MIAMI — When a group of Florida business leaders left recently on an official trade mission to the Dominican Republic, it was not because Marleine Bastien had not done everything she could to stop it.
The Feb. 23-26 trip had been in the making since September, when Gov. Rick Scott announced that he would lead Enterprise Florida, the state’s public-private economic development arm, on a visit to increase business ties with the Dominican Republic, the state’s ninth-largest trading partner.
But the trip flew in the face of Haitian outrage over the Dominican Republic’s treatment of Haitians who live there, said Bastien, founder and executive director of the advocacy and social service agency, Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami Inc./Haitian Women of Miami (FANM).
In the same month that Scott announced the trade mission, the Dominican
Republic’s constitutional court issued a ruling that strips Dominicans of Haitian parentage of their citizenship. The action led to deportations, killings and unrest, said Bastien. The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, made the ruling retroactive to 1929.
Bastiene subsequently led a demonstration to draw attention to the Dominican Republic’s human rights violations. She wanted the governor and Enterprise Florida to cancel the trade excursion.
“It is insensitive of our governor and Enterprise Florida to go there right now,” Bastien said. “The world is calling for a boycott of the Dominican Republic but Florida is looking to do more business there.”
Although nearly 140 business leaders left with Enterprise Florida on the controversial trade mission, the Haitian community’s outcries, along with those of International human rights groups, leaders from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and others have had some effect.
Scott pulled out of the trip and the Dominican Republic has announced that it was taking steps to create a legal pathway for residents born to undocumented Haitians and other foreigners. Additionally, it will enact a no-deportation rule, said Aníbal de Castro, the Dominican Republic’s ambassador to the United States.
It is because of advocacy – or standing for a cause you believe in – says Bastien, that even the smallest amount of change can take place.
For more than two decades, Bastien, 54, has championed the rights of Haitians everywhere, whether they live in South Florida, the Dominican Republic or Haiti, where she began her advocacy role while a student. When the Haitian government banned students from studying at night under street lamp posts, Bastien organized a small group of friends to denounce the move. Many students did not have electricity in their homes and had nowhere else to study.
Her outspokenness worried her parents and Bastien soon left for South Florida. “I got engaged in the struggle as soon as I got here and I am still at it,” said Bastien, who immigrated in 1981 and founded Fanm Ayisyen in 1991. The group came about as an effort to draw attention to the plight of Haitian refugees through the voices of women.
“The name was chosen to nudge people to have a sense of awareness of women,” Bastien said. “When we hear the cries of women, we hear the cries of everyone.” The name is a misnomer now, Bastien said, in a recent interview at the FANM headquarters, 181 NE 82nd St. in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood.
“We’re trying to strengthen a new concept of upholding the human rights of every human being,” Bastien said. “We are working on common issues – a better future for all of us. We need to break the glass ceiling together.”
Haitian immigrants still make up the better part of the organization’s clients but African Americans, Hispanics and Africans increasingly are benefiting from the organization’s services which range from providing information on healthcare access and immigration services to offering after-school programs and English, computer literacy and citizenship classes, said Jean Mecknic Derisca, FANM’s immigration advocacy coordinator and director of the adult program. The group has not abandoned its role of helping women, especially new immigrants, many of whom suffer mental, physical and sexual abuse when they arrive in the United States, Bastien said.
Audena Jean, 26, came two years ago as a new bride. But she said her husband, who was a Miami resident, began mistreating her about a year after she arrived. “I was completely dependent upon him,” said Jean, who did not want to detail the kinds of abuse she said her husband inflicted on her. “He completely changed. He refused to renew my green card. He knew I did not have anyone here to help me.”
Derisca said FANM was able to fill that role and kept Jean from being deported. The organization is working to help her become a temporary resident; there is a restraining order against her husband; and Jean has taken classes to become a certified nursing assistant.
But providing those services for about 5,000 individuals each year has not come without sacrifice, Bastien said. The group has had to downsize after funding dropped from $1.2 million in 2009 to its current $600,000 budget.
Supplemented by grants from the Children’s Trust, Miami-Dade County, the city of Miami and the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization, grassroots fundraising is a large part of how FANM can stay in business, Bastien said.
The group will host its 21st annual White Ball fundraiser at 7 p.m. March 8 at the Little Haiti Cultural Center, 260 NE 59th Ter., Miami. The $100-per-person tickets include an open cash bar. The theme of the ball is “Dancing Toward Sustainable Health.”
“The whole well-being is so important,” Bastien said. “We realize that we can help people through economic hardships but not without health.”
MAGGIE STEBER/COURTESY OF Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami
IMMIGRATION RALLY: Marleine Bastien, center, leads a demonstration in downtown Miami in support of comprehensive immigration reform.