Haitian culture celebrated at inaugural Flag Day festival in Springfield park

‘When you’re in a new place and you see people open their arms to accept you, this is big.’

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Haitian music blasted through loudspeakers on Thursday as Haitian immigrants and other community members celebrated the country’s independence from France.

Food, art, music and live performances were held at the Veterans Park Amphitheater, starting at 1 p.m. Haitian Flag Day is celebrated on May 18, commemorating the country’s independence from France and the raising of its own flag on this day in 1803.

Harriett Joseph, a Haitian event planner, said several Haitian community members came together to organize the event which she hopes helped other Springfielders appreciate and learn about Haitian culture.

“The festival kind of thing that we (are) doing right now put people together — different kind of people, different country, so that’s my dream to always put them together and to do unity between us,” Joseph said.

Gilbert Fortil, owner of Haitian radio station New Diaspora Live, said the city encouraged him and others last month to work with them to put on the festival in order to invite people to appreciate Haitian culture. He estimated around 7,000 Haitian immigrants to live in the city.

“I’m glad ... that I have this chance to share our culture; that’s a really good opportunity for us,” Fortil said.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Laura Kovaleski, an artist whose mother is a Haitian immigrant, said she appreciated the opportunity to share her art at an event that “bridged the gap” between native U.S. citizens and Haiti immigrants.

Johnson Solomon, patient advocate and translator at Rocking Horse Community Health Center, said the health center brought their mobile health station to the event to show the community — Haitian and otherwise — that the organization is willing to go meet people who need medical aid.

Solomon said as a Haitian immigrant, he and others want Haitian Flag Day to become akin to Cinco de Mayo in Springfield, becoming a holiday people of many cultures celebrate. He said he believes next year’s event will be bigger and more widely attended after people who attended this year have spread the word.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

The city has accepted and celebrated the Haitian community since the start of its growth, and Solomon said he feels grateful for this.

“Everybody has come on board to help the community,” Solomon said. “When you’re in a new place and you see people open their arms to accept you, this is big. This is huge.”

Guerline Etienne, who owns business T-Guer Top Model, said she enjoyed building community and the opportunity for Haitians to remember from where they came. She sold clothing and jewelry — which she made herself — depicting the Haitian flag and country.

“It’s to be together; to come and dance and drink together,” Etienne said.

Kovaleski said she and her mother, who was here before the community began growing so rapidly, help Haitian immigrants with translation and other needs.

“For Haitians, a lot of their life has been crazy (with) being displaced from their own homes, and we all understand that being displaced is not (easy); it’s hard to leave your home,” Kovaleski said. “Coming here to Springfield gives an opportunity. It may not be home, but it opens all these different opportunities to them.”

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