeans in the first decades of the 1900s, European Jews fleeing the holocaust in the 1940s, refugees from Southeast Asia in the 1970s and Central Americans fleeing war in the 1980s, we now have the opportunity to extend that welcome to our new neighbors from Haiti.

Paul Neufeld Weaver is a professor at Bluffton University. He has a master’s degree in Latin American Studies from the University of Illinois Chicago and a doctorate from the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. He was born and raised in Northwest Ohio and currently lives with his wife, Laurel, in Bluffton. He can be reached at [email protected]. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.