Arab Haitians become more vocal, visible
Haitians of Arab descent are a small group in South Florida, but they are fast emerging as more vocal, more visible and even more political.
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES, Miami Herald
He grew up eating traditional dishes such as kibbe and tabbouleh. He listened to the lilt of the Lebanese dialect as his grandfather passionately discussed the issues of the day. He danced to the distinct sound of the music.
But even as Pierre Saliba enjoyed Middle Eastern culture, it was the cultural nuances of his real homeland, Haiti, that came to define much of his character.
”I am Haitian. My heritage is Lebanese,” said Saliba, 43, a Pembroke Pines accountant who was born in Port-au-Prince and raised in Les Cayes, an isolated seaport on Haiti’s southern coast. “All of my core values, what I believe in, my basic education, I got them in Haiti. All were shaped in Haiti.”
Several generations after their grandparents arrived in Haiti from Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries, Saliba and other Haitians of Arab descent are still fighting for inclusion in a Haitian community that sometimes considers them outsiders.
Now their battle has been transplanted to South Florida, where the Arab-Haitian community is concentrated in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
Their numbers are small, but growing. Of the 214,893 Haitians living in South Florida, only 201 identified themselves as Haitians of Arab descent, according to a Herald analysis of U.S. Census data from the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota.
The Arab Haitians say they’re proud of both sides of their heritage.
”I always let people know I am Haitian,” said South Dade’s Delices De France bakery owner Patrick Baboun, whose mother emigrated from Palestine to Haiti in the 1940s after meeting his father, a Haitian of Palestinian descent. “They are surprised, but I want them to see that we are hardworking people.”
And it’s not just non-Haitians who are surprised to see a white or olive-skinned person speaking Creole.
”Yesterday, I was at a supermarket and talking Creole to a cousin of mine, and the people at the cash register were surprised,” said Ronald Rigaud, owner of Miami’s Citronelle restaurant whose mother is of Lebanese descent and whose dad’s French-German roots date to before the Haitian Revolution.
‘They asked, `You’re Haitian?’ I answered, ‘Yes I am. What do you think?’ I am beyond being offended by it.”
From Haitian bakeries to shipping companies to Coral Gables’ upscale Galerie d’Art Nader, which promotes high-end Haitian art, the community is making its presence known in South Florida.
It is becoming more vocal and visible, and even political, as Haitians of all backgrounds debate the ouster of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
”You reach a point where you can no longer stand on the sidelines,” said Dr. Ranley Desir, 46, a South Florida cardiologist whose father is a black Haitian and whose mother was born in northwest Haiti to Lebanese parents.
For Desir, the point arrived in December 2003, when university students in Haiti led one of the largest demonstrations against Aristide. More than 500 Haitians and Haitian Americans subsequently held an anti-Aristide rally in front of downtown Miami’s Torch of Friendship. Among them were Arab Haitians like Desir.
”I don’t usually go on the streets and protest, but you have to defend what is right,” said Desir, who shares a medical practice with his cousin and fellow cardiologist Dr. Ralph Nader. Nader’s siblings run the family-owned Coral Gables art gallery.
”Things were not acceptable in Haiti,” Desir said.
The events in Haiti and the high-profile involvement of one of their own — wealthy U.S.-born businessman Andre Apaid Jr. — in Aristide’s ouster have served as a rallying cry for the local Arab-Haitian community.
Apaid, who is of Haitian-Lebanese parentage, is the public face of a coalition of more than 300 public and private groups in Haiti, which in addition to demanding Aristide’s resignation, called for a new social contract between all Haitians.
The revolt against Aristide, who portrayed himself as a champion of the poor masses, resurrected old class and racial tensions in Haiti’s highly class-conscious society, where until recently, Arabs were not embraced by Haitian elites.
Aristide became public enemy No. 1 to some after publicly berating the elite — including Arabs, often prosperous business people in Haiti — for not doing their part to improve the lives of the poor.
”How many generations does it take for one to be Haitian?” said Mario Delatour, an independent Haitian filmmaker who has spent the past year filming a documentary on the Arab-Haitian community, tracing its migration from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine in the 1800s and during World Wars I and II to the Port-au-Prince waterfront.
“They still point the finger to them because of their flesh tones. We are talking fourth-generation now — 1890 to 2005. Can you call them Arabs? No. They are of Arab extraction, but they are Haitian.”
Delatour said the first documented group of Arabs arrived in Haiti in 1890. Christian minorities, they were leaving the Ottoman Empire.
”They came dirt-poor, and now a hundred years later they are a force to be reckoned with,” Delatour said.
Once in Haiti, they were shunned by the elite but embraced by the poor masses, to whom they sold textiles. They also mastered the Creole language, sent their children to Roman Catholic schools and taught them the Haitian way of life.
When various Haitian presidents attempted to expel them from the country by enacting anti-Arab laws, some left but soon returned.
It wasn’t until Haiti’s president-for-life, Francois ”Papa Doc” Duvalier, seized power in 1956 that Haitians of Arab decent began to see progress. Duvalier made them political allies and named Carlo Boulos as the first Haitian of Arab descent to be health minister, Delatour said.
Today, Boulos’ son Dr. Reginald Boulos is a physician who serves as president of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Port-au-Prince.
Carl Fombrun, a South Florida Haitian radio commentator who is not an Arab, said the Arab Haitians have been successful because they have focused on business enterprises. Fombrun, a light-skinned Haitian from a prominent family, said members of his class have tended to obtain professional degrees while the Arab Haitians provide services, mostly in the textile business. Haitians, he said, need to overcome their biases and suspicions of Arabs. Still, some Haitians remain skeptical about the group.
”I am very cautious of this growing involvement,” said Gepsie Metellus, a local Haitian community activist. “Frankly, they don’t have a good track record of affirming their Haitian-ness, of actually contributing to the social, political and cultural growth of the island they claim to be their homeland.”
Metellus said that while she agreed with many Arab Haitians in denouncing Aristide’s ”dictatorial tendencies,” “I clearly know they are not my allies.”
Saliba, the forensic accountant who helps build Habitat for Humanity homes in Little Haiti and lobbies Gov. Jeb Bush on Haitian issues, doesn’t disagree that there are those among his group who should do better at sharing the wealth.
”I cannot say 100 percent she is right and 100 percent she is wrong . . . this is a fight we cannot win,” he said. “It’s very hard for good people to help this community. They don’t make it easy for you even if you are not Haitian. When they see you really want to help and the community is responding to you, they will pull the race card.”
Haitians, he said, have to learn to live with each other.
”We are proud to be Haitian,” he said. “Right now, in this community, whether they like ir or not there is an emerging [Arab-Haitian] community, people moving down from New York, Boston, to South Dade. You will see more of us.”
Herald database editor Tim Henderson contributed to this report.
AN ARAB-HAITIAN HISTORY
Most of Haiti’s Arab community can trace their roots to Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, with a few families from Jordan and Algeria. Key dates:
• 1890: A group of 30 Arab Christians arrive from greater Syria (which then included Lebanon) in Port-au-Prince’s harbor, where Italians and Germans ran many of the businesses.
• 1890-1903: The migration continues. Shunned by the elite, Arabs head to the countryside, where they peddle textiles on the streets and open businesses. They are said to have introduced the concept of ”credit” in Haiti.
• 1912: Haitian President Michel Cincinnatus Leconte orders them to leave Haiti. He later dies in an unexplained explosion in the national palace. Arabs, fearing for their lives after some attempted to blame them, flee to Cuba and South America. Many later return; some change their last names.
• 1914-1918: Turkey aligns itself with Germany during World War I and abolishes Lebanon’s autonomy, causing another migration toward Haiti and elsewhere.
• 1930s: Arabs are protected during the U.S. occupation of Haiti, but more anti-Arab laws are enacted following the U.S. forces’ departure.
• 1940s: A wave of Palestinians arrive during the Arab-Israeli war.
• 1950s to present: Smaller groups of Arabs continue to migrate to Haiti. Many speak a hybrid language of Creole and Arabic. Some are owners of the country’s larger supermarkets.
SOURCE: Filmmaker Mario Delatour and interviews with local Arab Haitians. ——