UMN staffer stuck in Haiti

February 5, 2010
By

David Taber

Repeatedly denied re-entry into US

While plenty of non-profits and aid organizations have been spurred to action by the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti, one campaign being undertaken by Jamaica Plain’s Union of Minority Neighborhoods (UMN) is intensely personal.

Jenny Ulysse, a 20-year-old staffer at the UMN office on the Arborway, is a Haitian citizen with permanent resident status in the United States. She returned to Haiti, along with her twin brother Jerry, to visit family in December. She and her brother barely survived the quake and have since then been repeatedly denied reentry into this country.

UMN, is a non-profit devoted to “ensur[ing] that skilled, committed, grassroots leaders of color effectively organize on issues of concern in their communities… Our goal is full civic engagement of people of color,” the organization’s web site says. Its current campaigns include an effort to reform state laws governing employers’ access to prospective employees’ criminal records and to increase community participation in public school reform.

“We practice what we preach,” the organization’s director Horace Small told the Gazette in a Jan. 26 telephone interview, “If you work for UMN you are part of the family.”

The Ulysse’s live in Hyde Park with their mother, who only speaks Haitian Creole, Small said.

Ulysse, whose story was first reported in the Boston Phoenix, was with her stepmother at her stepmother’s beauty salon when the earthquake hit, Small told the Gazette. Her stepmother was killed, but Ulysse was pulled from the rubble with scratches and an either broken or severely sprained ankle, he said.

Her paperwork was lost in the quake, he said.

The Gazette attempted to contact Ulysse at a cell phone number provided by Regis and got through once, but it was too noisy to speak and further attempts to contact her were unsuccessful.

Small initially told the Gazette he hoped Ulysse would be home by the end of January. He said UMN lobbying of Mayor Thomas Menino and US Sen. John Kerry was proving effective.

Kerry spokesperson Brigid O’Rourke told the Gazette on Feb. 2 that the US State Department and Department of Homeland Security had not yet developed a protocol for dealing with legal permanent residents stuck in Haiti. The federal government was still focused on evacuating US citizens, she said.

John Regis, a 26-year-old American-born Haitian-American volunteer at UNM, who is acting as the point-person on Ulysse’s case, said this week that situation had not changed.

Ulysse had visited the US Embassy three times and the airport once—both over 30 miles from where her family lives in the town of Mariani—and has been kicked out each time, he said.

“Apparently they are just offering support to US citizens,” Regis said. “We sent copies of her paper work to the US Embassy and they wouldn’t even check to see if they were received.”

Regis said his conversations with Ulysse have brought home the reality of a stark situation. At first, the stories, were about scarcity of food and the struggles of living—as many of the residents of Mariani are—in a church parking lot. Since aid has started to arrive, Regis said, gun violence has reportedly become a larger concern.

The aid supply itself is watched by security guards, but, “Apparently people are coming, armed with guns,” The sound of gunfire at night has become commonplace, he said.

“You really feel helpless. I can’t tell her to calm down, because I don’t know how I would react in that situation. I just want to get her home,” said Regis, a 26-year-old Haitian-American born in the United States.

He said he has worked with Ulysse on City Councilor Chuck Turner’s recent reelection campaign and on a campaign to reform state Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) laws. “This is completely new to me,” he said of his efforts to support a friend in a crisis situation in another country.

While he and Ulysse are “not really different, on paper and in politics [because of her immigration status] there is a really big difference…Until something serious happens, you don’t realize it wasn’t all good. It was not OK,” he said.

While supporting the Ulysses is a main focus for UNM, it is continuing with other work as well.

Last weekend, a UMN call helped get over 100 volunteers to Hibernian Hall in Roxbury to fill two semi-trailers with supplies about 24 hours after they learned there was space on a ship bound for Haiti. “We had everything from tents to baby formula…It was a ship good day,” Small told the Gazette.