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The ties that bind

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Christy Gagne was born, curly-haired and plump as any Botticelli angel, a little after 11:00 pm, August 4th amidst a circle of women speaking three languages. Christy’s mother, Emmanuella, comes from Port-au-Prince, now a collapsed city where people live in tents above the rubble of their former homes. The hour the January earthquake struck, Emmanuella was about to take a nap with her two-year-old son. Mother and child escaped the building unharmed; but on that afternoon, Emmanuella’s expectations for a future in the Haitian capital crumbled along with the walls of her apartment.

A week later, she packed her bags, left her two small children in the care of her mother, and headed for her sister’s place in New York. Like many women coming to the US from countries in the South, Emmanuella, who had worked for the Haitian Ministry of Education, migrated as the family breadwinner. Her plan: Find employment in the US, then bring up her children.

But plans change. The conflicts in the Brooklyn studio, where Emmanuella, her sister, and her sister’s children lived, became intolerable. By mid-July, Emmanuella was homeless in Worcester, Mass. Her permit for a six-month stay in the US had expired. She could risk the trip back to the chaotic Haitian capital or she could stay here. She opted to stay.

The expired visa meant Emmanuella could not access the family shelters in Worcester; that required a welfare referral. Once born, the child in her womb would be considered a US citizen, eligible, along with the mother, for some services from welfare. Until then, all doors were closed. Even the Catholic home for women in crisis pregnancy refused her entry, a decision that deeply saddened the director. One of the home’s board members was anxious about the legal ramifications of harboring an undocumented woman.

So Emmanuella came to stay with us at the Saints Francis and Therese Catholic Worker, a house of hospitality for homeless men and women. We gave her the bed in the chapel, a small room adorned with Russian icons and a statue of a Haitian Mary carved from dark, hard wood. As the baby’s due date approached, the men on the second floor, all of whom are childless, became expectant. “Any news?” they kept asking.

The hospital room was noisy and crowded with women in that hour before Christy’s arrival. Two nurses, the attending doctor and a resident medical student milled around the bed where Emmanuella labored quietly. Beside her sat Immacula, a Haitian matron and mother of eight, and her 23-year old daughter. The women, who are the unpaid doulas (birth attendants) of a local Haitian Baptist church, had been at the hospital since the morning. They chatted on cell phones that rang constantly. A sitcom was on T.V. and above this din, the incessant, watery throbbing of the fetal monitor.

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“Can we sing?” I asked, irritated at the technology distracting us from the main event. I remembered reading news reports about Haitians singing during the days that following the earthquake. People sat in the middle of the road for fear their houses would continue to collapse, and sang. Entire neighborhoods erupted into song. “They were singing songs of solidarity,” wrote one aid worker. “They were singing songs of thanks and praise that they were still able to sing and be together.” I remembered too watching news footage of a woman pacing through her labor along a dusty, rubble-filled street. She had no fetal monitor, no option for anesthesia, just two female friends, who walked and sang beside her, to give her courage.

Immacula rose and began to sway. “What a Friend We have in Jesus,” she crooned in Kreole. Singing in French, the two of us launched into “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” followed by “Amazing Grace,” Immacula dragging out the last line “. . . was blind but now I see.” Emmanuella chimed in between contractions. Lifting her arm high above her head she whispered, “Jesus, Jesus.” Only once did I hear her say, “Shit.”

As the baby’s arrival approached, all the women in the room circled around the bed. “Come closer. Come closer,” Immacula beckoned to me. Women of different hues and histories, the boundaries between us disappeared in those minutes before Christy’s emergence.

“Pushpushpushpush. Now breathe!” we said in Kreole, French, and English. And then, Christy appeared, with a head full of hair and rings of fat around her tiny wrists.
“Merci, merci infinitement,” her mother said to every woman in the room. She was still gushing thanks when I left a half hour later.

During the week following Christy’s birth, The Boston Globe reported on the living conditions for Haitian earthquake refugees crammed beneath makeshift tents in St. Thomas Park, Port-au-Prince. Water was scarce and fights over its distribution frequent. Rats nibbled on toddlers. One woman admitted to brushing her teeth with charcoal. Thank God, Christy was born here, I thought.

But it was US immigration policy, not Haiti that dominated the news. “Whom should we include as citizens or 'legals'? Whom should we exclude?” everyone was asking. The questions, which still persist, reflected an understandable anxiety over the country’s high unemployment rate and over-taxed social services. An Aug. 10, op-ed that appeared in our local daily, advocated for granting US citizenship to the 10 million people living here “sans legal status,” on the condition they earned it. The requirements: Boot camp and a year in the military for men and women of appropriate age and qualification. Eighteen months community service for those aged 50, and under, who were “unsuitable” for military commitment.

The author, sociologist Silvio Lacetti, regarded citizenship in our “republic” as a great good, offering privileges and freedoms that had to be defended with fortified borders and battles (that those battles might require bombing people who want freedom just as much as we do, did not seem to occur to him). Dispense this good casually, he suggested, and civic pride and responsibility in America will collapse.

Still in the glow of Christy’s birth, I read Mr. Lacetti’s words with bemusement. The communion of citizenship is more complicated than he described. Its bonds can quickly grow thin. Writer and activist Alice Walker makes this point in an essay written days after the Israeli raid on the flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza in which nine activists were killed, dozens wounded, and hundreds illegally detained. The essay, which specifically addresses our government’s indifference to the fate of these humanitarians, is a reflection on the capriciousness of State protection and the ties that truly preserve us.

The essay’s title, “You will have no protection” are the words civil rights activist Medgar Evers spoke to fellow activists shortly before he was assassinated June 12, 1963. Evers, an American-born man, who fought on the battlefields of France, was gunned down in his carport carrying a box of t-shirts that read “Jim Crow Must Go.”

“Nothing protected Medgar,” Walker writes, “nor will anything protect any of us; nothing but our love for ourselves and for others whom we recognize unfailingly as also ourselves. Nothing can protect us but our lives. How we have lived them; what battles, with love and compassion our only shield, we have engaged.” And, I would add, the births we have shared.

Walker recognizes it can be “a shock” to realize that in “the ultimate crisis of existence our government is not there for us.” Yet once this illusion is unmasked, there are richer communions to be had.

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