From Haiti to Long Island With a Mission

Each month, Long Island Wins Executive Director Maryann Sinclair Slutsky publishes a column in the Anton Community Newspapers. Here’s the May 2014 column:

Maryse Emmanuel-Garcy didn’t set out to be the voice of the Haitian community on Long Island. Some might say it just happened. She says it was her destiny.

Emmanuel-Garcy is a social worker and community activist. She is best known for her work with HAFALI—Haitian-American Family of Long Island.

Emmanuel-Garcy founded HAFALI in 1995. “We work with the community and collaborators and partners to educate people about who were are,” she explained. The organization provides a platform for Haitian culture and hosts celebrations of major Haitian holidays. It also runs senior and youth programs for Haitian Americans, who have often been underserved on Long Island.

Nassau County is home to 11,000 Haitian immigrants, according to 2010 census data. The largest populations reside in Uniondale, Elmont, Westbury, Baldwin, and Hempstead.

I spoke with Emmanuel-Garcy, in the middle of Haitian Awareness Week, which began May 11 and ended on May 18, also known as Haitian Flag Day. This holiday is a big deal for Haitians, as it commemorates the creation of the Haitian national flag following victories over their French colonizers, and ultimately leading to the country’s independence on Jan. 1, 1804.  During Haitian Awareness Week, HAFALI hosted several celebrations throughout Long Island, including in Elmont, Deer Park, Freeport, and Brentwood.

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Emmanuel-Garcy gives a talk at Hofstra University as part of Haitian Awareness Week.

Emmanuel-Garcy’s drive to contribute to Long Island’s Haitian community is rooted in her sense of identity. “When you move to a place as an immigrant, you are not being yourself,” she said. “Many of us don’t even realize that.”

When she first came to the U.S. in 1970 at the age of 18, she said, people would mispronounce her name as Marcy (it is pronounced Mah-reese). “I would cry,” she said. “Many things happened over the years that caused me a lot of pain to understand my life and the life of an immigrant.”

Much of what she does is about helping others hold on to their Haitian identity and culture. She explained that young Haitian-Americans in particular struggle with self-identity. “They say, ‘Am I African-American or am I Haitian-American?’ Many times, it’s not until they are in college that they say, ‘I’m Haitian-American.’”

She said many Haitians do not self-identify as “black.” This, she explained, is because in Haiti, everyone is considered Haitian, including multiracial members of the community.

But in the U.S. and other countries, the tendency is to categorize all those with dark skin as African-Americans. “Although we are here on Long Island for more than 40 years, when you think about the Haitian community, they don’t realize we live here,” she said.

Another thing that drives Emmanuel-Garcy is a strong sense of community. “Members of the community do not understand the sense of living as an extended family, like we did back in Haiti,” she said. “It is a great thing and we can’t lose that.”

Emmanuel-Garcy was born in Cap-Haïtien, a large city on the north coast of Haiti, but grew up in Le Borgne, a small town further west. Her parents left for the U.S. when she was 15 years old to look for “better opportunities for the family.” She and her sister we left in the care of relatives in Port-au-Prince. “It’s a very natural thing to be left with family members,” she said.

But in the U.S. and other countries, the tendency is to categorize all those with dark skin as African-Americans. “Although we are here on Long Island for more than 40 years, when you think about the Haitian community, they don’t realize we live here,” she said.

Another thing that drives Emmanuel-Garcy is a strong sense of community. “Members of the community do not understand the sense of living as an extended family, like we did back in Haiti,” she said. “It is a great thing and we can’t lose that.”

Emmanuel-Garcy was born in Cap-Haïtien, a large city on the north coast of Haiti, but grew up in Le Borgne, a small town further west. Her parents left for the U.S. when she was 15 years old to look for “better opportunities for the family.” She and her sister we left in the care of relatives in Port-au-Prince. “It’s a very natural thing to be left with family members,” she said.

But she attributes this understanding to her age at the time. By contrast, her sister, who was only four when their parents left, recalls the situation differently. “For some whose parents migrate here, they have a hard time accepting that their parents left them,” she said.

She yearns to help other Haitian-Americans develop that sense of belonging that she grew up with, as well as to help prevent the identity crisis that she struggled with. “It drives me to help others to not go through the same pain and to have more understanding,” she said.

Though her title at HAFALI is executive director, Emmanuel-Garcy said she wears many hats, including that of community organizer, bookkeeper, and, she adds, “If you put 10 other roles together, I could say I do all that too.”

She’s not alone in her work. She has been fortunate, she said, to be surrounded by people willing to volunteer their time. Many of them do so because they are inspired by her natural charisma and passion. “People say, ‘Maryse, when you ask me to do something I have to do it, because I know what you do,’” she said. “It’s a great compliment. I am really grateful that people help me understand leading by example.”

Her role as a community leader among Haitian immigrants is one that she said she is grateful to God for having given her. Immigrating to another country is a difficult process full of change and struggle, and it is important for them to have a guide. After all, she said, “For immigrants to leave their homeland and settle on Long island, it looks like a choice. But it is a destiny.”

She added, “I would like people to understand that we [immigrants] are citizens of the world.”

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Emmanuel-Garcy (back, center) with a group of Haitian-American seniors at the HAFALI center in Uniondale.


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