United States. Faced with government discrimination, the Haitian community in New York fought and won
1 May 1996 (MAHA)
"Rest assured, we will mobilize again."
by Ronald Aubourg (Haïti Progrès)
Twenty years ago, AIDS was unknown. It came to light in the early 1980s when the medical community zeroed in on the cause of several suspicious deaths. AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The disease devastates the immune system, which fights off illness.
When the epidemic began, 95% of those diagnosed were male homosexuals, and the source of the disease was falsely attributed to that group. Consequently, the general belief was that AIDS was a homosexual disease. Before long, the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) came out with the infamous four H (4H) theory about AIDS; namely that homosexuals as well as heroin addicts, hemophiliacs, and Haitians were the most likely to have the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the agent believed to cause AIDS.
Of course, it was absurd to make nationality a biological or medical determinant. In 1985, following widespread protest, Haitians were taken off the CDC list. However, in February 1990, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), another federal agency, unexpectedly dropped a bomb on the Haitian community. The agency issued a memo which advised blood banks to stop drawing blood from Haitian donors because they were potential HIV carriers.
The dignity of Haitians everywhere was affronted. The ban angered and humiliated Haitians from all walks of life. Even Haitian children were humiliated in their schools. The ban added even more hardship and scorn to the already difficult life of Haitians in the United States. The label "boat people" was replaced by "HIV carrier."
In April 1990, Haitians from all over the New York tri-state area took to the streets to protest the ban. The largest rally was in New York City, organized by the Haitian Enforcement Against Racism (HEAR), the Haitian Centers Council (HCC), and several community-based organizations. The crowd was well over 100,000. We Haitians were all united with a single voice to denounce the deliberate attempt by the FDA to single us out.
I participated in that day of pride. The gathering was so large that I even met with my fourth grade teacher, and I crossed paths with my first grade classmates, whom I had not seen in a long time. It was a day to vent our anger. That day, we also realized a simple fact — that we can accomplish anything if we want to.
As a result of that particular march, as well as hearings and meetings with FDA officials, the FDA ban was rescinded. Still, life has never been the same for my compatriots.
It has been more than a decade since the disease was discovered. But in a sense, Haitians are still in the dark about how serious this disease is and often think that "It can’t happen to me." In fact, this disease, this tragedy, is as real as the air that we breathe and as deadly as cyanide. You don’t get a second chance. Once you’re infected, you’ll have to live with it.
Often we hear in our community "yo voye mo SIDA sou li" (they put the curse of AIDS on him). The sad fact is that there is no "mo SIDA." Neither magic nor mystery are involved.
While a cure to AIDS is not imminent, we must not remain in denial as we have been over the past several years. We must not shun those infected. Instead, we must treat them with dignity and compassion. We must not avoid them. We must help them along the way to alleviate their sufferings. We must not isolate them. Instead, we must embrace them and seek their participation to teach others that this disease is real and deadly. We must no longer sit and let lawmakers accuse and act, and then we react. We must be pro-active. We mobilized in 1983, in 1990, and, rest assured, we will mobilize again.
The leadership of this community must assume a role in educating the people about the cause and consequences of this disease. Their share of this endeavor must be equal to that of health professionals dedicated to this cause. The time has come to speak out against the prejudice, the humiliation, and, most importantly, the denial that has permeated the community on this issue for so long. Furthermore, parents must be made aware that the HIV prevention must start in the home. We must change at once our sexual behaviors. Sex is a natural process of life, and in order for us to be able to enjoy more of it, we must at all costs do it safely and responsibly.
In May 1995, the New York City Council fought the Giuliani administration over draconian budget cuts which would affect our lives directly. The Democratic majority in the New York State Assembly took on New York State Governor George Pataki over cuts in social services and health care. You may not think these cuts will affect you, but they will, one way or another. I urge the Haitian community to get involved in fighting the city, state and federal budget cuts, to demand what is ours, to not settle for less; for we have worked hard to contribute to the economic success of this city, this state and this country. We may not have the chance to reap the benefits of our efforts, but our children will definitely reap the benefits; they will be able to attend city colleges and our elderly parents will be able to retire without worries.
Haitians are 500,000 strong in this city. We have the capacity to be heard. We must revisit the spirit of togetherness of April 20, 1990, to, once and for all, stop the bigotry, the stereotyping, and the humiliation that have been bestowed upon our hard working, caring and beloved brothers and sisters. The Haitian Coalition on AIDS at the HCC have been at the forefront of the fight against AIDS for the past several years. It provides case management for those infected with HIV and their family. It also has a prevention and education program. In addition, the Coalition has a housing project which started last Summer. More than ever, at this present time, participation is needed for the survival and success of this Coalition. M
Ronald Aubourg works with the Haitian Coalition on AIDS at the Haitian Centers Council in New York City.
(c) 1995 Haïti Progrès, Inc., reprinted by permission. Haïti Progrès, 1398 Flatbush Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11210, USA.