When Georges Bossous Jr. opened a WhatsApp group chat last Wednesday morning, he felt a whirlwind of emotions.
“I was surprised, in shock, in awe, disturbed,” the Haitian American said.
He learned that Haitian President Jovenel Moïse had been assassinated in his home in Port-au-Prince. The brazen attack also wounded the first lady Martine Moïse, who was later flown to Miami for medical treatment.
Bossous, 47, grew up in Limbe, Haiti, and came to the United States when he was 21. A psychotherapist, he is the executive director of the nonprofit group Word and Action and the Haitian American Leadership Initiative in Orlando.
He said that while Moïse had faced heavy criticism, the assassination in his home was unexpected. “It tells us a lot about the security level of the country,” Bossous said.
Moïse, 53, was elected in 2016 and took office in February 2017. Protests broke out in 2019 calling for his resignation due to allegations he and other government officials had embezzled money intended for social initiatives. He denied the allegations, yet the turmoil in Haiti continued.
The rates of gang violence, kidnappings, murder and economic insecurity have risen tremendously in recent months.
Many Haitian Americans say they are concerned about the safety of their families back home. Bossous said many people, including his own mother, have become displaced by the instability in Haiti.
“They cannot live in their homes and the government hasn’t been helping,” he said.
Moïse refused to step down in February when his term ended. The terms of Haiti's presidents begin when they are elected rather than when they are sworn in. Moïse was threatening to amend the Constitution to give himself more power.
“There were a lot of people for him and against him,” Rochilda Fevrius, 20, said. “I was shocked, but not really shocked. ”
A college student from South Florida, she immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti at 7 years of age with her immediate family, but has relatives living in the Caribbean nation.
“In one city where one of my aunts lives, it’s been barricaded," she said. “No one can go in and no one can go out.”
Fevrius later confirmed her relatives are safe to her parents’ knowledge, but there's a sense of uncertainty about the future.
Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph will preside over the country until elections begin in September. Though Haiti will be under a new leadership, Fevrius suspects one election will not suffice.
“It’s kind of like putting a Band-Aid on a large wound,” she said. “I would like to see a renewed and refined government for the people, and when I say for the people — that’s for everyone.”
Ave Leone, 19, said the news coverage has been overwhelming. “It’s weird to see Haiti placed in the spotlight so poorly,” she said.
A first-generation Haitian American college student, she finds that the news media typically reports on Haiti only when tragedies strike.
“It’s always referred to especially in times like these as the poorest country in the world when larger Western nations are the reason we’re poor to begin with," Leone said.
Haiti was a colony of France before gaining independence in 1804. The U.S. has occupied Haiti at other points in time, including for two decades after the killing of President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam in 1915, and again amid a military coup in the 1990s.
Today, Haitians point to the number of refugees from that country who have been turned away from the U.S. while attempting to seek asylum in the last year.
Melissa Lucien, 23, came from Haiti to the U.S. six years ago to attend university.
A motivational speaker, writer and the reigning Miss Haiti Florida, Lucien said that when she left Haiti, things were far from perfect, but now its state appears grim.
"This was the wake-up call that things are that bad," she said. "A lot of people don't know the reality of Haiti."
When Lucien last visited her home country in December, she found insecurity to be heavily prevalent.
“I had friends that go to school in Haiti and it hurts me when they called telling me that they have to go to school, but they have no idea if they’re going to make it back home," she said.
But, she said, her love for her native land will always outweigh the tribulations that surround it. Haiti may be a low-income country, she said, but the pride Haitians have for it is abundant.
Lucien said she will continue to visit Haiti and possibly live there again when she is ready to help create change in the country.
“My hope is that something positive will somehow come out of this for the country.” she added, “How? I really don’t know, I wish I did. But I'll remain optimistic that something will happen.”