When Joel Jean-Francois was 11 or 12 years old, he climbed into a boat in Haiti with his parents, his brother and sister. The family hoped to make it to America and its promise of a better life than the one they desperately wanted to leave behind.

The boat, setting out from one of the most troubled countries in the Western Hemisphere, overflowed with 505 people. He remembers the exact number. The goal was to motor north around the eastern end of Cuba, then north and west towards the Florida Keys.

Somewhere between Haiti and Cuba, the boat capsized.

Today, many years later, he can’t remember how many died. But he does know his parents, his brother and sister all drowned. Their bodies were never recovered. He survived because “someone held on to me and put me up onto the side of the boat.”

Mr. Jean-Francois is now 49. He told the story of his parents’ and siblings’ deaths as he sat in a pew in the quiet sanctuary of Mattituck Presbyterian Church, known to its congregation as MPC. Seated nearby was his friend Rory MacNish, an MPC member who has taken several trips to Haiti as part of the church’s longstanding mission in the Caribbean country.

As part of his self-improvement program, Mr. Jean-Francois is taking English lessons with a tutor at Cutchogue New Suffolk Free Library. He raves about the library, its staff and his tutor, Linda Commender.

“They are the best people,” he said. “I am so lucky to be here.”

Mr. Jean-Francois struggles explaining his life story in English: How he got here, how his wife and three children remain in a small town in Haiti subject to gang violence and acute food shortages, how he hopes to get them to safety in America. He is here on a two-year visa. His second year will be up next March. What will happen then? He doesn’t know.

Heavily armed gangs patrol the streets of Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, which now has a barely functioning government after decades of poverty and political instability.

In March, the U.S. State Department issued a level four travel advisory, warning Americans not to travel to Haiti and those currently in the country to leave immediately — if they can. The airport in the capital has been overwhelmed by gangs; the road to neighboring Dominican Republic is controlled by gangs as well.

Mr. Jean-Francois cannot return to his family now even if he wanted to. Nor can they get out. He watches developments in his homeland from the safety of the North Fork. His wife and children — aged 12, 10 and 2 — are forever on his mind.On weekdays he lives with an elderly man in Southold for whom he serves as a caretaker. On weekends he stays with his sponsors, Mark DeSantis and his family, at their home in New Suffolk.

“I have been Joel’s friend for 20 years,” Mr. DeSantis said. “We have not been to Haiti for about five years because of all the turmoil. We sponsored him under a special US government program. He’s been with us a year and has a year to go. The plan is to get him a green card.

“Haiti is beyond repair for a small group to fix,” he added. “But we want to make a difference in people’s lives the best we can.”

Longtime friends Joel Jean-Francios and Rory MacNish outside Mattituck Presbyterian Church. (Steve Wick photo)

With help from Mr. MacNish seated in a pew next to him, Mr. Jean-Francois explains as best he can the complex story of Haiti’s history, his Haitian Creole dialect reflecting its origins in contact between French colonizers and the Africans they enslaved and shipped to the island, then known as St. Domingue, to work on sugar plantations. With a smile, he tells the story of his homeland and his hopes for his family’s future.


To explain how Mr. Jean-Francois got here it is necessary to begin four decades ago, when MPC’s pastor was the Rev. George Gaffga. He retired from the church in 2013 and today lives in Pennsylvania. Mr. Jean-Francois’s story is very much the story of a church, a pastor and a congregation who wanted to put the teachings of the Gospels — “When I was hungry, you fed me …” — into practice.

In 1984, a walk for hunger was held in Mattituck, the Rev. Gaffga recalled. “Someone said to me, ‘Do you know if the money raised actually gets to where it should?’ The effort was for Haiti, so I decided to go and see for myself. That trip changed me, changed members of the congregation, and started our mission in Haiti that is still ongoing and strong. I couldn’t be more proud of it.”

He began working with different service groups in Haiti and “got to see a lot of good things being done,” he said. “The next year I went with my son, who was 8. We went to the island of LaGonave.” This is the island — between the north and south forks of Haiti — where Mr. Jean-Francois is from and where his family lives today.

“The poverty and the conditions are desperate and always have been,” the Rev. Gaffga said. “The people are genuinely wonderful. They work hard. We worked in partnership with Christians down there on that island. We developed friendships. I got to meet people we’ve known for 40 years. Five years ago I went back and presided over the funeral of a friend.

“Being there increased my faith,” he added. “These people are in difficult circumstances and their faith is strong. A young guy there one time asked some Americans, ‘How come you have a different God than we do? Yours takes care of you and ours doesn’t.’” Over the 40 years since that first trip, MPC has helped raise more than $1 million for Haiti and LaGonave. Members of the congregation — such as Tom Christiansen, who has learned to speak Haitian Creole, Mattituck dentist Gregory Doroski, and Southold optometrist Jeff Williams — have gone to Haiti multiple times to perform critical services.

“I started going to Haiti in 1991,” said Mr. Christiansen, who lives with his wife, Beverly, in New Suffolk. “By that time, George had made important contacts with groups there. We began raising and sending money to Christian groups for agricultural programs.

“We started a scholarship program through the church as well,” he said. “We split our efforts between the mainland and LaGonave. Pretty much every year we sent a team. I have been there 30 times. Like George, who brought two of his children, I’ve taken both my children, too.”

MPC sponsored Mr. Jean-Francois to come to America with the goal of getting his family out. But recent events in Haiti have put that goal in jeopardy.

“The crime, the murders and food shortages are getting worse,” Mr. Christiansen said.“The goal was to get him out, get him established here and then get the rest of the family out of there. That island is very poor. Most don’t have running water or electricity. A boat bringing food sank. Thousands of bags of rice were lost or stolen.”

Seated in a pew at the church, the afternoon sun beaming through the windows, Mr. Jean-Francois said the house where his family is living on LaGonave is now occupied by as many as 15 people who have fled the gangs elsewhere. He talks to his wife nearly every day and sends them money.

He gushes about the church and its members, who for four decades have stayed focused on Haiti. “I love this church,” he said. “They have done so much. And I love America.”

As he and Mr. MacNish walked to their truck outside the church, Mr. Jean-Francois broke into a chant in English: “I am very thankful. I am very thankful.”

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