Introducing the NEW Haiti Now Editor – Lyssa Fils-Aimé Hargrove

Welcome to the new Haiti Now blog page!  Here you will find interesting posts and interviews concerning all things Haiti.  I would like to thank Harriet and Bill for following their vision and creating the Haiti Jewish Refugee Legacy Project and the Haiti Holocaust Survivors blog.  From the moment I heard about the project while still working on Capitol Hill, I felt this level of solidarity with the mission, sparked by a connection I developed with the Jewish community years ago.

Lyssa and family right before moving into their new home in Brooklyn

In 1980, my parents purchased their first piece of the American dream in Brooklyn.  As Haitian immigrants with nominal jobs and three young daughters, this was a huge accomplishment for them.  Yet, just as they moved in, white families were moving out—headed to the more affluent suburbs of New Jersey and Long Island. 

My parents, green to any sociology trends, did not know their new neighborhood was in the middle of “white flight”; particularly because our closest neighbors were white.  The Mass family, not only stayed for many years to come, but gave us the warmest welcome of all our neighbors.  Mrs. Mass, an RN, worked nights, while Mr. Mass was a blue-collar man.  They had two older daughters—much older than my 4 years at the time.  Their youngest daughter, Valerie, a teenager at the time, dated Scott Kramer, who was also Jewish.

Scott spent so much time on the block, you would have thought he lived there.    This ultimately worked in my favor because over the years (they finally broke up while I was in high school), Scott became a major male influence in my life outside of my own father.

Valerie and Scott were great together.  They were funny, compassionate and kind.  As the baby in the group, they often showered me with compliments.   Scott would say –“you’re a cutie Lyssa” and Val would co-sign with “you’re such a doll”.  To many, this may not mean much, but for a little black girl, who seldom saw positive images of herself—this was tremendous.  From what I saw, the only black girls who were treated this way were my friends who were much lighter than I was and/or had longer hair.  But Scott and Valerie just saw me—not my complexion, not my hair…just me.

 Therefore, for many years my self-esteem was fed by this young Jewish guy and his girlfriend.  I was particularly fond of Scott because he always managed to capture everyone’s attention—he was a force of nature but was never mean-spirited.  He was the person who encouraged me to join the high school track team and gave me endurance tips from his years on the track.  He gave me my first job handing out flyers after I begged him in 8th grade to help me find some type of gainful employment.

I was lucky to have him in my corner for all those years.

When Valerie and Scott eventually broke up, Scott still came around to take care of people on the block.  He had “done good” and found a managerial position at JFK and came back to the block to offer some of the young people jobs.  Not sure where Scott Kramer is now—but his influence and presence in my formative years will never be forgotten. 

Years later, when I applied for a scholarship with the Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women (JFEW), I did not know what to expect.  There were some who discouraged me to apply, thinking that the scholarships were limited to Jewish women.  Yet, the confidence that was built over the years propelled me to at least try.  Fortunately, soon after applying, I was called in for an interview with the Executive Director.

 The Executive Assistant, Vern, greeted and prepped me for the interview when I arrived at the office.  She was an older Jewish woman, nurturing and giving, who shared tons of helpful information.  Vern reminded me of a Haitian aunt or motherly figure in the community:  upfront, straightforward, but warm.  I felt at ease.

 My interview with the Executive Director went very well, and I went on to receive a 4 yr scholarship from the organization.  After all, it was Vern’s direction that had helped me that day.  The experience also made me realize that the Haitian women I knew had a lot in common with these Jewish women I had begun to become familiar with at JFEW. 

After years of insight into some of these shared values between the Haitian and Jewish communities, my first opportunity to develop a collaboration happened while working on the Haiti portfolio on Capitol Hill.  With charcoal (trees used to make charcoal) being the main source of cooking in Haiti, the country has been left 98% deforested.  It came as no surprise that I looked to model the success of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in Israel – believing that if they could make the desert bloom, then anything was possible.  With the help of my boss, we facilitated JNF’s involvement with other organizations working on tree planting initiatives in Haiti.

So when Harriet and Bill asked me to help with the Haiti Now portion of the Haiti Holocaust website, I couldn’t resist!  Even as I approached my last few weeks of pregnancy, I made it a point to save enough energy to keep the Haiti Now section alive.  Harriet already knew that I was their #1 Haitian fan and was very willing to help share their message. 

For me, the Haiti Holocaust connection represents solidarity and courage, but most importantly, a lesson on how simply extending someone refuge in a time of need can establish a life-long lasting impression.

Therefore, it is only fitting that we start the Haiti Now blog post with an interview with Rodnyese Bichotte, the first recipient of our very own Tikkun Olam Award.  According to Wikipedia, Tikkun Olam is “a Hebrew phrase that means ‘repairing the world.’  I would like to think that finding collective histories and shared values brings us one step closer to doing just that.

Mazel Tov to the new Haiti Now blog!! 

Best,

Lyssa Fils-Aimé Hargrove

 

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. missesjones1  |  June 20, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    What a well written story. I was doubtful as to how the two compared but by the end of your story, I was able to see how you connected the two…Very insightful story regarding your formative years….

    Great job Mrs Hargrove.

    Reply
  • 2. M. Sandra  |  June 20, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    Excellent introduction! I look forward to learning more about the Haiti Holocaust Survivors and certainly reading the Haiti Now section!

    Reply
  • 3. carine Eustache-Jones  |  June 13, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    So wonderful to read this. Haiti has endured so much throughout the years. Having someone like you in the picture puts everything in perspective. I believe that your values along with your insight will no doubt bring success to this blog and any other endeavors. Mazel Tov

    Reply

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