Mayor Walsh connects with the Haitian community

Mayor Martin Walsh, center, led the Haitian Unity Parade on Sunday. The mayor met with a group of 250 Haitian community members in a forum held on Monday in Dorchester. Jeremiah Robinson/Mayor’s Office photo

After presiding over Sunday’s annual Haitian Unity Parade on Blue Hill Avenue, Mayor Martin Walsh made good on a campaign promise on Monday evening, appearing before a large gathering of Haitian community members for a wide-ranging discussion about community’s wants and needs.

More than 250 people— many of them elderly— greeted Mayor Walsh at Kay Pam Adult Day Health on Livingstone Street as he talked about City Hall’s approach to tackling affordable housing, improving education, and new immigrants’ integration into the community through the Office of New Bostonians.

Walsh listened to remarks from members of the community about issues facing the city’s burgeoning Haitian population and then took a handful of pre-submitted questions.

“We need to make sure young people have good, strong, quality education so these young people can have the same opportunities that Linda had, that I had,” Walsh said later, referring to State Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, who is married to the Reporter’s publisher and editor, Bill Forry. Sen. Forry introduced Walsh at the event, calling him “no stranger to our community.”

“Our mayor is Haitian,” Dorcena Forry told the crowd. “He’s an Irish guy from Dorchester, but he’s Haitian.”

The crowd was largely supportive of Walsh, who brought along a number of officials and department heads from the city, including Sheila Dillon, director the Department of Neighborhood Development, and incoming Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang.

According to the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s latest analysis, Haitians represent the third largest immigrant group in Boston after people from Dominican Republic and China. Boston has the third-highest concentration of Haitian-Americans in the United States after Florida and New York.

Mattapan is home to the densest settlement of Haitian in the city, with one-third of the foreign-born population originating in Haiti. Over 18 percent of Mattapan residents speak French or Kreyol, the most commonly used Haitian language. Haitians are the fourth largest foreign-born ethnic group in Dorchester at 11 percent, following Vietnamese, Cape Verdeans and Dominicans.

“Over the past 50 years, the number of Haitians has grown from hundreds to hundreds of thousands,” said Soliny Védrine, pastor of the Boston Missionary Baptist Church. “New immigrants struggle with housing, schools, job training, and finding a job where they can work with respect and dignity.”

A female student spoke about her struggle to find the proper support in the Boston Public School system–something that happened when a Haitian guidance counselor came along and encouraged her to go beyond applying for community college.

“If we can get education right, we can cut down on poverty, cut down on unemployment,” Walsh said. “And we’ll become the strongest city in the United States of America.”

Many also praised Walsh for scheduling his visit to coincide with Haitian Flag Day on May 18.

“We have been welcomed to Boston and collectively we have done well here,” said attorney Elda James.

Walsh visited Haiti in 2009 as part of a trip organized by former Dorchester state Rep. Marie St. Fleur. He has also played a supportive role in the country’s effort to recover from a devastating 2010 earthquake, helping to organize union volunteers to aid in reconstruction efforts.