Ceradieu Tineus Francois, a young Haitian man, stands in the lobby of the Good Samaritan Haitian Alliance Church in Lawrenceville. This place is a sanctuary for him and his family, who crossed the southern U.S. border over a year ago and found their way here, to this quiet part of Gwinnett County.
Flags from the countries that church members are from, or have lived in, hang from the ceiling—the U.S., the Dominican Republic, Brazil. At the center is the red and blue flag of Haiti, which includes a white ribbon reading “L’union fait la force”: Unity is strength.
The church is a sprawling megaplex located just off Sugarloaf Parkway. It is a center of gravity for many in the metro Atlanta Haitian community, which has grown from 17,000 to almost 27,000 in the last 10 years.
There are no sidewalks around, but Ceradieu, his wife, Ametude, and their children, eight-year-old Manilia and one-year-old Emmanuel, live just a short walk away. They share a house, which the church purchased in July, with more than a dozen other Haitians who also crossed the border in the last 18 months. Since 2021, as the political and security crisis in Haiti has escalated, up to 800 Haitians have come to Georgia from the southern border, estimates Watson Escarment, the church’s director of administration and operations. They are among the thousands of Haitians who began seeking refuge in the U.S. that year—many only to be deported shortly after, back to a country experiencing unprecedented levels of instability.
Violence has been rising steadily in Haiti for years, but the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021 took it to another level. Sixty percent of Port au Prince, the country’s capital, is now controlled by armed gangs. Lack of access to fuel has meant that hospitals, businesses, and schools are barely functioning. And food insecurity is at an all-time high, with nearly half the population facing acute hunger, according to the United Nations’ World Food Programme.
Around a dozen members of the church are organizing direct support for around 60 people who recently crossed the border. Roselande Emmanuel, a nurse practitioner and church member, along with Associate Pastor Mardochée Pardieu, have been at the center of coordinating care, driving people to medical and legal appointments and taking them to the grocery store.
That care has been especially critical for the mothers, says Escarment, two of whom have given birth since arriving here. Many of the two dozen other Haitian churches in metro Atlanta are helping other new arrivals, Escarment adds.
When reports first surfaced of thousands of Haitians stranded at an encampment at the border in Del Rio, Texas, in 2021, a group of pastors connected through the Haitian Evangelical Clergy of Georgia organized a trip to see how they could help. Escarment and Pardieu flew to San Antonio with the group, and left the church’s contact info with a local church during the trip. Passed along to Haitians who were looking for a place to settle in the U.S., that info got into Ceradieu’s hands, eventually leading to his arrival here.
The family had survived the Darien Gap—a 66-mile stretch of thick jungle, marshland, and mountains in Panama connecting North and South America, known as one of the world’s most dangerous migration routes. Ametude was pregnant at the time. And Ceradieu carried then seven-year-old Manilia in his arms as they trekked through the jungle. Being here in Lawrenceville, safe and sound, is a miracle. The happiest part, Ceradieu says, is his new church family—though he misses his relatives back home. “He didn’t know where he was going,” says Escarment, interpreting for Ceradieu, who speaks Haitian Creole, a French-based language. “But he says he landed here and feels he has dozens of family members that support him.”
In the three decades since the church’s founding, the people who’ve passed through its doors have been shaped by events over a thousand miles away in Haiti. Senior Pastor Brave Laverdure had come to Georgia from Cap-Haitien for seminary at Toccoa Falls College. His plan was to complete school and then go straight back home to serve. But the year he arrived, 1991, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was removed from power in a coup d’état by the country’s armed forces. “Everything was blocked in Haiti,” Laverdure says. “They closed everything, and I could not get into my country.”
So, he decided to start his ministry here, with a 17-member congregation that began in a living room in Roswell. It grew over the years, moving to the basement of a church it would end up purchasing in Chamblee, and eventually securing the property in Lawrenceville.
Escarment, a software engineer and a PhD candidate at Johnson University in Knoxville, Tennessee, connected with the church back in 2000, but reluctantly, partly because of his own trauma: “My parents would go back to Haiti all the time, and I was like, I want nothing to do with it.”
Escarment was born in Saint-Louis-du-Nord in northwest Haiti and stayed behind with his grandmother after his parents migrated to Miami. When he was 10, she sent him to Florida with two strange men, who took him out to sea and instructed him to jump between boats in the middle of the ocean.
The struggle didn’t stop once he got to U.S. shores. He and his family were undocumented for several years; his father jumped from job to job, working at different restaurants in Miami as a cook. At school, he felt like he was constantly battling racism against Haitians. “I had to fight every day,” he recalls.
As he got older, he wanted to push Haiti and the Haitian community away and focus on building a successful life for himself and his family. But after a heart-to-heart with Pastor Laverdure, he realized he was meant to help people who were going through experiences like he had. “Ever since then, I’ve never looked back,” he says.
On a sunny Thursday afternoon, the church is quiet, except for Pastor Laverdure’s office, where he is sitting behind his large wooden desk. Escarment is in a chair beside Ametude and across from Ceradieu, who is holding baby Emmanuel in his lap.
Manilia, now in third grade, sits next to her father, wearing black high-top sneakers and pants patterned with purple flowers. She’s had her eyes fixed on her phone, as her parents describe the details of their journey to the U.S. and Escarment translates. But when the conversation turns to her, she looks up.
“Have you made friends in school?” Escarment asks her, in Haitian Creole.
Manilia holds up all 10 fingers, a smile spreading across her face.
“Dis!” Escarment says the Haitian word for “ten” back to her, his eyes wide. The room erupts in laughter, and what can only be described as some level of relief.
This article appears in our May 2023 issue.