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How one York County woman is advocating for 300 Haitian immigrant families

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch

On a rainy Monday morning, pedestrians in York City briskly walked against wind and rain on South George Street. And while the cold streets lacked energy, a tiny classroom packed with adult learners was bustling with chatter.

It’s the place Deborah Detzel goes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday as the facilitator for an English class offered to new Haitian immigrants. 

York County has a vibrant and flourishing Haitian community, though many are not aware the community even exists. With robust manufacturing and industrial jobs, Detzel said, York has become an ideal location for new immigrants to settle.

A Haitian child works on a lesson sheet as part of English lessons provided by the New American Welcome Center. Classes are held at 231 S. George St. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tina Locurto photo.

In the case of many Haitian immigrants, she said, they come to the United States with just the clothes on their back. 

“We're not any more worthy or any more entitled to safety, or to security, or to warmth, to stability, than any other people on the face of the earth,” Detzel said. “In my home community, where my grandmothers were immigrant children, I am entirely motivated to make sure that these newest immigrants get off to the best start possible.”

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Detzel worked in the fields of language studies and education for decades. Her previous job at the California Polytechnic State University eventually led her back to York, as she was laid off because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  She then took a job with the YMCA of the Roses as its New American Welcome Center coordinator last August.

“I wasn’t aware at all of Haitian people here. I was trying to contact the people that had been resettled to Hurricane Maria, but I wasn’t very successful at getting any feedback,” Detzel said. “And then one day in November, a handful of Haitians walked into my office.”

A Haitian student answers a question on a white board as part of English lessons provided by the New American Welcome Center. Classes are held at 231 S. George St. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tina Locurto photo.

There were three dozen families all living under one roof — in only one room. 

And most often, there is little to no English spoken between families.

Contrary to stereotypes some individuals might hold about immigration, Detzel said the 300 Haitian families she works with arrived with immigration documents.

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“I know that people think that people are rushing the southern border and being allowed to cross willy nilly,” Detzel said. “Haitians are entitled to the same thing if they have arrived at the time frame designated, but no one hands it to them.”

Without help, Haitian immigrants in York County are navigating the United States alone. 

And while her 300 families have applied for temporary protected status — which closes in February 2023 — the majority have not received approval yet.

“The backlog in the immigration processing is so bad, that they've been waiting months and months — and they're not entitled to any benefits at all. No food stamps, no welfare, no nothing,” Detzel said. “So they're not rushing across the border, taking welfare and all that. They're basically suffering.”

That's where Detzel comes in.

Beyond the weekly English classes she runs, Detzel acts as an advocate for the Haitian families she cares for. 

Deborah Detzel (left) checks on a pregnant Haitian mother during English class on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022. Tina Locurto photo.

She drives pregnant mothers to doctors’ appointments, repairs leaky roofs and operates an essentials closet full of clothing and food donations for families to use.

It’s hard work — and a heavy responsibility she endures with minimal help.

She’s tried recruiting the help from doctors, lawyers and churches for support. And though results through canvassing may vary in response, one recently reminded her of how important the work is.

Last Friday, Detzel’s dentist group — 1447 Dental Associates — welcomed Haitian families in for teeth cleanings and surgery care.

“I'm just in awe of it because it's thousands of dollars of work that they did on behalf of these people,” Detzel said. 

Detzel said she hopes as word gets out that Haitian families in York County need help from the community, individuals or groups will step up.

A Haitian student works on a lesson sheet as part of English lessons provided by the New American Welcome Center. Classes are held at 231 S. George St. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tina Locurto photo.

English teacher Judith Titus, for example, helped Detzel with weekly language classes. Titus, a retired teacher who speaks Creole, enjoyed volunteering and teaching eager Haitian students.

"There's a gap in resources in York; meanwhile people are coming to York," she said. "I think the reason people do volunteer work is not just to be a good person, but to receive something in return. And that thing that you receive in return has no monetary value — it's a precious thing. It makes you feel good."

Titus urges anybody with teaching experience and free time to lend a hand to Detzel's classroom.

"I think teachers are under-appreciated. People don't realize it does take some experience and some talent to be able to be effective as a teacher," she said. "It's a bit of a challenge to work with them, but it's so rewarding to do it."

Individuals interested in volunteering or providing donations can contact Detzel at 717-819-0180.