One year has passed since a Haitian national named Mesac Damas allegedly killed his wife and five children in Naples. Police say the couple had a history of domestic violence. The incident shook the Southwest Florida Haitian community - as Damas was one of their own. For the Healthy State Collaborative, WGCU's Farah Dosani reports on how it made them reflect on views within their culture that have allowed domestic violence to silently occur and escalate within the community.
“Marie” will never forget the day she almost lost her seven year-old daughter. It was June 8, 2003. At the time, she was still living in Broward County with her now ex-husband.
“He got upset and hit me while I was 8 months pregnant,” said Marie.
She drove herself to the hospital. Her head bruised, eyes swollen, and body aching – this was the worst he had ever beaten her. From that hospital bed, she thought about the lives of her unborn daughter, her 3 year-old son, and herself.
“Now it was my choice either to stay or get out,” said Marie. “So from that day on, from that moment that Saturday, June 8th I made that plan. I’m getting out and I’m going to get out alive.”
Three years later, with three bags and her car, Marie and her two kids fled to Southwest Florida to start a new life.
But she had taken her ex-husband’s abuse for 10 years before leaving him.
“At first I thought that well, he’s Haitian that’s how they all are,” said Marie. “You kind of accept it.”
Marie spent half her life in Haiti, where domestic violence is not illegal and most cases go unreported. The mentality often remains once Haitians immigrate to the United States.
“It’s a problem with the education and the culture,” said Patrick Massillon, president of the International Haitian Corporation of Southwest Florida. “The man was raised as the master, as the chief. In Haitian culture, corporal punishment is normal… To them, it is not a crime.”
“A lot of Haitian families that I spoke to reported to me that it’s been going on from fathers to fathers to fathers to fathers.”
But the issue often kept hidden.
Margarette Tropnas is executive director of ‘Dwa Fanm’, a Haitian women’s rights organization based in New York City. She says very few victims come forward, because the subject is taboo in the community.
“The one who’s the victimized is victimized a second time. Once they bring it in the open they get shunned by family members.”
But last year, the issue was pushed to the forefront after Haitian immigrant Mesac Damas allegedly killed his wife and five young kids in Naples.
The International Haitian Corporation of Southwest Florida’s Patrick Massillon says it was a wakeup call for the Haitian community.
“Right after the murder – the Damas killings… We feel there was a need to educate the community about domestic violence.”
So they started talking about it.
Massillon co-hosts the local Haitian radio show ‘l’Informateur’ or ‘The Informant’. His group, the International Haitian Corporation of Southwest Florida, partnered with the Naples Shelter for Abused Women and Children. Once a month, they have a representative from the Shelter speak about domestic violence and healthy families on the air.
But they knew the best way to reach the Haitian community was through the church.
“They actually look to the church for direction and advice – so the church has a potential to be very influential,” said Mercidieu Phillips, pastor of Agape Christian Fellowship, a predominantly Haitian church in Lehigh Acres. He addresses domestic violence from the pulpit head on.
But Phillips says many Haitian pastors encourage spouses to stay together, but don’t offer counseling or help. Others avoid the subject all together.
“The church must become proactive,” said Phillips. “Not necessarily reacting to the symptoms, but going with the causes – changing the mindset of our families that you don’t abuse another adult.”
Former victim Marie started going to Phillips’ church after she fled to Southwest Florida.
“She’s an example that someone can go through it and come out and not accept it as the norm,” said Phillips about Marie. “Because in our community it becomes almost the norm that – ‘Well, this happens every day so deal with it.’ And no, you shouldn’t have to deal with it.”
Four years have passed since Marie left her ex-husband. She has since re-married a man she met in Haiti – an attorney who helped her file for divorce. Although she had a bad experience, she stresses the importance of not generalizing.
“I did change my mind, because through it all I met someone and he was completely different – and he’s Haitian,” she said.
Marie still remains close to the issue, volunteering as a counselor at the ACT Abuse Shelter in Fort Myers. She says she doesn’t work with many Haitian women, because they don’t come forward.
But she’s not giving up on them.
Next year, Marie will be starting law school at Ave Maria and will be “helping those women either get out or stay in their marriage.”
She says none of them should have to accept domestic violence as the norm.