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Long Island

Move from Haiti to LI can't cut family ties

Parishioners pray for earthquake victims in Haiti before

Parishioners pray for earthquake victims in Haiti before a Creole-language Mass at St. Anne's Roman Catholic Church in Brentwood. (Jan. 13, 2009) Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Long Island is home to Haitian communities marked by economic and social diversity, and an intimate connection to the Caribbean homeland devastated by Tuesday's massive earthquake.

Over the past four decades, Haitians here have sunk deep, broad roots, which the 7.0-magnitude quake brought into sharp relief.

"People talk with family back in Haiti on a daily basis," said Maryse Emannuel-Garcy, who moved to Long Island in 1979 and founded the Haitian American Family on Long Island, a service organization. "The connection is ongoing and real," she said. "People here are affected by the earthquake directly."

>> PHOTOS: Frantic rescue effort in Haiti | Deadliest recent earthquakes

At a Hempstead radio station Wednesday, Acelus Etienne, his voice edged with concern, provided a stream of updates on the earthquake's devastation.

In a Westbury real estate office, owner Jean-Marie Wolff spoke to fellow Haitian businesspeople on how they could respond to the tragedy back home.

In a Brightwaters medical office, Dr. Daniel Faustin divided his day between commiserating with his Haitian patients, speaking with colleagues in Port-au-Prince, and participating in a White House conference call on Haitian relief efforts.

The trio are examples of the ties Long Island shares with Haiti, both through economically established families that began settling here in the 1970s, and lesser-skilled newcomers who sometimes only speak the island's Creole patois.

The influence of the estimated 35,000 people of Haitian descent living on Long Island - and perhaps twice that number living along the Queens border - is manifold.

In the Westbury school system, where children of Haitian descent make up about 15 percent of students, four faculty members can speak Creole, said Principal Manny Arias. The Diocese of Rockville Centre has assigned Creole-speaking priests to churches from Elmont to Brentwood.

Doctors and business owners add to the economies of many of Long Island's villages.

Home buyers help stabilize neighborhoods that were among America's first suburbs.

And the influx of Haitian immigrants is boosting the ranks of Long Island's black population while simultaneously helping to define the region's black American experience.

"They are having profound influences in certain pockets," said Lawrence Levy, director of Hofstra University's National Center for Suburban Studies. "The big difference now is many of them moved directly to the Island without first stopping in the city and acculturating there."

Yet the connections Haitians maintain to the Caribbean island remain deeply felt.

They continue to shape the life of people like Wolff, 64. He came to the area in 1970 - not long after his father was killed by thugs linked to former Haitian dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier - and now invests in commercial projects back in Haiti.

"I never realized how attached I was to the land until this happened," Wolff said.

"The presidential palace has been destroyed, the cathedral has been destroyed," he said. "These are landmarks I have known since I was a youngster."

>> PHOTOS: Frantic rescue effort in Haiti | Deadliest recent earthquakes

>> LIVE: Twitter coverage of the scene in Haiti, from aid agencies, and reaction worldwide

>> VIDEOS: Latest videos from Haiti and on LI

>> MORE: Read more about LIers grieving and LI's efforts to help | Latest news from Haiti


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