Starting from scratch: A Haitian journalist exiled in the U.S.

I arrived in New York in April 2003. It was cold.

The streets of Brooklyn seemed too wide to me and the buildings huge. The number 3 train would pass over and over again like a luminous monster. From the window of my apartment, I would watch this train go by. I would also watch people walk without speaking to one another. My days were monotonous and nightmares invaded my nights. I recalled vividly how in Haiti my family and I were threatened with death several times, culminating in an evening when unidentified gunmen targeted my house. In the days after that, they assaulted and attacked other journalists working for the same media outlet as me. Such heinous acts haunted my dreams.

I went into exile.

I hid, leaving my family without any resources. I left behind tragic memories of three colleagues murdered by cowardly killers who feared neither God nor man. One of these victims, Jean Dominique, Haiti’s most famous journalist, was the director and owner of Radio Haiti Inter, where I worked as a journalist for more than 15 years.

In April 2003, I became a journalist without an outlet as I joined the ranks of the exiled. I was forced to abandon a 20-year career.

A fellow journalist wisely advised me to learn to live again—from scratch. In this unknown world, I felt that I was a nobody. My new host country seemed too large, and starting from scratch would mean going to the bottom. My first job in New York consisted of preparing flowers to plant in gardens. I earned minimum wage.

Yet, I preferred this new job to attending English classes for immigrants three times a week. Studying while my mind was paralyzed by other daily concerns was impossible. However, English was essential to be able to work as a security guard in a store in Downtown Brooklyn. So, I decided to start the classes again, and this time for real. My teacher, who was from Kentucky, encouraged me by repeatedly telling me that it was an essential step for my new life.

It took me four years to officially become a legal alien in New York. Four years of anonymity, great strain, and sometimes being on the verge of depression. Living in exile was a daily struggle, fighting against myself and against the fact that I was being denied acceptance.

I experimented with different types of jobs: gardener, newspaper deliveryman, security guard, and child caretaker. Imagination for survival became second nature to me.

Today, I have resumed a career that exile might have ruined, and I really feel happy to be able work in the field of journalism and media support. Once more, I feel useful being able to help other journalists in difficult situations in a country like Haiti, where press freedom and journalists’ rights are essential for advancing democracy.

Jean Roland Chery is a Haitian journalist who has lived in the United States for seven years. He worked with CPJ as a consultant for our relief efforts in response to the Haitian earthquake and recently returned to Haiti to work on a project for International Media Support.