Haitian refugee finds shelter, safety at local church

Photo by Daniel Jackovino
Sarah Exantus at the Brookdale Reformed Church mission house.

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — The rescue of a woman from her native Haiti, through the Dominican Republic, to Bloomfield, was recently undertaken by the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth, Convent Station, and the Congregational Church of Montclair.

The woman, Sarah Exantus, had to escape after she refused to steal for gang members who threatened her.
She is temporarily living in the mission house of the Brookdale Reformed Church. Deacon Sally Thompson said this is not the first time the house has provided shelter.

“We’ve had refugees and a number of people in between housing,” Thompson said. “Sarah is definitely a refugee who left Haiti out of fear for her life.”
The mission house was formerly the church parsonage and vacant until a water pipe broke. According to Thompson, this led to a restoration and the decision to use the dwelling as a way station.

Exantus was born in Port-au-Prince, the oldest of four children, with two brothers and a sister. She is the only one in her family who speaks English, having learned it by listening to American music. She can be seen singing on YouTube.

“I used my background to share positive, political messages,” she said at the mission house. “How I see politicians and I sing about them. I see their actions.”

Exantus’s parents were street peddlers. Nonetheless, one brother is a medical doctor, the other is a chef. Her sister is a teacher. From 2012-16, Exantus studied law at the State University of Haiti and, in 2018, journalism at the Haitian Center of Communications. She worked as a radio script writer and broadcaster.

According to a United Nations news account, Haiti is unraveling. UN Special Representative Maria Isabel Salvador told the Security Council last Wednesday, April 26, that insecurity in Haiti is unprecedented with growing concerns that it may affect neighboring countries.

“Salvador told ambassadors that the horrific violence in gang-ridden area, including sexual violence particularly targeting women and girls, is emblematic of the terror afflicting much of the population,” stated the UN website. “During the first quarter of the year, 1,647 criminal incidents, homicides, rapes, kidnapping and lynchings, were recorded according to the Haitian National Police and UN mission in the country.”

But Exantus said she uses her background to share positive political messages.
“We are tired, my population, and upset,” she said, repeating the word “fire” while gesturing with cupped hands, as if she were holding fire, while moving her hands along the table top to express how all Haiti is troubled. “My English isn’t very good.”

Exantus said the opposition to Haiti President Jovenel Moise paralyzed the country in an attempt to force his departure.

“The population suffered,” she said. “We stayed hungry and in fear. The opposition families don’t live in Haiti. They live in Canada and the United States.”
Moise was assassinated July 7, 2021. According to a BBC news account, a group of Colombian mercenaries perpetrated a plot suspected of being planned by Christian Emmanuel Sanon, a Haitian doctor living in Florida. Sanon has been arrested. The UN said interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph would lead the country until elections this year.

“When I see the children grow without hope, I write a song,” Exantus said.
She spoke lyrics she wrote: “Who will work for the children/Who will fight for the children/I see the country not look at them/Who will take charge for the children?”
“My music gives a lot of questions,” she said.

Exantus worked for two Catholic relief services in Haiti. With one, she managed children and youth programs, and food distribution. With the second, Sisters of Charity, she directed women’s programs. The offices of both organizations were repeatedly ransacked by gang members.
“The Sisters of Charity built, in Port-au-Prince, a school and urgent care,” she said. “There was armed robbery, everything was stolen, medicines and a car.”

Her life was in danger when she distributed food. She was threatened with kidnapping and death if she did not give the gang food.

“Not only for food, but for money,” she said. “They came face to face with me and said they’d kidnap me. They are a group and I am a woman and they made me scared, but I faced them.”
She told gang members she would buy them food, or they could work for it, or ask the priest.
“But they wanted to make me scared like a woman,” she said, and they wanted her to be a thief like them.

“They would never give me the possibility to make me ugly,” Exantus said. “I will not be a masquerade. They have a life like I have, but they choose a way to find life easier. I went to school hungry, on foot, because I don’t have the transportation and God gave me the strength to finish school. When I want to help people, I will give you money and food, but also the words of my choices.”

She is not writing children’s songs yet, she said, but does not want to be idle.
“I’m learning a little sewing,” she said. “It is a knowledge. I’m waiting for my work papers and start a new life. It is the case for me.”