For hyphenated Americans, it's not uncommon to feel a tug between the United States and the land of their parents' birth and heritage. For Haitian-Americans, the 2010 earthquake and the foreign NGO army that followed took that tug and magnified it several times over. In what may be an under-appreciated reversal of decades of exodus by their parents and grandparents before them, many young American-born Haitians are "returning" to help develop the country. Among them, American-born Nickson Toussaint, a 28-year-old entrepreneur and "fan of nationalism"--that is, the one inspired by Haitian revolutionaries Toussaint L'Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Since 2011, Toussaint and his wife have invested $150,000 to help develop a virgin 2.5 acre beachfront property into Azur Resort & Spa. The time for a renaissance in Haiti is now, and he says, his generation is the one to bring it.
How did the earthquake affect you?
I had a pastor tell me once that, "You will ultimately find your purpose in what burdens you." The global depiction and negative perception of our Haitian people have always been heavy on my heart. [And when the earthquake happened] I was shocked by the death and destruction. I had just returned from Haiti a few months prior and wrote a journal entry describing it as a nation in desperate need of a period of progressive growth. I saw [the earthquake] as an opportunity for the country to rise out of its ashes, as well as for the diaspora to return and change the game. I wanted to take a part of that resurrection. The more I began exploring tourism, the more I realized there was a large opportunity to rebrand the perception of the country.
So you, a second-generation Haitian-American, set out on your first business venture no less, just two years after a massive 7.0 magnitude quake. Why?
Well I was born in New York City and raised in Haiti for a few years. My wife is also Haitian-American, anad I always knew we'd return and do some work [there] but we didn't have much inspiration 'til our wedding. It was a horrible experience.
Sounds like the beginning of a story for future grandchildren. Give me the highlights.
You ever have things go so wrong that all you can do is laugh? My wife always wanted to do a destination wedding and I figured if we're going to put money into any foreign country's economy then Haiti needs it the most. We'd spent about $5,000 and flown over about 25 people from the States to stay with us at a popular private resort an hour north of Port-au-Prince. The night we arrived, my aunt had her money and wallet stolen out of her room. Things like that do happen in hotels, but the staff pointed fingers at my aunt instead of trying to resolve the situation. There were several times in the evening where we were starving--the kitchen closed at 9 p.m. and no outside food was allowed. In our honeymoon suite, the shower had mildew. There were hairs in the room. But even then, I'm like, "We're Haitians, we're from Brooklyn. We can ride or die." On our wedding day though, the secluded beach area we'd chosen for the ceremony was filthy. Glass bottles and debris were everywhere even though I'd asked staff to clean it up beforehand. I literally watched my wife cry on the day of our wedding because everything was going wrong at the hands of the hotel staff. One thing they did not mess up was the food though. It was excellent. It was on point!
How did that level of dysfunction at a tony resort make you feel?
Embarrassed. The next night I was so exhausted, I walked to the beach and really began thinking, "How could this happen?" ... And I think that's where Azur comes from. I want the staff to exhibit a higher standard of training, and I want them to understand what they are working towards: creating good memories of Haiti for tourists. At the same time, too, I noticed things were about to change in the country. Best Western was coming. Marriott was coming. Well, where are the opportunities for Haitian-operated and branded hotels?
Much of the conversation in the States revolves around Haiti as a receiving ground for charity and aid but not business enterprises. Should foreign aid workers leave and be replaced by entrepreneurial diaspora Haitians like yourself?
Yes and no. If you kick them out, there will be a huge gap to fill so [their departure has] to be weaned. NGOs have been good to the country. [But] I've gotten a bit sick of groups flying in for two weeks in the summer, having no long-term, sustainable impact and then returning next year with more funds from churches and schools. If this model is not going to directly impact the Haitian economy then why do it? Jobs are needed. That's the only thing we should be focused on. I believe that small and medium-sized businesses will drive the Haitian economy. That's why I decided to open Azur as a Haitian corporation and not an American one.
Wouldn't it have been easier to register Azur as an American company?
Yes. But in the future I'd like our tax dollars to stay and grow in Haiti. When I first arrived and I was looking at the property and how to work with the local community, one of the first conversations I had was with the local mayor. [I told him my intention and] he said, "Please do this because that will allow us to fix our streets, put street lights up."
Are diaspora Haitians more committed to sustainable solutions for Haiti?
I'm thinking of so many of the people I work with, now. Only about five percent of my diaspora network is involved in a nonprofit. You know: they come for a week in the summer, they pray. The rest are asking, "How do we go there and [create] jobs?" And that's what all diaspora should ask: "How can I go to Haiti and create at least three jobs?"
Are there more professional diaspora millennials like you heading to Haiti?
Oh yes, absolutely. If you took trip there, you'd see the movement of young professionals who've returned to work in the country. I have a good friend, a New York City architect who used to design luxury high-rises; he's now in Haiti. Another woman worked for LVMH; she's now there as full-time consultant. And another woman I know from social media who worked for the Obama administration; she's now working there as a consultant. They're all young diaspora under 40 who see possibility in Haiti.
That sense of seeing possibility in Haiti--is that a generational thing?
I took a trip [while in the States] to see a cousin of mine. When I told her I was getting ready to build a hotel in Haiti, her mom who's in her early 70s says, "But why would you go there? Why?" -- I said, "This is our land. Why do I have to stay here in this peyi blan (white man's land) and create my future or invest in this place?" I fully believe it's our right to benefit off of Haiti. People can take that one way or the other. We're the sons and daughters of liberty. We have an opportunity to participate in what our ancestors died for, which is a free and prosperous country. [Also] there's nothing wrong with making money in a place that has the opportunity to provide you with a future.
Do other hyphenated Americans influence you with their success in their or their parents' home countries?
I've been monitoring Ghana and their diaspora population as of late through some friends that are working on projects in that region. They help the country in its growth, well beyond remittances. I think African nations as a whole are a fine example for Haiti especially in regards to heritage tourism. The current [Haitian] administration has made positive efforts in ushering the diaspora back home through government bodies such as the Center for the Facilitation of Investments. More than ever, our Haitian diasporas are needed to fuel the new renaissance age in Haiti. I firmly believe the time for a changing of the guard began on January 12, 2010.
What can the U.S. or Haiti do to encourage more under-40 diaspora entrepreneurs to return?
Haiti needs to streamline the process for registering Haitian businesses. I'm a patient guy but it took me 10 months to get my business registered--and even now I'm still waiting on one final document. Two, reduce the cost. The normal rate is US $5,000 and I've been told it's pennies in the Dominican Republic. The time and cost just to register a business are so significant that they're discouraging. If I weren't married and my wife and I working as partners, I wouldn't do this. Three, and I don't want to be viewed as the arrogant American who thinks things should be done for them, but the diaspora is a lucrative population. Streamline things specifically for us. Most of us in my generation have at least two years of college. Imagine the impact of our return.
What accounts for the stark difference in attitude towards Haiti between the generations?
The generation before us is like someone who'd just gotten out of an extremely abusive relationship, both mentally and physically. Many people died and then many others left with those memories on their hearts. When my 71-year-old aunt told me that there's nothing in Haiti, I felt the pain in her voice as well as sadness. I really felt like, "Man, this dude really did her dirty." The impression I got was, "Why would you get into a relationship like this?" I was just in that.
I can see hear an older Haitian tut-tutting and saying, "You just don't know."
But in my defense, I'd say, "You haven't returned since you left 30 years ago. So you don't know." They have no desire to open themselves up again to that pain and hurt.
So you are hopeful for Haiti?
I don't have hope in Haiti. I have confidence in Haiti.