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Brooklyn: Ground Zero for Black HIV/AIDS infections
Living with HIV/AIDS
Deborah Stewart New York
Monday, June 5th 2006

Central Brooklyn, which includes neighbourhoods such as Crown Heights, Flatbush, East Flatbush, Bedford Stuyvesant and Brownsville, is home to the largest West Indian population outside of the Caribbean. It is also Ground Zero for Black HIV/AIDS infections in the United States.

Karen Roberts, a native Tobagonian and Abigale Harry, an American of Trinidadian parentage have made it their mission to change those grim statistics. In 2005, the two women along with Guyanese native Jaunelle Todd formed West Indians Fuh Change (W.I. Fuh Change), an outreach organisation dedicated to the health concerns of West Indians living in Brooklyn.

On Sunday, May 21, in a quiet garden in Brooklyn's Flatbush neighbourhood, W.I. Fuh Change, in conjunction with AFFECT, East New York/Brownsville HIV Care Network and the Erasmus Neighbourhood Federation, organised and delivered Brooklyn's first Candlelight AIDS Memorial. "I knew that on May 21 many countries participate in the International Candlelight Ceremony," says Roberts of the idea to host a candlelight memorial in Brooklyn. "But I'd never seen one done in Brooklyn, so I mentioned it to Abigale, who took the idea and ran with it."

It wasn't the first time Harry had displayed her unwavering commitment to the West Indian community. In 2004, Harry partnered with Todd and Roberts to found Project CAUTION, a condom distribution program in which a team of young people distributed condoms in local nightclubs and other high-risk areas. The 28-year-old former Olympic hopeful (she had hoped to represent Trinidad & Tobago in the 2000 Olympics) currently sits on the Planning Committee of the Brooklyn Outreach Workers (BOW) and is active in both Brooklyn-based Caribbean AIDS Walks.

"I am just doing what needs to be done," she modestly says of her community involvement. "We need to really educate young people about HIV/AIDS prevention, and help to erase the stigma associated with the disease in the West Indian community."

Roberts, an HIV/AIDS counsellor and outreach worker for the Caribbean American Family Health Center, knows all about the rejection HIV/AIDS victims experience.

"I am a mother of three, a grandmother of seven, and I was diagnosed with HIV eight years ago," she said during her speech at the Brooklyn AIDS Candlelight Memorial. "I am here today through the grace of God, because I have never had to take any HIV medication since my diagnosis. I'm thankful that I've had the support of my family and friends from the start, but many West Indians with the disease aren't so lucky. They're still being thrown out of their homes, ostracised by their loved ones, and given plastic utensils to eat with." It is a scenario Roberts has encountered many times during her work with Tobago Progressive, an organisation that provides support and hope to people in Trinidad & Tobago who are living with HIV/AIDS.

"Because of this treatment, many people don't want to share their HIV positive status, which is one of the reasons the infection rate is rising in our community. Nowadays, everyone knows someone who has either died from HIV/AIDS or is living with the disease."

Throughout the 2-hour program, many speakers echoed Roberts' sentiments. A HIV positive Black American woman spoke of her thoughts of suicide upon being diagnosed, and the subsequent desertion of her family. An African woman shared her story of the death of her brother, which the family never discussed, but which she later discovered was due to AIDS. A Haitian man told of the discrimination he experienced in the eighties when the disease was attributed to Haitian immigrants. Even Daria Primus, lead vocalist of Ma$tamind Productions' band Impack2, was unable to finish her performance, overcome with emotion from the testimonials of the speakers. Although the stories were different, the message was universal: everyone is affected by HIV/AIDS.

W.I. Fuh Change hopes that next year, they can double the 50-person attendance at the Brooklyn AIDS Candlelight Memorial, and include more young people. "We're working with local health organisations and the Caribbean artistes of Ma$tamind Productions who also have a large following to help spread the word," said Harry.

I commend Ms. Roberts, Ms. Todd and Ms. Harry for their continued efforts.