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History of Immigration Podcasts - Jenny Cockerham and Jessica McKee interview Oliver Barreau

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JESSICA MCKEE: I am Jessica McKee with Jenny Cockerham. On October 5, 2016 we interviewed Oliver Barrreau who is a fellow Samford student Oliver is a Haitian immigrant who migrated to the states in 2005. His journey began in New York but eventually made its way down south to Alabama. Oliver’s narrative is unlike most in that he was very lucky—and that is emphasized throughout his story. Though it is a narrative of luck, it is not without its complications. This is his story.

OLIVER BARREAU: Well, I was actually born in Brooklyn, New York. Uh, to Haitian immigrants, Haitian parents. I think they decided to have both me and my sister born in New York and then move back to Haiti just so that we would be naturalized citizens. So that we would be born with American citizenship.

JENNY COCKERAM: Have you lived in the US your whole life?

OLIVER BARREAU: No, I spent—right after my birth, we went back to our home of 1:00Haiti and I lived there until I was about nine or ten years old.

JENNY COCKERAM: The Barreau family decided to have both of their children in America as opposed to their home country of Haiti so that they would have an easy access to American citizenship this is an example of birth tourism. Birth tourism can be defined as the travel to another country for the purpose of a naturalized birth of the child. Birth tourism is different than an anchor baby because the birth is not for the purpose of ensuring citizenship of the parental figures. Usually the family is of affluent status and returns to their country of origin immediately after the birth, in this case, Haiti.

OLIVER BARREAU: Well I am sure you all have heard a few things about Haiti—how it is not exactly the best place to live—how it is kind of a third world country. I was lucky enough in Haiti to be able to avoid most of that. Both of 2:00my parents worked, they worked very very good jobs. So I, to be honest with you, I lived a fairly affluent life, I didn't really have much to worry about in terms of wanting or needing, it was just a good life in Haiti if I’m just being honest with you.

JENNY COCKERAM: Though his home conditions were very welcoming, his country’s political conditions were anything but that

OLIVER BARREAU: Well right around the time we left, Haiti had just ousted their president—dictator—and the country was kind of in civil unrest so it wasn’t the safest place to be or to raise a family so my family kind of decided to jet off to the United States to just be safer, I guess.

JENNY COCKERAM: Did you realize what was happening in Haiti at the time?

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OLIVER BARREAU: I did. I was aware of it just because—and this is a story I always think back to— One day, I remember, I came home [from school] before my sister because I usually finished earlier than she did, and my mom was in a panic because my sister’s school was downtown. And there was some kind of riot going on downtown. And people were throwing, I think, grenades, downtown in the courtyard of my sister’s school. So that was a big worrisome day. I mean, everything ended being okay obviously—but that was the prime example of me being aware of what was going on in the country.

JENNY COCKERAM: From 1991 to 2004 the Haitian government was anything but stable. Jean Bertrand Aristide was sworn in as President in early 1991 but by fall of that same year, he was exiled until 1994 when he returned to office 4:00while the United Nations took over Haitian military authority. Aristide left office the following year and was not re-elected until 2000. However, there was an alleged voter fraud which outraged citizens and neighboring nations because it threatened to unravel the democratic principles that Haiti sought to live out. This resulted in riots, civil unrest and the fleeing of several hundreds of Haitian citizens.

JENNY COCKERAM: Oliver migrated from Haiti to Brooklyn New York in 2005 with his mom, dad, sister, and grandmother. They joined other members of their family in Brooklyn. Despite it not being the closest US territory, it is actually not uncommon for Haitian immigrants to migrate towards New York. Some studies show that Haitian immigrants came over by the masses during the 1980’s because it was the headquarters of a coup against Duvalier, Haiti’s then president, led by his political rivals. When they realized it was a failing revolution, they 5:00officially brought over their families from Haiti to New York City. Studies also indicate that since family life in such an important part of the Haitian culture, families or individual members are more likely to migrate to the cities in which relatives already reside—much like Oliver’s own story proves. We asked him what he thought the US was going to be like and how his transition was.

JENNY COCKERAM: Coming to the US, what did you think it was going to be like?

OLIVER BARREAU: Well to be honest with you, ever since I was born, me and my family every year or so would vacation to New York. So I kinda had fair idea of what the US was like. I actually picked up on a lot of English already so it wasn’t really that much of a huge transition for me. But I did know it was going to be different. It was going to be a lot more, to be blunt, white, than I 6:00am used to. It wasn’t something that I was completely unprepared for.

JENNY COCKERAM: How would you say your transition has been being in Haiti to the United States?

OLIVER BARREAU: My transition from Haiti to the United States was easy because, like I said, we used to vacation in New York. So my transition from Haiti to New York was easy because we used to stay there two months at a time when we would vacation.

JENNY COCKERAM: Oliver’s transition was a fortunate one in that it was not a difficult one as many are. However, he hinted that his family’s transition period was not as easy going as his own.

JESSICA MCKEE: So was she [his sister] kind of in the same boat as you?

OLIVER BARREAU: Yes and no. Yes in that we both kind of came in…blind. No in, 7:00I think I adapted a little differently than she did. Not to bag on my sister or anything—I love you [name]—but I was always the more outgoing and outspoken of us two. She was always kind of shy and reserved. And I feel like me being more outgoing and more outspoken and more willing to put myself out there made my experience a little—a lot— different. I’m not saying she had no friends or didn’t show up to anything, I think she enjoyed her middle school and high school years, but I definitely think that our experiences were not night and day but sunrise and sunset? [laughter]

JESSICA MCKEE: What about your parents? Were they more reserved when they moved from New York to Alabama?

8:00

OLIVER BARREAU: Definitely from New York to Alabama because moving to Alabama, like I said we had family here but it was only my mom’s sister and her family. But in New York I have most of my family. A lot of my family that is not in Haiti is in New York and live in a close proximity to each other. We kind of have that Haitian community in New York. Down here, not so much. It looks kind like it was a struggle for my parents to kind of start putting themselves out there to meet people and make friends and so forth. But yeah in the last couple of years they have actually opened up and made quite a few friends. They are getting there, just a little slower.

JENNY COCKERAM: In 2005, the Barreau family moved from Brooklyn, New York to Maylene, Alabama. This is where his 9:00story gets a complicated because it was not the melting pot that New York was, but instead was an incredibly new place, with new people and new realizations for him.

OLIVER BARREAU: I think my transition from New York to Alabama was the tougher part. That was the one that was a little different because, you know, you go to New York—you live in New York, big city, people walking everywhere, you come to Alabama and it’s a completely different atmosphere. I think that transition was the one that was a little more challenging for me.

JENNY COCKERAM: Did you realize how different Alabama was going to be from what you thought previously?

OLIVER BARREAU: To be perfectly honest with you, I didn't know what Alabama was until I stepped foot in it. I had no idea what to expect. That was kind of a 10:00scary aspect. Luckily we had family here. They helped us figure everything out for the most part, I just jumped into Alabama blind.

JESSICA MCKEE: You said that when you came here that it was very apparent that it was white, but you said that you went to New York first, so I’m just wondering was it more prevalent in Alabama that you were in this very white culture?

OLIVER BARREAU: Yeah, definitely more so in Alabama because where I stayed in New York was Brooklyn. I don't know if you know much about the New York demographics, but Brooklyn is predominantly black and hispanic minorities but coming down here was the actual culture shock of my life because I had to 11:00because I had to navigate in a “whiter” city.

JENNY COCKERAM: Oliver makes this statement that he is very aware of how “white” his environment is and he is not that. However, when we asked whether or not this “white culture” ever made him feel like an outsider he said he felt the complete opposite—he always felt welcomed in his environment.

OLIVER BARREAU: I would say I did, even though I said earlier it was a bit of a culture shock, I feel like my transition or me adapting to to the atmosphere or whatever of Alabama was made easy because the school I went to or or the people that I met were all very nice, to be honest with you. It was an easy pattern to fall into because everyone was very nice and helpful and so forth.

12:00

JESSICA MCKEE: The people in your school, was it split evenly amongst ethnicities?

OLIVER BARREAU: No not at all, I’ll be honest with you, when I moved here I actually moved to Hoover first and I went to Riverchase Elementary School and I think in my fifth grade graduating class there were maybe, I know for a fact in my specific class, Miss Pritchard’s, we had two black, two black kids—myself and my friend, Ty, and one hispanic guy. And everybody else was white. It wasn’t too tough of a transition, if I’m being honest. I fell into an easy pattern even though we were in a small minority.

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JESSICA MCKEE: So even though there were only two of you in your class did you ever feel like an outsider? It seemed like you had a pretty welcoming experience which is awesome.

OLIVER BARREAU: Yeah, I think I was lucky, luckier than most in that regard that I didn’t really feel like an outsider when I came down here. I kinda fell into a friend group fairly quickly, most of the people were nice and a lot of the people I met when I moved here in fifth grade are still pretty good friends of mine. So I think I was pretty lucky in that regard. Does that answer your question?

JESSICA MCKEE: Yeah, that was great. Was that consistent through middle school and high school?

OLIVER BARREAU: I would say close. But as I grew older I became more aware of…I became a little more color conscious. I became more aware of the fact 14:00that I was a Haitian immigrant. Even though I was a Haitian immigrant, I was still seen as a black guy. Does that make sense? I don’t know how to explain it. It became more evident as I grew older, especially in high school, that I was black and a lot of my friends were white.

JENNY COCKERAM: Did that affect any of your relationships or friendships?

JESSICA MCKEE: —or even school—teacher and student.

OLIVER BARREAU: No. And I think, once again, I have been very very lucky in that regard. I, not to brag on myself or anything, I was always the kid who got pretty good grades regardless of where I was, but I think, in terms of schooling I don’t really think it impacted me that much, that is me kinda 15:00realizing that I was—me becoming more color conscious and racially conscious. But socially, I guess, yeah. Socially, in high school, I noticed it a lot more and started becoming more involved, I guess in organizations, that like pinpointed minorities. Like I was in an organization called MAC Scholars—Minority Achievement Counsel—and it was for young black men, and it promoted excellence and getting good grades and so forth, and little organizations like that made me realize that there is a little bit of a discrepancy—not a negative discrepancy, but a little bit of a difference.

JENNY COCKERAM: Oliver makes a point to say that while he was, once again, very lucky, he was also heavily involved and making an effort to assimilate into his 16:00new environment. Columbia University studied the adaption of Immigrant Children in the United States. They stated that it is incredibly important for children to feel acceptance within their environment and this factor alone makes a huge impact on their adaption process. Oliver’s involvement with extra curricular activities helped his acceptance and assimilation process go over much smoother than had he been more reserved.

JENNY COCKERAM: Though Oliver put forth a great effort to assimilate into American society, he did not abandon his roots.

JENNY COCKERAM: Speaking of Haitian culture, are there things that your family have done and that you have done to keep the Haitian culture going as you have been here? Ways to relate to being to your roots.

OLIVER BARREAU: Absolutely. For the most part in my house, we speak English but my grandmother does not. So that keeps us speaking Creole or speaking French in 17:00the house. And food. Always food. We have not “Americanized” our food to this day Haitian food is in my house every single day. Music is also a big thing. I don’t want to sound lame or anything but my family—we have two big radios—so we will play Haitian music and dance around to it. [laughter] We have done a pretty good job of staying Haitian. Of staying and keeping our Haitian side even though we are in the American world and we are living in the 18:00United States.

JENNY COCKERAM: Many immigrants find it hard to reconcile assimilating into America over abandoning their country’s tradition. Oliver’s family and story shows that the two can in fact be harmonious to some degree.

JESSICA MCKEE: If Oliver’s story were to be summed up in one word it would simply be Luck.

OLIVER BARREAU: For us, it is just the narrative of luck. We have all been blessed in that regard.

(Music)

0:00 - Introducing Oliver Barreau - Born in Brooklyn

Play segmentSegment link

Partial Transcript: "I think they decided to have both me and my sister born in New York and then move back to Haiti just so that we would be naturalized citizens."

Segment Synopsis: Oliver tells how he and his sister were born in New York and then his family moved back to Haiti after his birth.

Keywords: Alabama; Brooklyn, New York; Haiti; New York; Sanford University; United States

Subjects:

0:57 - Returning to Haiti - Early Life in Haiti

Play segmentSegment link

Partial Transcript: "Well I am sure you all have heard a few things about Haiti—how it is not exactly the best place to live—how it is kind of a third world country. I was lucky enough in Haiti..."

Segment Synopsis: Oliver sums up the years he lived in Haiti.

Keywords: Haiti; United States

Subjects:

2:21 - Unrest in Haiti

Play segmentSegment link

Partial Transcript: "And there was some kind of riot going on downtown. And people were throwing, I think, grenades, downtown in the courtyard of my sister’s school."

Segment Synopsis: Jenny and Jessica discuss the political unrest in Haiti in the 90s and 2000s. Oliver talks about how this unrest impacted his family.

Keywords: Haiti

Subjects:

4:28 - Migrating to the US - Integration in New York

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Partial Transcript: "So my transition from Haiti to New York was easy because we used to stay there two months at a time when we would vacation."

Segment Synopsis: Oliver tells how his family migrated to the United States to live in Brooklyn. He discusses how he and his sister adapted to the culture.

Keywords: Brooklyn, New York; Haiti; New York City, New York; United States

Subjects:

7:54 - Moving from New York to Alabama

Play segmentSegment link

Partial Transcript: "I don't know if you know much about the New York demographics, but Brooklyn is predominantly black and hispanic minorities but coming down here was the actual culture shock of my life because I had to because I had to navigate in a “whiter” city."

Segment Synopsis: Oliver talks about how the move to Alabama from New York was a greater challenge for him and how he adjusted there.

Keywords: Alabama; Brooklyn, New York; Maylene, Alabama; New York

Subjects:

12:02 - Being Haitian in Alabama Schools

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Partial Transcript: "But as I grew older I became more aware of… I became a little more color conscious. I became more aware of the fact that I was a Haitian immigrant. Even though I was a Haitian immigrant, I was still seen as a black guy."

Segment Synopsis: Oliver relates his experiences in Alabama schools as a Haitian.

Keywords: Columbia University; Haiti; Hoover, Alabama; Riverchase Elementary School; United States

Subjects:

16:26 - Maintaining Haitian Roots

Play segmentSegment link

Partial Transcript: "Haitian food is in my house every single day. Music is also a big thing. I don’t want to sound lame or anything but my family—we have two big radios—so we will play Haitian music and dance around to it."

Segment Synopsis: While he and his family have made themselves a home in America, Oliver describes how he and his family have maintained their Haitian roots.

Keywords: Haiti; United States

Subjects:

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