Twenty years ago, a small group of Haitian women assembled for a chita koze — a Creole term for a sit-and-talk session —to discuss the challenges for newly arrived Haitian women and their families to South Florida. When they took their message to the streets, these women were cursed at for trying to educate their Haitian neighbors about sexually transmitted diseases and domestic violence, and accused of trying to undermine the traditional roles of Caribbean women.
These women would eventually become the founders of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami, or Haitian Women of Miami, a group who took on the self-appointed task to inform newly arrived Haitian women about their rights.
Marleine Bastien, a founding member and executive director of FANM organized that first meeting and vividly remembers early accusations from Haitian men and some women describing FANM as a group of rogue Americanized Haitian women trying to challenge gender roles in their immigrant community. “People were very upset when they heard the name FANM. They saw us as a group that was trying to disrupt the Haitian family and brainwash the women,” Bastien said. Nevertheless, Bastien and her army of women volunteers pressed forward and met in Little Haiti schools, apartment complexes and on street corners to share their message.
These pioneers confronted myths and superstitions that made new arrivals suspicious about modern medical treatment and condom usage. They encouraged financial independence and protested immigration inequities. Early on, Bastien said the best way to empower women was to equip them with the necessary tools to become financially independent. With one of the first grants FANM received from the Women’s Fund of Miami-Dade, the group divvied up the $2,000 into four microloans for aspiring women entrepreneurs
Justine Augusma, an early FANM supporter and recipient of a $500 loan, said she remembers hearing about the group on Haitian radio. In the early 90’s, when she needed a loan to start her own business, FANM gave her a chance. Today, Augusma, 70, makes a living selling her homemade preserved jams, peanut butter and other treats to Haitian bakeries. “I didn’t have job. It was through God’s grace and FANM that has allowed me to take care of myself and my family,” she said.
The heart of its mission, Bastien said continues to be uplifting Haitian women and advocating for the Haitian community. Over the years, the group’s scope has expanded. About 40 percent of the center’s clients are now men and 30 percent are non-Haitians. These days the organization is working on several platforms. Their most recent campaign, which gained urgency in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake, urges the Obama administration to grant 55,000 Haitians who have relatives in the United States and have been approved for visas entry to this country.
While FANM’s advocacy work has been recognized locally and nationally, Bastien said there is still more work to do. “I’d like our quest for social and economic justice to continue long after I’m gone,” she said. “This is a movement. We cannot stop.”
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