Photo: Max Dolberg

He was supposed to make a new life in the United States. Now, Ivenson Jasnel Dorne is broadcasting online to connect a community of Haitians stuck in migratory limbo in Mexico.

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Early one recent morning, about 150 worshippers packed the pews at the First Baptist Church in downtown Tijuana, Mexico, dressed in their Sunday best. Between sermons—delivered in Spanish and Haitian Creole—they sang and danced to hymns performed by the church band.

The congregation represents just a fraction of the more than 20,000 Haitians who arrived at this border two years ago, hoping to make a new life in the United States. When Trump’s election made those plans feel improbable, around 3,000 Haitians decided to stay and carve out a life here, in the shadow of the border wall. They’ve opened restaurants, founded churches and formed soccer leagues, all in an effort to make this liminal desert landscape feel more like home.

One those who stayed is Ivenson Jasnel Dorne, a slight, clean-cut 24-year-old who stands next to a tripod at the front of the church. He’s broadcasting the service via Facebook Live to the more than 7,000 people who follow his nascent community radio station, Radio Haitiano de Tijuana. In RHT, Jasnel has created one of the only sources of news and information in Creole for the Haitian community in Tijuana.

“I realized there are so many Haitians here, but they don’t have a media voice that can speak for them,” Jasnel says softly, in good Spanish, as we sit in a nearby Haitian restaurant after the church service ends. He launched the radio station about six months ago “to deliver the news and inform the community about what’s happening in Haiti and here in Mexico.”

At First Baptist Church in downtown Tijuana, Mexico, sermons are delivered in Spanish and Haitian Creole. Max Dolberg

Jasnel left Port-au-Prince in July 2016 and arrived in Tijuana by the end of that year, after an exhausting overland odyssey from Brazil.

“From Colombia, we had to walk for four days to cross the border with Panama,” he says over the sound of plantains and fish sizzling in oil. Originally hoping to make it to New York to pursue a degree in engineering informatics, Jasnel’s journey came to an abrupt halt at the southern U.S. border. These days, he works for a furniture manufacturer, upholstering sofas, and shares an apartment in Tijuana’s La Presa neighborhood with a Haitian friend. In his spare time, he runs the RHT page, where in addition to live-streaming church services, he posts concert announcements for the big-name Haitian musicians and DJs who’ve started to include Tijuana on their tour schedules, and shares news about the changing immigration situation.

Ivenson Jasnel Dorne didn't intend to move to Mexico, but now he's hoping to stay and make a life in Tijuana. Max Dolberg

“I have everyone’s number,” he says. “If something happens, they call me or send me a message and I go and report on it so people can know what’s going on.”

A few months ago, he got a text saying that a fellow Haitian’s home was on fire. Jasnel and a small group of people from the NGO he was traveling with went to the scene.

“By the time we arrived, the firefighters had put out the fire, so we went to talk to the people to find out what happened,” he says. “I felt so sad. Just imagine: all his papers were in his house, his passport, his documents, everything burned. He told me his wife was eight months pregnant; imagine how that must’ve been.”

Jasnel posted photos of the destruction to the Facebook page and appealed to the community for help. “They brought clothing, money, food—someone brought him a bed,” Jasnel says. “It was really great.”

In the last two years, Haitians migrants have opened restaurants, founded churches and formed soccer leagues in Tijuana, making the border city feel more like home. Max Dolberg

But perhaps RHT’s most popular feature is Haitian movie night, with a different film streaming live at 6 p.m. If Jasnel happens to get caught in traffic on the way home from work and the screening doesn’t start on time, he says impatient followers will start blowing up his phone.

Jasnel says that RHT’s Facebook followers are a mix of Haitians both in Tijuana and elsewhere, and Mexicans interested in learning more about their new neighbors. Eventually, he hopes to secure sponsors and find RHT a home on the FM dial.

“We don’t have anything. We don’t even have a microphone, a mixer, nothing. Just a camera and my cell phone,” he says. Still, the project has given him opportunities, like the chance to meet and interview the Haitian ambassador to Mexico.

“I’m always happy to tell the Haitians when the ambassador is coming, or give news about what immigration says about our papers,” he says. “Sometimes I feel lonely. Sometimes I miss Haiti a lot, miss my family. But I like being here. I really didn’t know anything about Tijuana. In my country they said Mexicans are racist, but when I came here I found that they’re very good people.”

He’s hoping to gain permanent residency in Mexico, maybe get married. He says he’d still like to go to the U.S. eventually, but just to visit.

For Esdrace Garcon, 36, adjusting to life in Tijuana hasn’t been easy, but finding community at church and in the radio station helps him feel less isolated.

“We can be with our paisanos, speaking the same language, praying in our own language,” he says. “It helps us reconnect to our culture and feel at home.”