For many Caribbean nations, the Southeast U.S. is home to large diaspora populations who carry the cultural banner of their home islands and stay connected even after settling down here.
But the hardships of the last few years — and especially the shared experience of the COVID-19 pandemic — have made it all the more essential to send help home.
Diplomats have since been working to better structure the ways they tap into diaspora communities as resources for recovery, four female consuls told Global Atlanta March 31 during a special Women’s History Month edition of the Consular Conversations interview series sponsored by Miller & Martin PLLC.
The Haitian population in Georgia has ballooned since the earthquake of 2010 devastated the country. More than a decade later, the consulate that set up to serve Haitians resettled here counts 80,000 people of Haitian heritage in the state alone, including Haitian-Americans. That number could be revealed as even higher once the results of the 2020 Census are revealed.
Roudelyne Nogar Jean, who in 2020 was elevated to the position of Haitian consul general in Atlanta, said her job in recent months has been focused mostly on care for the diaspora.
“It’s a pretty big community, so the job was not so easy with the pandemic, but we are doing our best to stay connected,” she said.
Tourism has been nearly non-existent in Haiti, given global travel restrictions, trimmed flight schedules and the political turmoil that has engulfed the country early this year, but Ms. Jean is holding out hope that 2021 will bring economic recovery. (Soon after the event, she hosted a visit by Haiti’s new ambassador to the United States, who updated the community on a recent referendum on a new Haitian constitution.)
In the Bahamas, tourism was slammed temporarily as the prime minister made the “bold move” to close borders to prevent health infrastructure from being overrun, said Astra Armbrister-Rolle, the country’s Atlanta-based consul general for the Southeast. But it paid off in the long run.
“Today, we can see the very stark economic impact that’s had on us with having the tourism industry shut down completely. But conversely, we’ve seen our numbers of the infection rates go down, we’ve been able to open our borders,” Ms. Armbrister-Rolle said.
This time around, the Bahamas consulate, which covers 10 states including Georgia, deployed lessons learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian in September 2019. The community responded with an outpouring of financial support and in-kind donations, but its generosity created a distribution challenge. The Atlanta consulate learned that working with its closer counterpart in Miami could smooth the movement of goods back home. And prior outreach to students — the largest concentration of Bahamians in the region — was particularly helpful when the pandemic hit.
“We have not seen the interest in assisting the Bahamas decrease. What we have seen is that we gotten a little bit smarter about how to make the help that people want to give effective,” Ms. Armbrister-Rolle said.
For Marva Jacobs, honorary consul of Guyana in Georgia, the pandemic’s effect could be felt much more acutely in local interactions. Ms. Jacobs, a career educator and counselor, saw how lockdowns and school closures exacerbated the challenges already faced by families with fewer resources — especially those that lacked technology to learn from home.
Her consular office was closed from March to July of last year and has been inundated by those in need of diplomatic assistance since.
“I came back out and I’ve been flooded every day,” Ms. Jacobs said.
Guyana is not an island, but sits on the coast of northern South America, bordering Venezuela to the east and Brazil to the north. It has one of the lowest population densities in the world, with just over 800,000 inhabitants of mixed ancestry within a landmass larger than Belarus. That makes it attractive to adventure travelers.
With Exxon Mobil’s first well reaching capacity recently, oil production is set to create substantial new wealth, but the country’s future is clouded by its own political challenges.
Business is on the agenda for Elaine Grant-Bryan, the honorary consul of Jamaica in Georgia. Since the visit of Prime Minister Andrew Holness in 2019, the country has paid closer attention to Georgia, focusing keenly on technology and agricultural trade.
“Our main produce would be mangoes, papayas, kiwis, avocados and vegetables. We are very interested in in getting more information from Georgia to see what are the best agricultural products that you’d like us to export to Jamaica,” Ms. Grant-Bryan said. She pointed those interested in Jamaican trade and investment to the Jampro, the country’s trade promotion authority.
But the honorary consul, a realtor and entrepreneur herself, also outlined ways that the community has united around the stories of some of the earliest Jamaican immigrants to Georgia, leading the way for a community she said now stands at 100,000 people. The first dialogue with “Jamaican Pioneers” is available on Facebook.
“Because of the pandemic, we made it our mission to seek out these Jamaicans who would normally be isolated, and they have a lot to offer,” she said.
For Ms. Armbrister-Rolle, the Bahamian consul general, it has been a fascinating time to represent countries with such strong links to the Southern United States, not only commercially but also through a shared history and culture.
Black-majority countries like those represented on the panel have a particularly stake in the racial reckoning happening in the United States after the killing of George Floyd, she said, noting that the community held its own internal discussions when riots broke out in Atlanta.
“A lot of people were upset, and they had these very deep rooted feelings that we wanted to talk through and work through with them,” she said.
Being in Georgia, the center of the political universe for the 2020 presidential elections and subsequent runoffs, has been instructive for the consul general, who has had a front-row seat to the challenges women and minorities face since she arrived in 2017.
“The common phrase in the Bahamas is when America sneezes, we catch a cold. And so we watch very, very closely the things that happen in the United States. And we have such very rooted ties that when people hurt in the United States, we hurt in the Bahamas.”
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