MIAMI — The John J. Dessalines Community Center sits in a nondescript building in the 8300 block of Northeast 2nd Avenue, a street lined with modest businesses and rusting parking meters.
It’s not the kind of place you'd expect to find a movement. And yet, inside this building, a hub for Miami's Haitian-American community (the Florida Immigrant Coalition also has offices here), something very much like a movement is taking place.
At its center is Marleine Bastien, founder of Haitian Women of Miami (Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami in Creole, or FANM).
Bastien, 49, is a one-woman dynamo, recognized as a leader of the Haitian community's decades-long struggle for justice within the U.S. immigration system, and a longtime advocate of fairness for Haitians fleeing the island. In addition to being FANM’s executive director, she is also the Haitian Immigrant Coalition’s chair.
But few people know the full body of FANM's work. Inside the Dessalines Center, named for the former lieutenant to Toussaint L'Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who is credited with expelling the French from Haiti in 1804 (and becoming the independent country’s first ruler), Bastien has created a community center of far greater breadth and depth than most people outside Miami’s close-knit Haitian community know.
The organization, founded in 1991, operates a community services center, a trio of after-school programs, an economic development arm, and a battery of family services that include everything from mental health counseling, domestic violence intervention and anger management classes, to computer and adult literacy instruction, and even Tae Kwon Doe for children and adults.
“I used to take the (martial arts) class myself,’’ Bastien said as she showed off her facility one recent afternoon. “But I'm so busy.’’
A tour of the FANM facility demonstrates how far beyond immigration the organization has extended its reach.
In addition to the legal clinic staffed by two attorneys, Steven Forester, an immigration law expert who has focused on the Haitian community for 29 years, and trial lawyer Danna Magloire, who recently joined FANM, the sprawling, two-story building is a labyrinth.
Children bustle through a multi-sectioned classroom that serves as one of three sites for the organization's after-school program, where students get FCAT preparation, tutoring and homework help.
On another floor, children line up in neat rows, counting off in Creole as instructor Ovida Acva leads them in martial arts movements. In the same space, girls in flowing white and red robes, their hair carefully wrapped, demonstrate what they’ve learned in traditional Haitian dance classes, designed to keep the young girls both busy and connected to their culture.
“A lot of times, Haitian children suffer from very low self esteem,’’ Bastien said. “They are teased in school, and they feel that they are at the bottom of the ladder. We try to reconnect them to their culture.’’
The programs, which operate year-round, target children ages 5 to 14, and draw students from nearby schools, including Edison Park and Little River Elementary. Some 40 children currently take the Tae Kwon Do classes, according to Jocenel Noel, the 38-year-old instructor.
For adults, FANM offers parenting classes, including instruction on the different standards for discipline in Haiti versus the U.S., as well as social service referrals, early childhood development assistance, and even advocacy for FANM parents in the courts and with the state Department of Children and Families.
“Our goal is to help [parents] nurture their children better, and to create a healthy living environment,’’ said Aline Francois, 36, FANM's director of human services.
To help families who are referred to the organization from outside agencies, or who come to FANM for immigration help and are referred internally, the organization’s 17-person staff includes a half dozen case managers, an outreach worker and a full-time therapist. They do everything from encouraging women to get breast cancer screenings to helping young mothers buy diapers.
There have been leaner times for Bastien and her energetic brand of activism.
In 1981, she fled to the U.S. on a tourist visa after drawing the attention of the Haitian government with activism in her native Pont Benoit. Her father, a schoolteacher, had been briefly jailed by the Jean-Claude Duvalier regime.
Bastien initially worked as a volunteer for the Haitian Refugee Center, and later was hired there as a paralegal.
At the refugee center, she said, “We had Haitian people coming in seeking medical care, people thrown out of their apartments, and who were being exploited by employers and landlords. I was the youngest one (in the organization) and everyone was coming to me.’’
She worked as a licensed clinical social worker at Jackson Memorial Hospital after earning a master's degree from Florida International University in 1987. She started FANM in 1991 as a volunteer organization, with no money and no paid staff.
“No one gave us money, and we didn't ask for it, either, because we wanted to build a sound infrastructure ourselves,’’ she said.
In the lean, early days, she said, FANM “sold cookies and second-hand clothes,’’ and found other creative ways to fund its $5,000-a-month budget.
That changed in 2000, when Bastien was awarded the annual Human Rights Award by Amnesty International’s Miami chapter.
“After that, a group of funders came to town,’’ Bastien said, and the group was looking for organizations to assist.
Bastien, asked to identify qualified community groups, put FANM on the list. The organization soon raised $75,000, and, she said, began to “transform from a volunteer organization to a community-based organization.’’
“We hired one-and-a-half people’’ including herself, she said, adding that before receiving the funding, she “worked three jobs, as a medical social worker at Jackson, at FANM for no pay, and as mommy’’ to her three sons.
Since then, the organization has grown considerably. Today, its annual budget is $1.7 million, much of it raised from foundations, grants from local government, and The Children's Trust of Miami-Dade County.
FANM is still constantly raising funds, hoping to purchase the building across the street, which would offer more room, including outdoor space where the children in the after-school and summer programs could play.
The organization continues to fight for fair treatment of Haitian immigrants, including a fresh push for “temporary protected status,’’ (or TPS), which would prevent the U.S. from deporting Haitian migrants back to the island, where conditions of violence, political instability and – most recently – food riots, make for a dangerous return.
But for Miami's Haitian community, Bastien says FANM has equally straightforward goals.
“Family and educational empowerment, equal treatment for Haitians, and community development,’’ Bastien said.
To aid the latter, FANM launched a Haitian American Merchants Association five years ago, offering technical assistance, help with business plans, budgeting and help finding grants for the mostly mom-and-pop businesses in the local Haitian-American community.
Bastien said the association helped 27 businesses obtain financial or other assistance last year.
She said she hopes to narrow the gap between Haitian advocacy and the battles often waged by African-Americans and other minority groups.
“We have to work together,’’ she said. “And realize that we are all cousins."
Bastien said her recent trip to Haiti has only hardened her resolve.
“Since I came from Haiti (two weeks ago), I feel even more blessed,’’ she said. “I've never seen the Haitian people so hopeless. Not helpless. Haitian people are never helpless. But hopeless.’’
She is determined to prevent that same hopelessness from settling in among Haitians in Miami.
Those who have witnessed her resolve are simply amazed.
“She is one of the most vigilant Haitian leaders in terms of fighting for people, both in Haiti, and in Miami,’’ said Gary Johnson, chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party's Faith Outreach committee.
Johnson recently traveled to Haiti with Bastien and a U.S. delegation that included the Rev. Jesse Jackson. They were there to meet with that country's president, Rene Preval, and to discuss charitable relief efforts for the island.
Johnson described Bastien as “tireless and dedicated.’’
That dedication goes well beyond the immigration advocacy for which FANM is best known.
Photo by Khary Bruyning: Young girls in traditional Haitian dance classes at FANM demonstrate their technique.
This is the first story in a three-part series on Haitian immigrants in South Florida. Next week’s story will focus on ways in which the U.S. is failing Haitian immigrants.
THE MORE YOU KNOW:
Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami, Inc.
8325 N.E. 2nd Avenue
Miami, Florida 33138