Real EstateA Haitian Photojournalist Finds Safety in Manhattan

A Haitian Photojournalist Finds Safety in Manhattan

Dieu-Nalio Chéry never thought he would leave Haiti, much less that his journey would take him to a high-rise apartment building a block from the Hudson River.

He grew up in the countryside and moved to the big city, Port-au-Prince, where he taught himself photography and became a photojournalist. He joined The Associated Press in 2010 and documented the aftermath of the earthquake that destroyed so much of his country that year. Over the next decade, he would win several international awards, covering more tumult across the country — evictions, hurricanes, another major earthquake and mounting political unrest. “I saw the rise of violence,” Mr. Chéry said. “There’s no respect for human life.”

While kidnappings of journalists mounted, friends warned him about the increasing dangers of his work, but Mr. Chéry remained stubborn about not leaving: “I kept saying, ‘I can face all these things. It’s normal for me as a journalist.’”

On Sept. 23, 2019, while photographing the contentious ratification of election results, Mr. Chéry was struck in the jaw by a bullet from a gun fired by a senator outside the parliamentary building. “After that,” he said, “everyone told me I have to leave the country.” But still he resisted. “I don’t think I was the target of the senator who fired the gun, and I’m not going to complain to the justice system because I want my career to be in Haiti.”

Then came March 2021. Mr. Chéry was photographing a protest organized to demand better working conditions for the police. At one point, some of the protesters started looting a car dealership. According to Mr. Chéry, several members of a local crime group, paid regularly by the owner of the car dealership for protection, arrived on the scene and began firing guns at the protesters. Mr. Chéry hunkered down and photographed as much of the action as he could. “After they finished shooting,” he said, “they started dragging away the bodies.” He knew if he was spotted it could make him a target, so he fled on a motorcycle, hoping he wasn’t recognized.

Some of the images were published, and three days later he got a call from a fellow journalist who told him that the men he saw firing on the protesters were looking for him. “At that time,” Mr. Chéry said, “I started panicking.”

He knew it was time to leave, but he couldn’t tell his wife, Mathide Chéry Debel, a videographer and video editor. His blood pressure rose so fast he was admitted to the hospital. “I was thinking, ‘I’m going to die.’ Because these people, when they want to finish with everything, they just kill you.”

Reluctantly, he shared what happened with Ms. Chéry Debel and told her that they needed to leave the country. “She was always the one who would comfort me, to give me the power to stay up,” he said. “But when I told her about the day of the protests, she became really depressed. She said, ‘Better not to tell me all these things.’”

It wasn’t long before shots were fired at Mr. Chéry’s car. Ms. Chéry Debel quit her job and they took their two daughters, Sara-Jah, 6, and Ruthnise, 12, out of school. For the next three months, the family moved from one friend’s house to another. “My wife started panicking. We were both having problems; we couldn’t support each other.”

The Magnum Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes diversity through documentary photography, had previously given Mr. Chéry a scholarship, so he reached out to them for help getting into the United States. In a matter of weeks, the foundation, working with Open Society Foundations, a global grant-making network, and City University of New York, secured entry visas for Mr. Chéry and his family.

But there was still the matter of finding a place to live. Mr. Chéry contacted every organization he thought might be willing to help. That’s when the New York City Artist Safe Haven Residency Program stepped in. Founded in 2017, the program is a coalition of several arts and free expression advocacy organizations that work to house, integrate and nurture visual artists, musicians, writers and other artists who are at risk because of their work.

$1,865 | West Village

Occupation: Photojournalist

The Pulitzer Prize: In 2020, Mr. Chéry was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for photographs he took for The Associated Press during protests across Haiti that called for the resignation of then-President Jovenel Moïse.

Current Project: Mr. Chéry is working on a long-term project about the practice of Voodoo in New York. “I’m trying to show from a Haitian perspective what Voodoo really is,” he said. Ceremonies in Haiti are usually outdoors, often in sacred spaces — not so in New York. “Why doesn’t the Haitian community have such spaces in New York? Why do they have to do the ceremonies in crowded basements?”

Ashley Tucker is the executive director of Artistic Freedom Initiative, a member of the coalition. “This program,” she said, “speaks to this idea of collective action being necessary to provide a holistic resettlement experience for artists who are coming to New York under these circumstances.”

The coalition includes Westbeth Artist Housing, which has so far set aside four apartments for individuals like Mr. Chéry. “The housing,” Ms. Tucker said, “that’s the linchpin for this program.”

In September 2021, Mr. Chéry and his family moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Westbeth.

“It was a very huge thing for me. I felt happy. My daughters have a room, I have a room with my wife and we have a living room. Everything is normal for us now.”

Just a year ago Mr. Chéry couldn’t have imagined that New York City would provide the normalcy that alluded his family back home. “Everyone I meet in Westbeth tells me, you’re so lucky,” he said. “There are so many people waiting for this building. And it’s true — I am lucky. This is a fantastic, wonderful place.”

His says his neighbors have welcomed him warmly. “We even found a grandma for my kids,” he said. “She loves them.”

Halina Warren has not only become a grandmother figure to Sara-Jah and Ruthnise, but when winter came, she found coats for the family — and she takes them on Costco runs in her car. “She does every little thing for us,” Mr. Chéry said. “I could never have imagined finding someone who really does care about us like this.”

Westbeth provided Mr. Chéry with a one-year lease, which means by September he needs a new place to live. He has income for the year through CUNY, which helps him pay the subsidized rent for now, but there will be challenges ahead as he seeks long-term residency status in the United States and more opportunities to earn a living.

The New York City Artist Safe Haven Residency Program, which has already provided everything from legal assistance to six months of therapy sessions, is doing what it can to help Mr. Chéry find solutions beyond his time at Westbeth.

The coalition published a guidebook, detailing all the work it does. “The idea was not only to tell the story of the design and development of the residency program,” Ms. Tucker said, “but also to give people a tool — a manual to reference — if they want to create something similar. Part of what made us hopeful about the success of this program is the possibility for it to be replicated.”

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