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July 13, 2022

Movement Maker Profiles: Ninaj Raoul

Ninaj Raoul is a co-founder and community organizer at Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees (HWHR) in New York, an organization founded in 1992 to respond to the human needs of Haitian refugees and immigrants in the U.S. fleeing persecution.

Who are your people?

My people are Haitian people, who are descendants from Africa. My ancestors were bought over as slaves from Western and Central Africa, successfully fought the colonialists to overcome enslavement, and fought to gain freedom for all people and are still fighting that fight. The fight is eternal and the struggle is eternal, but I feel the presence of our ancestors every day. They give us strength to continue to resist, what I believe is the same fight.

What brings you to this work?

I don’t like to say it was accidental at all. I started out 30 years ago actually working at Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, which I co-founded, by responding to a situation with the Haitian refugees, which is pretty similar to the situation that’s going on now, except people were fleeing persecution mostly by boat. The first democratically elected president in Haiti, Jean Betrand Aristide was voted in by the majority, took office in 1991 and he was overthrown after seven months in power. The  United States and European imperialist countries were not happy with the election results, and the U.S. even sent a delegation to encourage him to drop out just before the election. There was a bloody military coup which overthrew him after being in office for 7 months.

They basically came after all his supporters. Killed 5,000 people in a short time, including many youth organizers. A lot of people had to flee by boat. They ended up in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They were intercepted by the US Coast Guard and taken to the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo (GTMO). I ended up going to work there as a linguist specialist, interpreting for credible fear interviews.

Prior to that, I was working in fashion editorial. I was living in New York and working in that world. Then having moved from Chicago to New York and learning so much more about my culture, having access to Haitian community media and learning what was going on politically in Haiti and a lot of the world, things that I didn’t know when I was in Chicago. I started visiting Haiti shortly before that, a few years before that as a young adult, and starting understanding what was going on politically, as far as the impacts from larger countries.

When I heard about the refugee situation, I wanted to get involved. My father was a retired physician and he had gone down to work in the refugee camp in GTMO. They told me about it and I ended up going and just leaving my fashion assignments hanging and went down there. Once I got down there, it was really hard to return to that world.

I interpreted four to five hundred credible fear interviews in a couple months time.

I heard firsthand of a lot of the injustices that were going on, not only that forced people to have to leave, but just the process that they were in at that moment. It wasn’t an option to return to the work that I was doing before. I couldn’t shut it off. I met the co-founder Lily Cerat down there too. She’s a Haitian woman from Brooklyn. She also was interpreting for the credible fear interviews as a Linguist Specialist. As an interpreter, you were in a position to be potentially  very helpful or possibly not be helpful, and in some cases harmful. This was my first lesson in Language Justice

I learned the impact of having good interpretation because it could have made a difference of whether or not you were going to be forcibly repatriated, and, possibly, being taken back to where you could be killed, or move on with Humanitarian Parole to the U.S. to be able to apply for asylum. There were interpreters that were not  helpful at all. They were just trying so hard to get a permanent job with the Justice Department at the time. That wasn’t the case with myself and Lily, our co-founder.

We ended up basically staying in touch with people, Haitian refugees that were going to continue on to the New York area. We gave them our contact information. When they came in, we received many calls and we started having meetings with them to response to the crisis that they wor facing. They had passed our number along to other refugees. We started getting lots of calls, and we started having meetings to strategize a community response. We began to address their issues, and we realized there wasn’t a place or an organization specifically dedicated to working for their rights of Haitian Refugees.

We hadn’t planned on starting an organization, but it just happened organically. Right away, we engaged in community organizing efforts because we realized that they were not being treated fairly as refugees in this country. They were being denied the most basic services that refugees are normally offered, really basic services for which they qualified. We started having meetings with them and together addressed one issue at a time, as one intersected with the other.

It developed into a hybrid organization that combines advocacy efforts, community organizing, popular education and direct services. We realized that that model always worked because people came in a crisis mode so they needed an emergency response. Through that emergency response, we always looked to what could be changed to fix the situation instead of going along with the flow of systems created to discriminate against Haitian Refugees.

That’s basically how the organization came to be. What I really appreciate about the experience is the language aspect of it because that was what really made the difference for folks. To this day, I still interpret. It’s a very important part of the work in our organization. We’ve done trainings around it to engage our folks in campaigns. We’ve been able to exchange with other communities who speak different languages and movements that have been essential, that we prioritize language justice in these cross-cultural organizing spaces, such as the Domestic Workers Rights Movement.

With our earlier language justice efforts, we engaged many of our Haitian women members in the Domestic Workers Rights Movement because that’s the work that they often would get as newly arrived immigrants. We were able to connect with groups from a Latino group, Philippino, Asian, African workers, and mostly English-speaking Caribbean workers and South Asian too. We all worked together to get a historical bill passed, a state bill on behalf of Domestic Workers Rights in New York with the leadership of Domestic Workers United. It was the first such law in the country.

That was in 2010. It was a powerful experience because you saw the power of language. In fact, we developed a project called Language is Power, where we trained young people to become interpreters for the domestic workers so that they could fully participate in the movement. It was beautiful because we recognized the similarities across cultures. We trained and involved non-traditional interpreters, because they were truly involved in a movement.

Language justice is still to today a very important and primary part of our work now. I have a lot of respect for interpreters and I love interpreting. IT is essential that we focus on language justice across all of our work.

What part of your movement work brings you the most joy?

I think, certainly, the outcomes of our organizing efforts, but more so than the outcomes, is the transformation of people in their situations; when you see members walk into our brave spaces, they feel the strength of one another and the revolution spirit of our ancestors.  They transform themselves and feel empowered and gain the confidence to change situations. We work with four different populations of undocumented folks.

One for undocumented youth, one for survivors of gender-based violence where it intersects with immigration. The other group that has developed are TPS holders, a committee made up of TPS holders that organize locally and participate in national self-advocacy efforts. The largest group now are asylum seekers, folks fleeing persecution, gang violence and some forced to migrate because of unjust pressures from the imperialist. Many are folks that have been coming over the US/Mexico border.

It’s been really challenging because of the decades of bad policy against Haitian refugees. What I love is that our organization intentionally stayed small. I feel like it made us a more personable space, and allowed us to stay true to our mission and not waiver off of it. I think there’s a lot of power in that. It allowed us to be prepared for the situation that we’re in now. I feel like we’ve gone full circle with the situation in Guantanamo in the detention camp where we first started.

Everything is the same. We see people in shackles being forcefully expelled, deported, repatriated, whatever you call it, seeing the families being separated in the early 1990s, as they are today. Everything is the same, but looking back, we have had great accomplishments over the decades. Such victories as where we’ve won Green Cards for 50,000 people at a time through the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act in 1998.

I feel as a small organization, it allowed us to stay directly on mission and make decisions that larger organizations can’t make because we d0n’t have the bureaucracy to deal with. We have been able to take action in a timely manner, and more importantly always prioritize leadership of directly impacted people. I feel like now, we’ve been able to get that to the point where our staff is made up of people like the TPS organizer who is a TPS holder.

Our Youth Immigrant Advocate was an undocumented youth himself who went through the same program that he’s offering to his peers. The folks running our healing justice spaces for survivors of gender-based violence are survivors themselves. It really makes a difference because: Who’s going to understand what you went through? Who are you going to trust? These are the people with whom you want to build power.

I think there’s a lot of power in that, and it allows people to understand that they can change their own situation. It really makes me happy to see. I got a call last week from one of the asylum seekers, he was asking me so many questions about how he can get involved in the work.  Today we engage folks in participatory research, so they can help shape campaign work from the ground up.

Another thing that has really made me happy was this past year, especially in the past six months, to see how refugees that came in just a few years ago are now hosting families that are coming in now. I’m talking specifically about people that have been coming in at the Southern U.S. border. That’s been happening in the past but in this recent decade it is especially essential, as the already harsh policies and practice towards Haitian refugees has become even more blatantly racist.

People that we worked with in 2016 that came from Brazil or South and Central America, now I see are hosting the new refugees that are coming in through Texas and Arizona. Because they just went through it, they’re in a really good place to guide them and help them adjust better. That’s something that I didn’t see as much when we first started 30 years ago. This is encouraging to see this mutual aid develop this way in our community. It’s also helpful to engage more people in the movement work as well.

What moves are you making to end violence?

I think it’s mainly the creation of these maroon spaces that I spoke about in these perspective healing justice circles. I think that it allows people to figure out how to fight their own fight instead of having to rely on service providers, how to better work with them, but really take the lead on your own case, and your own situation, and your own community, and not to rely on other folks as advocates of any kind. They can be your allies, or you know how to better utilize them in certain cases, but just to always know that you are the power for the change.

I think when we develop trauma-informed spaces and share stories, we learn from each others’ experiences. We learn from our peers. I always say that even as someone who’s leading an organization, when you’re offered technical assistance from these funders, sometimes from technocrats, I always say that I would rather be in a situation where some of our partner organizations are teaching us, where they know our struggles. We’re teaching each other now. It makes a world of a difference.

We’re going to be able to own our struggles and face our struggles and fight our struggles together. Most everybody that is walking into these spaces are traumatized at one level or another. I think our whole community is traumatized, and we’re dealing hundreds of years of inherited intergenerational trauma. I think once we’re in these spaces and we recognize that and hear from each other–it can be a painful experience initially, but at least it brings it up so you can deal with it, and you realize the strength in yourself to take charge. Then it gets really beautiful again when you see people engaging others that come in behind them as well.

How would you describe your leadership strengths?

I always say I’m a stepmother. I don’t have any children that I have pushed out, but I have many children that I’ve had in my life. As a stepmother, I used to joke to my stepson and my stepdaughter that if they would ask me for things that they wouldn’t get from their mom and dad, I’d say, “Hey I’m a stepmother. You got to know when to step in and you got to know when to step out.” [laughs]

I feel the same way about movement leadership. I think it’s a very important thing to be conscious of, not step in but step up. Stepping up but also stepping back is a really good strength to have especially when you’re engaging people that are directly impacted to be their own leader.

I think that’s the goal, is for people not to think that they’re going to be following, but to know that they’re a leader. I think it hurts our communities a lot when some folks think that we have to have one leader. I think stepping back is a huge skill to be able to have. I’ve been doing this work for 30 years since we founded Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, and I’m stepping down as director this year.

I’m in the leadership transition process right now. It’s a really good feeling to be able to go through this process. I’m thankful that MEV is supporting me through the process. I’m thankful that I’m a MEV movement maker during this time because I think that’s helping make it possible. At least there’s one smooth thing that’s going on in my life. It’s going quite smoothly, and I’m really excited about this transition process. I’m excited about stepping down and continuing to pave the way for future leaders as our ancestors did for us.  

What keeps you in the work?

It goes back to who our people are, the first question. This is not exclusive to Haitians, but I just happen to be Haitian, and so as a Haitian person, I think it’s a responsibility to build on the accomplishments of our ancestors. Our ancestors instilled in us revolutionary spirit with the Haitian revolution. The Haitian revolution is very much alive today. It’s not the kind of thing that you just win and it’s over. You always have to protect what you win. To me, protection is a huge part of our work.

If any gains we have, we have to protect them because anything you win can be taken away from you…anything! I think that’s one of the things that keep me going. The responsibility to constantly protect, preserve, whether it’s your victories or preserving your culture, your language in any way, by creating these spaces, maroon spaces that are culturally competent, language competent, gender competent. I think that it’s the constant protection that’s necessary for this eternal struggle that we’ve inherited.

I’m thankful to have ancestors that gave us the ability to be born with the revolutionary spirit. I speak to it from a Haitian perspective, but it’s that. The leaders of the Haitian revolution fought for freedom for all. They were for human rights for all. It wasn’t about certain people on a certain island. They put in their first declarations and it was for all people in the world.

That’s what the Haitian revolution represents to me. I feel the responsibility. I feel that our people are responsible to continue the fight.

In many ways, we have inherited a lot from both the Natives that were on the land before.  In my family, my mother’s side, has direct connection to some of the natives in the land of Haiti, but as well as all the great culture that we’ve inherited from Africa, that our people were kidnapped and brought over here. I think it’s a great privilege to have both. I always look at Natives approach when they’re doing things, and being mindful of generations to come. The care for the land, it’s very much part of the Haitian culture too.

The care for the land, the care for the water, the respect for the land and water, and air, fire, all the elements of nature. Again, that’s part of our responsibility, and it’s part of our fight to preserve and protect. It’s an endless battle. It’s an endless struggle. It’s an internal struggle. That’s what keeps me in it. There’s not a win that you can just walk away from and say the fight’s over.

I also feel responsible to pass that along to the younger folks. Actually, that’s big responsibility and that’s why I’m really intentional in this leadership transition process to have a young leader as a director. I think it’s really important. I’m really proud to see the progress of our  young staff members and soon we hope to have a young executive director. It’s the only way because I’ve seen great organizations in our community just close down and disappear.

We have enough erasure in our life.

I think that’s part of protecting things, making sure that it’s there forever for people to know about. We must tell our own stories and document them to combat erasure. One of the things that we’re doing this year for our 30th anniversary is, we’re releasing a report about resisting racism against Haitian refugees and immigrants in the US. This report really goes back to the revolution and everything that the US has been doing to interfere with that revolution because they still had slaves here, and feared such a revolt.

I think that’s important for young people who are inheriting all of the trauma, to be able to have some reference to know where it’s coming from because often times, their parents don’t want to talk about it because it’s so painful. You end up inheriting the trauma but nobody’s explaining it to you. I know that happens in many cultures. I think there is a responsibility, an ongoing responsibility. Part of the responsibility is to make sure that the work continues. That’s what keeps me in it.

I just see that throughout history, our people were in shackles, the separation of families that happened when they took us from Africa, and they made sure they separated and mixed our ancestors. It’s happening today. I remember when we started 30 years ago in Guantanamo, again, they were forcing and repatriating people on ships on Coast Guard cutters with chains on them, and separating families in the detentions and sending some away. There are so many parallels with the way we were taken, over 400 years ago, and stolen from Africa to what happened when I started doing this work and what’s going on today.

Again, they’re putting people on planes with chains around their wrists and their waist and their ankles to take them to Haiti and then separating the families in the process. That makes the point about how it’s continuous, the fight is continuous, and that the struggle is eternal. It’s hurtful, but it’s important for us to see that in history, it’s constant, and that the fight has to be constant.

Art by lizar_tistry