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For Haitians who built a community in Rhode Island, dreams of returning home fade

As violence and chaos rages on in Haiti, R.I. advocates speak out

ESL students Allison Calix Rose Chela and Joseph Gerson Calix in class at New Bridges for Haitian Success, a Providence nonprofit that provides Haitian and Afro-Caribbean communities in Rhode Island with employment training, English language classes, and housing and health care case management.Bernard Georges

PROVIDENCE — Fleeing Haiti, Nerlande’s journey to Rhode Island was the most harrowing experience of her life. The 32-year-old and her husband traversed nine countries with their daughter — just 3 months old and born prematurely — desperate to find a specialist for her. As they hiked through the dense rainforest on the dangerous Darien Gap migration route, they were robbed of their food and belongings. The baby was not doing well.

“At 10 months, she was not sitting up. I was really worried,” Nerlande recalled during a recent Globe interview through a Haitian Creole interpreter. (She asked to use only her first name in this story, citing security concerns.)

Rhode Island has seen an increase in the number of Haitians arriving under the federal humanitarian parole program. About 1,200 Haitians have come to Rhode Island in the past two years. For migrants like Nerlande looking to restart their lives, refugee relief organizations – and their leaders – are a lifeline.

The young family entered the United States from Mexico in 2021. When they arrived, they first connected with family in Boston, later coming to Providence, where Elmwood Avenue Church of God’s refugee relief program, on Providence’s South Side, has been a godsend. The predominantly Haitian congregation of nearly 400 worshipers provides aid to 600 Haitian migrants, helping to meet their basic needs.

Moise Bourdeau is the founder and chief operations officer of the church’s refugee relief program. He and his team of five work with community organizations to assist newcomers in accessing local resources for health care, education, transportation, food, shelter, clothing, and legal assistance.

“Assessment is given to all new arrivals to see if they have any other needs such as [English as a second language] classes, in order to orient them in the right direction,” Bourdeau said.


The program receives funding primarily from the West Bay Community Action, along with one-time contributions from the Rhode Island Foundation, United Way of Rhode Island, and Bank Newport.

The Elmwood Avenue Church of God on Providence’s South Side is a vital lifeline for the 600 migrants who receive aid through its refugee relief program. Moise Bourdeau

What many newcomers need, most of all, is to find a job.

In Haiti, Nerlande worked as a nurse. Here in Rhode Island, through support from Bourdeau and his team, she’s now working as a certified nursing assistant.

“I feel accepted at work,” she said.

And after seeing a specialist at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, Nerlande’s daughter is catching up on her developmental milestones. “She now walks, and talks, and runs,” Nerlande said.

Another refugee relief program client, Darline, 34, came to the United States last year. She also worked as a nurse in Haiti, and since she arrived, has completed CNA training.

Even amid Rhode Island’s shortage of nurses and other health care workers, Bourdeau said processing time for work authorization can take about two months, and for more complex cases, up to a year.

Both women are studying English to prepare to take the nursing exam. They said work and school has been a positive experience.

Moise Bourdeau is the founder and chief operations officer of Elmwood Avenue Church of God Haitian Refugee Relief Program. Moise Bourdeau

“We are fighting on behalf of these Haitian professionals to ensure they find decent jobs and eventually get back to the career they had back home,” Bourdeau said.

“These folks will be paying their taxes” and buying locally, he said.

According to the US Census, about 5,000 Haitians lived in Rhode Island in 2020. That figure has since risen to between 6,000 and 8,000, estimates Baha Sadr, refugee coordinator at the state Office of Refugee Resettlement in Rhode Island.


Sadr attributes the increase to the Biden administration’s 2023 humanitarian parole program. Under the law, Haitians qualify for a two-year temporary protected status provided they pass background checks and have a sponsor, such as a family member in the United States who offers financial support for the duration of their parole, which is given for urgent humanitarian reasons.

Haitians can petition for parole status before arrival by plane, as Darline did. Although now flights in and out of Haiti are very limited. Others, like Nerlande, travel over land and request asylum at the southern US border, awaiting an immigration court appointment. Since 2023, to control the flow of crossings, migrants seeking entry into the United States are required to schedule an appointment while they are still in Mexico, using a mobile app.

The parole program, which allows those from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela to enter on humanitarian grounds, was upheld in March by a federal judge. Since the policy began in 2023, approximately 138,000 Haitians have entered the United States.

For Haitians, that protected status is set to expire in August, while some members of Congress are trying to extend it. Sixty-six members of Congress, including US Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, and Congressman Gabe Amo, have signed a letter asking the Biden administration for the redesignation due to the ongoing crisis in Haiti. While US Representative Seth Magaziner did not sign the letter, he also supports the extension.


Haitians arriving in Rhode Island through the parole program are eligible for federally funded resettlement assistance, Sadr said, including refugee cash assistance, supplemental nutrition assistance, and Medicaid.

Even with assistance, making a new start is challenging, especially when family in Haiti remains a concern. With unrelenting gang violence, starvation, no stable government and an economy in chaos, Haitians here fear for the safety of loved ones there. And they face the growing possibility of never being able to return.

“Many of our Haitian diaspora clients who built their lives in Haiti – including my parents – were looking to retire back home,” said Elmwood Avenue Church of God’s Bourdeau. But “their houses, including my parents’, were seized by gang members.”

Darline, whose family is still in Haiti, is concerned about their safety and financial security. Because of gang violence, they are forced to stay indoors.

“They can’t go out. They can’t go to school. They can’t go to work,” said Darline, who didn’t want to give her last name for this story.

Amid the spiraling violence, Haiti’s Prime Minister Ariel Henry resigned last month, paving the way for a transitional council and the formation of a new government. Henry had served as acting president since President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in July 2021, which plunged Haiti into crisis, and compelled some to flee.

English instructor and community organizer Anne Jean Philippe teaches the verb "to be" during an ESL class at New Bridges for Haitian Success, a Providence nonprofit that provides Haitian and Afro-Caribbean communities in Rhode Island with employment training, English language classes, and housing and health care case management.Bernard Georges

Bernard Georges, founder and executive director of New Bridges for Haitian Success in Providence, increasingly receives calls for help from beyond Rhode Island, he said. His organization provides newcomers with employment training, English language classes, and housing and health care case management, and while he does what he can to help Haitians in neighboring Massachusetts, his focus is on migrants in Rhode Island.


He described the distress his clients face, with many making desperate calls home.

“People are experiencing trauma,” Georges said. “They see on TV streets filled with screaming people searching for loved ones.” It’s reminiscent of and compounded by the enduring effects of the devastating earthquake in 2010, Georges said, which killed hundreds of thousands of people and triggered a humanitarian crisis.

Georges came to Rhode Island in 2000 at age 16, joining his father, who had fled Haiti years before due to threats to his life during the dictatorship of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc’' Duvalier. That corrupt regime, and that of Duvalier’s father before him, medical doctor-turned-dictator Francois ‘’Papa Doc’' Duvalier, tortured and killed political opponents.

Georges’ and his father’s experiences coming to Rhode Island fuel his commitment to supporting new arrivals as they navigate cultural and language challenges, and led him to establish New Bridges in 2013.

Supported by federal funding and grants from the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, the City of Providence, and the Rhode Island Department of Education, as well as the Champlin and Papitto foundations, New Bridges plays a vital role in aiding the Haitian community here.

Georges hopes to return to Haiti some day.

He emphasized that it’s time for the Haitian diaspora to reform Haiti’s political, criminal justice and education systems, but stressed that negotiations must exclude those responsible for the current situation.

“My body is here, but my heart is in Haiti. If I go back, I want to be a part of the solution.”

Material from prior Globe and wire stories was used in this report.