Haitian Family Resource Center Is Hosted by New York Brethren

A weekly immigration clinic at the Haitian Family Resource Center, which is hosted by a Church of the Brethren congregation in New York, was begun after the January earthquake. Starting as a response to disaster, the center now offers a wide variety of resources for Haitian families. Photo courtesy of Marilyn Pierre

Church of the Brethren Newsline
June 7, 2010

A Haitian Family Resource Center hosted by Haitian First Church of New York–a Church of the Brethren congregation–has become a primary resource service for Haitians displaced by disaster and living in the New York area.

Directed by church member Marilyn Pierre, the center located on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn is a cooperative endeavor with New York Disaster Interfaith Services. It has been recognized by city and state officials, and has been awarded a $20,000 grant by the Brooklyn Community Foundation and the Hope and Healing Fund of United Way of New York.

Over the past few weeks, the center has received supportive visits from NY Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, New York City Council member Jumaane D. Williams, and an advisor to the United Nation’s donor conference on Haiti.

“The demand (for services) is just tremendous,” said Pierre in a telephone interview. “The trauma the people having been facing…. They know there is a place to come to.”

Set up soon after the earthquake hit Haiti in January, the center has become a clearinghouse for Haitian immigrants’ needs. “The earthquake was on the 12th. We began on the 18th,” Pierre said. In the period immediately after the earthquake the Red Cross was at the center regularly. “People who were searching for loved ones would come in to register,” Pierre said. The Red Cross also provided clothing and vouchers for other needs.

The focus on immediate disaster needs is slowly ending, Pierre said, and more recently the center has focused on providing social services support, legal advice on immigration issues, and help to apply for Temporary Protected Status (TPS)–a special immigration status offered by the US government since the earthquake. Other services provided include sponsoring of relatives, medical assistance/resources, food stamp benefits, translation services, housing assistance, educational resources, clothing and other related needs, transportation assistance, Social Security assistance and assistance with filling out various application forms.

An immigration clinic every Thursday evening has drawn between 35-40 families each week. They come seeking legal advice and help to apply for TPS. Many want to bring family members from Haiti, or are concerned about their own visas. “There are a lot of families that have migrated here on visas, some for just six months, some for one month,” Pierre said.

In addition, the center has been doing case management, providing translation services, and assisting with applications and forms such as medical forms, job applications, and letters of recommendation. Many of the clients do not speak English, Pierre explained. Another offering has been pastoral counseling for the grief and healing process of those who lost loved ones in the earthquake.

Among the more than 1,200 who have used the center’s services a mix of people, Pierre said, including Haitians who were already living in New York at the time of the earthquake and people who have come to the US since then. For example, the center has been able to help people newly arrived from Haiti go a hospital for the first time in their lives. Others simply have never known about the services available to them in New York.

She told the story of a woman and her three-year-old son who is a US citizen, who were living with a family member. The center helped the mother receive support for her son through the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program. “She was just so excited that she was able to receive assistance,” Pierre said, “because a lot of (Haitian immigrants) come here and now are a burden to a family member.”

Brethren Disaster Ministries has been working with Atlantic Northeast District, the leadership of the center, and pastor Verel Montauban of Haitian First Church to coordinate support services, and recently requested a second grant of $7,500 from the Emergency Disaster Fund to continue Church of the Brethren support for the center.

Other groups who have been working with the center or have helped provide services there include Lutheran Immigration Services, the American Red Cross, World Vision, Mennonite congregations in Manhattan, and Lutheran Social Services of New York, among others.

“Without the assistance of the church and other partner agencies, we would not be able to do this,” Pierre said.

Her current concerns are the center’s need for volunteers to keep the work going; and for Haitians who have not yet applied for TPS status, which has a July application deadline. Haitians who are awarded the special status will be allowed to stay in the US legally for 18 months, and be provided working papers, Pierre said.

“I don’t know if there will be an extension” of the TPS status, she added. “We’ve noticed there is a lot of fear” among clients. Some of those who come to the center are fearful even of making the application, and others are waiting to see if the status will be extended beyond 18 months before they decide to apply, Pierre said. She foresees the work of the center extending to immigration advocacy in the future, commenting, “This is not something that’s going to go away in a year.”

The Haitian Family Support Center welcomes offers of volunteer help. Contact Marilyn Pierre at haitifsc@gmail.com .

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