State officials keep focus on Haiti two years after earthquake

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JAN. 30, 2012. As Haiti continues to recover from the devastating earthquake of 2010, state leaders on Monday recommitted themselves to helping Haitians and their families living in Massachusetts to rebuild their lives.

“This was not about some distant calamity, but our neighbors, friends, co-workers and their families,” Gov. Deval Patrick said during an event Monday morning commemorating the second anniversary of the earthquake.

To mark the anniversary, state officials gathered at the State House with members of the Haitian community where Patrick presented a proclamation recognizing the earthquake and promising to continue the state’s efforts to help refugees and their families who have since arrived in Massachusetts.

Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry, a Dorchester Democrat and a Haitian American, led the event, which also attracted House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer, Rep. Russell Holmes of Dorchester, and Rep. Alice Wolf of Cambridge.

“Rebuilding is no easy process for any nation, which is why it’s so important for the Commonwealth to help out where it can,” DeLeo said.

In additional to calling on President Barack Obama to expand a family reunification program for Haitians awaiting entry to the United States, members of the community reminded state leaders that Haiti needs their attention now more than ever.

Minister Marjorie Brunache, of the Haitian consulate, called Haiti an “untapped market” just three-and-a-half hours from Boston by plane.

“Come see the opportunities. Haiti is open for business,” Brunache said.

Asked after the event whether he would take Brunache up on her offer, Patrick said, “Yes. Of course. Anxious to go.”

“I don’t think I’ll be able to do it this year, but I hope in the fullness of time to be able to go and see the good work that the people of Massachusetts have done and are doing on the ground to help Haiti rebuild,” Patrick told reporters.

Both Gov. Patrick and the Legislative Black and Latino Caucus have sent letters to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano requesting the establishment of a Haitian Family Reunification Parole Program modeled after a similar program for Cubans that would allow Haitians already approved for visas to wait for those visas in the United States rather than Haiti.

Members of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation have also expressed support for the program, and Speaker DeLeo said Monday he would add his name to a letter of support and send it to President Barack Obama directly.

Forry said that over 30,000 Haitians have been approved for visas, but are still waiting in Haiti for entry to the United States. Both Forry and Josiane Martinez, director of the Massachusetts Office of Refugees and Immigrants, said they were unsure how many of those Haitians might be waiting to come to Massachusetts.

The Motion Picture Association of Haiti streamed the event live on its website, where speakers also honored Rutland builder Leonard Gengel and his wife, Cherylann, who lost their daughter Britney Gengel during the earthquake. The couple is now building an orphanage in Haiti.

According to Forry, Massachusetts ties to Haiti run deep with a boulevard in the country named after former Sen. Charles Sumner, who fought against American colonization of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Massachusetts has the third largest concentration of Haitian immigrants in the country, with the Greater Boston area trailing only Miami and New York City with over 40,000 immigrants from that country, according to officials.

Forry said since the earthquake, the country has experienced an outbreak of cholera, and there are still over 100,000 residents living in tents.

Last year, the Massachusetts National Guard deployed the 125th battalion out of Worcester and the 220th detachment out of Bridgewater to Haiti for water purification infrastructure assistance.

The state has also provided food assistance, emergency housing, medical services, immigration assistance and access to schools to Haitian refugees who have come to Massachusetts seeking shelter.

Martinez said more than 400 Haitians have received special pre- and post-employment services through funding made available last fall by the Department of Housing and Community Development for English language courses and other services.

For more photos from today's ceremony, see the Governor's photo page.