American Try

A Haitian transplant struggles to make life easier for his fellow immigrants.

By Kia Gregory
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 4, 2006

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Front and Center: Emmanuel Polection (clockwise from bottom left), Maurine McFarlane, Alain Joinville and Rachelle Martinez help the Haitian community.

Sitting in the homework help room of the Haitian Community Help Center, Emmanuel Polection apologizes for the chill in the air. The Center is a neatly converted storefront in East Germantown, and its furnace recently died, making the space heater in Polection's upstairs office the building's only source of heat.

Polection can't say when the furnace will be fixed because there are so many other needs competing for the Center's limited funds, among them hiring dedicated staffers, replacing stolen computers, buying a school bus, developing more programs and services to support a growing immigrant community, and paying the Center's mortgage on time.

"Name the problem, we have it," Polection, 42, says with a wry chuckle. "Name the bill, and it's past due. But we just do the best we can with the little we have."

Sustained grant money is hard to come by, especially for a nascent nonprofit. That's why Polection and his staffers have high hopes for the Sixers' Haitian Night planned for Jan. 20. That night the Philadelphia 76ers face the Memphis Grizzlies, and for every $25 ticket that's purchased through the Center, the organization gets $5.

Polection, a short affable man whom one staffer calls "a good-hearted Napoleon," founded the Haitian Community Help Center about two years ago. Back then the building on East Chelten Avenue was a dollar store, and Polection, who emigrated from Haiti in 1987, was its owner. Day after day, Polection says members of the Haitian community would come into the store asking him questions and pleading for support.

Emmanuel, do you know where I can find a lawyer?

Emmanuel, why is PECO sending me this letter?

Emmanuel, my children are having trouble in school. What should I do?

There are some 60,000 Haitians and Haitian-Americans living in Philadelphia, a tiny constituency in a city of more than 1 million. The community's limited size results in a lack of city-provided services. Polection identifies its biggest immediate problems as the language barrier, tangled immigration policy and high unemployment.

Back when he owned the dollar store, Polection was earning his master's in social administration at Chestnut Hill College. One day, while standing behind the counter after fielding endless questions, he promised himself that after graduation, he'd do something for the community.

"I have a vision," Polection says in his thick melodic accent. "We're building something that will really help the community. It's not just a little Haitian Center. This place will be very huge in the near future."

Since the Haitian Community Help Center opened its doors in October 2003, Polection and his staff of about 10 volunteers have helped more than 4,320 people with immigration counseling, job placement, document translation, after-school tutoring, legal services and computer, GED and English classes, as well as mentoring services.

About half the Center's funding comes out of Polection's own pocket, which has resulted in mounting personal debt. But he still talks of expanding the Center's services to address a growing concern: depression within the Haitian community, which he links to high unemployment rates, culture shock and a strong sense of ethnic pride-which, Polection jokes, is the only good thing the French gave to Haiti.

Desk job: Polection hopes to expand the Center's tiny computer lab.
One client left Haiti as a doctor and now works as a dishwasher. Another-a former dentist-works at an airport counter. Yet many Haitian professionals are flat-out unemployed. One mother worries her children are becoming too Americanized, and conspire against her by speaking English. And many Haitian students are frustrated by constant teasing and failing grades, like the eighth-grader who reads on a first-grade level.

There are also problems of drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and HIV/AIDS, which is why Polection next wants to create a mental and behavioral health program.

But for now the Center struggles to stretch its limited funding to reach its short-term goals. Aside from meeting day-to-day needs, in February the Center will host a forum where clients can meet one-on-one with an immigration lawyer, and next summer it'll sponsor the second annual Haitian Unity Day.

Although the 76ers fundraiser offers promise, Polection still worries. He worries whether his dedicated volunteers will burn out. He worries about the mounting bills. He worries that the money raised from that night has already been spent.

Yet Polection remains hopeful. He believes in the Center's work.

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