Striking a Blow for the Better

A Creole-language radio show breaks the silence surrounding domestic violence in Haitian homes

Danielle Romer doesn't normally speak on the air, but this Saturday evening Yves Fontaine, the regular host of the Creole-language talk show she produces on WKAT-AM (1360), is indisposed. So she finds herself sitting at the control board with a mike and a telephone. Her too-big earphones are uncomfortable, and she's distracted by an occasional audio glitch. But the telephone stays lit the whole hour, and Romer can't get to all the calls coming in from Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties.

The show, An Nou Koze (Let's Talk), is unique in the lively and vital world of Haitian radio in South Florida: It's the only program in Creole that deals exclusively with the topic of domestic violence. This week Romer is talking about how one spots signs of a tendency toward abuse or violence in a relationship. More than half the calls she's answering on the air come from men. And more than half of them are not happy that such a personal and explosive issue is being discussed publicly.

"I'm the man of the house," begins a fairly typical comment. "My wife is supposed to respect me. When I'm talking, she's supposed to sit down and listen to me. Our children have to respect me. That's what keeps our family together, and when you give out information like this it undermines the family unit."

Fontaine, who has showed up to help -- he can't speak owing to an inflamed vocal cord -- lifts his arms in exasperation at the caller's remarks. "Well, I think it's important for each of you to respect the other," Romer replies diplomatically. "The reason we have this show is to bring out as much information as possible so everyone can understand the different aspects of this problem, and that can help the family. Msi bokou pou opinyon-ou."

After a month of Saturdays on the air from 6:00 until 7:00 p.m., An Nou Koze is encountering an unexpectedly spirited response.

"We've been going into some very taboo areas," says the soft-spoken 39-year-old Romer, who came to Miami from Haiti twenty years ago. The mother of an eleven-year-old son, she works as a public service aide for the Metro-Dade Police Department and was recently honored by the county commission for her community activism: Among her other volunteer activities, she also serves on the advisory board for the Black Affairs Department of Metro-Dade's Community Affairs Office, and on the boards of the Mental Health Association of Dade County, Jackson Memorial Hospital's Rape Treatment Center, and the Homestead-based Haitian Organization of Women. "All the other [Haitian] radio shows are about politics or business or immigration," Romer goes on. "To tell the truth, I really didn't think we'd hear from that many people. At the beginning some people were telling us we wouldn't even be able to fill up a whole hour." Romer has already been invited to guest on other Creole radio talk shows.

The program is part of an education campaign by the Task Force on Domestic Violence in the Haitian Community, a three-year-old group that comprises representatives from Dade's law enforcement, social service, medical, and religious sectors. As chair of the task force's media subcommittee, Romer produces the radio show, but its format is a product of collaboration. The idea was born from discussions at task force meetings, during which the group's Haitian members made it clear that Creole radio should be a part of their educational effort.

Fontaine, a task force member and veteran radio show pro who cohosted a cable TV series about domestic violence and child abuse that Romer produced last year, agreed to host the radio venture. (The television series was called An Nou Koze too -- the same name Romer gave to the Creole-language hotline operated by the nonprofit referral and outreach organization she founded, Haitian Support Inc.) A $4000 grant from the Dade Community Foundation was enough to buy airtime on WKAT for a few months; a second grant application is pending.

"The Haitian population needed more opportunity for awareness and education about domestic violence issues," asserts task force co-chair Linda Dakis, an administrative judge in the domestic violence division of the Dade County courts. "So much of our information was written in English and Spanish, which didn't do the Haitian population any good."

The task force has been overseeing the translation into Creole of legal information and police and court paperwork such as restraining orders, but most activists feel that radio is the best way to reach Haitian immigrants in South Florida. Essentially a spoken idiom, Creole was not taught in local Haitian schools until recently; many immigrants arrive in this country illiterate.

Statistics show a relatively low incidence of domestic violence within the Haitian community. But the numbers are meaningless, task force members argue: Miami's Haitians are a marginalized population that does not interact with the legal system nearly to the degree that other ethnic groups do. Many Haitian women who aren't U.S. residents also fear deportation if they go to the authorities. "The people at the courthouse say there aren't that many Haitians who come in for [restraining orders]," says FIU sociology professor Betty Morrow, the other task force co-chair. "It's not because there isn't a lot of violence; it's that they don't know where to go or what to ask for. And the lack of immigration services is an issue to be dealt with too. Haitian women are doubly powerless, especially if they're convinced by their batterer they won't get a green card if they leave him." (A year-old amendment to the federal Violence Against Women Act does in fact allow married immigrant women to file separately for residency if they can prove abuse.)

Many of the women who call in to the radio show are victims of domestic abuse who have only barely begun to comprehend that what they've been experiencing is illegal and not, as they've been taught, a fact of life. "Yes!" exclaims one caller, after Romer has gone over several behaviors that usually escalate into future violence. "That's the way my husband was! If I had only known back at the beginning, maybe I wouldn't be in this situation now."

The calls that Romer can't get to on the air are answered anyway, after being routed to Haitian Support Inc. volunteers who are trained in monthly domestic violence workshops that are open to the public. "I get all kinds of calls after the show," reports Mia Pean, a hotline counselor who used to serve as an intake worker for the Dade County courts. "That's when you realize how much violence there is in the Haitian community. It is hidden, like incest -- you're not supposed to talk about it. In Haiti you have to keep your family together no matter what.

"One of the women who called me two weeks ago was suicidal and I've been calling her back every day," Pean goes on. "At one time this person had a spirit; she wanted to live. She was a victim from her first to her fourth husband. She's still with the last one because he's paying the rent, and she has two teenagers who she doesn't want to leave alone to go to work because they'll wind up like her.

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