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First Coast

Haitian-born librarian fled death threats to start new life on First Coast

Jean Francois and Francesse Alcindor at the Jacksonville Public Library.

One morning in Haiti 18 years ago, Jean Francois Alcindor opened his front door and his life changed. “I saw a small coffin (on the doorstep) and graffiti on the wall.” Basically, it said, “Stay quiet or else.”

The message was in Creole, "Siw pa rete trankil e siw pa sispan'n fè sa wap fè, nap vini e pran ou.”

Translation: “If you don’t stay quiet, if you don’t stop doing what you’re doing, we’re gonna come and get you,” said Alcindor’s wife, Francesse. “And this is for you. That coffin, that’s where we’re gonna put you.”

Francesse panicked. “I’m really scared for my life. I have to get out because you love your life. You wanna live,” she said.

She fled to the U.S. on a tourist visa. Jean Francois stayed behind in Haiti to finish his work as a human rights attorney investigating violations at prisons and police stations. Alcindor worked for a U.S. Department of Justice program and taught constitutional law at the National Police Academy.

“People stay in there past a few months, one year, two years having never been to see a judge,” Alcindor said.

He also wrote newspaper editorials denouncing government corruption.

“I slept with one eye closed and the other peeled widely,” he said. “People disappear or people get shot because they expressed their opinion.”

A father’s influence

The son of a former member of parliament, Alcindor was inspired by his father’s humanitarianism.

He recalls his dad’s reaction when someone picked plantains from the family’s land.

“I said, ‘Hey Dad, somebody is stealing.’ He said, ‘No, don’t say that. They’re not stealing. If they’re taking some stuff it’s because they need them. The only thing you tell them if they’re taking too much is to tell them to leave some for you.’”

A new life

Six months after Alcindor’s wife fled to the U.S., he joined her, seeking asylum. They’re two of 4,664 Jacksonville residents who self-identified as Haitian in 2019, the most recent year for which the U.S. Census Bureau has data.

“Starting a new life wasn’t easy at the beginning because you know you are a young lawyer. You are fortunate enough to be part of the middle class in Haiti, and then you come here and start from scratch,” Alcindor said.

At first, that meant English classes and starting a minimum-wage job at a convenience store.

The Alcindors are grateful to live in a place where hard work can pay off.

The Alcindor family.

“They give you the opportunity to grow. If you want to have a home you just have to make sure you have a great job, do what’s right, have good credit,” Francesse said. “There’s a process, and you’re gonna get it.”

The couple are troubled by anti-immigrant rhetoric from politicians and what they see on social media.

“It really hurts,” Francesse said. “There’s too much hate toward the immigrants.”

Overall, though, they’ve found Jacksonville to be quite immigrant friendly.

Helping others

Alcindor now works at the Jacksonville Public Library.

He helps people with job searches and researching how to start a business. He also assists other asylum seekers navigating the process.

“Jean is an amazing person,” said Lisa Buggs, who works with Alcindor. She encouraged him to write a book about his immigrant experience.

“When he told me his story and how he just wanted to stay there and make his country better, but to get those threats on his life and his wife had to step in and make sure he knew he had to leave, I thought that was something so inspiring,” she said.

Writing his story

In 2018, Alcindor published the book "One Voice for all: Pleading from an Haitian immigrant."

In it he writes that Americans share a common bond. We are all immigrants, regardless of when — or why — we came to this country.

“Once we are here, we are looking for a little spot here. We are trying to let people know we are not bad. We are here to do our share in society,” he said.

Alcindor said that includes paying taxes, going to school and, “mostly, we need to follow the rules.”

Coming from a homeland with a history of political unrest, Alcindor deeply values one of the bedrocks of America: Laws should exist to protect society. And if you don’t agree with a law, you can use your voice to challenge it in court.