She Left Haiti in the ‘80s — and Is Waiting for the Country to Have ‘A Success Story'

Florida state rep. Marie Woodson (D-101), a native of Haiti, talks about emigrating to the U.S. and what she sees in the future of her home country.

Marie Woodson lay down to pray one night in the 1980s and asked God if her parents truly cared about her.

They had sent her from Haiti to the U.S. to further her education and job opportunities, but she didn’t know many people besides family. She was still learning English. She missed home, in a rural area outside Port-au-Prince, and her mom’s cooking that would get the whole neighborhood coming over.

Her first meal in the U.S. was a burger her uncle bought her from Burger King; it did not compare. She was homesick and questioning her parents' decision.

“I said, ‘Did they really love me? Do they really care for me? They just sent me over here,'" Woodson said. "That's how sad I was.”

It would be some time before Woodson came to realize her parents' decision — “a decision that I really hated” — worked out for her.

“I was able to have a family. I was able to come here, go to school, have a job... build something,” Woodson said.

The interview took place weeks before Haiti was thrust into the national spotlight due to a crisis at the Texas border. Haitian migrants arrived after false social media posts spurred migration up through South America and Mexico. Through a decade of crises including multiple earthquakes and disease outbreaks and then the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, Haitians migrated away from home to find better work opportunities, safety and freedom from a government widely criticized as corrupt.

Migrating away from crises like an earthquake, many Haitian people made their way to South American countries like Brazil and Chile - but moved north as work dried up and misinformation about the U.S. border spread. Ali Noorani, head of the National Immigration Forum, explains.

While we might focus on Haiti the most when the worst news is happening, the issues that led to the Texas border incident stretch back years. To even before Woodson’s childhood.

Why Haitians leave the island

Woodson says it’s important to understand why people have left Haiti. For one, she wanted to get a better education in the U.S. Though she did have some good Haitian, Canadian and European teachers back home, many residents of the island cannot afford to attend the schools, which are mostly privately run.

“You did not find too many schools who had the good structure you needed.” 

Another related reason that causes people to leave is poverty. According to the World Bank, Haiti's poverty rate is about 60%.

Woodson remembers her neighbors owned just one pot to cook their meals.

"Even in the small city that we grew up [in], some kids could not afford to eat. Their parents couldn't afford to feed them."

She says that corruption is why Haiti has such a stark difference between haves and have-nots.

“When you look at the majority of those who did not have compared to those who had, it all comes back to the corruption...It’s a lot that would make a parent say, ‘OK, I don’t think you need to stay here.’”

In the past 10 years, Haiti has had to deal with two earthquakes, a Chikungunya virus outbreak, a cholera outbreak, COVID-19, and the assassination of President Jovenel Moise. When all that happens, some people will decide to migrate, says Haiti's former Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe. He says the nation needs investment to fix systemic issues around its infrastructure and public health.

“When you have corrupted leaders in office, all they do, everything goes into their pocket. They don't care about what's going on, about the school, the community, the infrastructure, what they need to put in in order for kids to succeed. … They take the money and build several houses or put the money in some foreign bank.”

Years after leaving, she still thinks about what she could have done for Haiti if she had stayed.

"If the country had offered me something, I would have been of service to my country, and maybe...I keep thinking of, if so many of us did not leave, maybe we could have been of service to Haiti and maybe the country would be a little bit better for us and for others.”

"And then again sometimes I go down that road, sometimes I say 'you know what, it wasn't your decision to make at the time. You and a few others couldn't help the country because you have too many other people who are corrupted.'”

Looking ahead

Woodson says for Haiti to change and have a bright future, the country needs to root out corruption. She recently visited the country along with U.S. officials and spoke to the interim Haitian Prime Minister, who pledged the same thing.

It’s not the first time she’s heard that.

“Haiti was the first Black independent nation in the hemisphere, to show how strong, how resilient my people are. So it hurts me a lot to see Haiti going through so much over and over, it's like we never catch a break. But I am optimistic that one day, Haiti will have a success story.”

“But we cannot just keep saying things and don't take action. I'm waiting now because we're supposed to have an election. Whoever is going to be president, they are going to have to step up...immediately. And it's going to take a long time. We can't expect a miracle overnight."