Sylvan Jolibois spent the first three years of his life in Port-au-Prince, and grew up away from his homeland as he lived in New York, Africa, Spain, Venezuela and, finally, Miami.
The island nation never left his soul, however.
By the time he settled in Miami, he’d distinguished himself as a University of California, Berkeley, graduate with a civil engineering doctorate and the pick of many major universities with which to impart his knowledge. He accepted Florida International University’s offer and was a professor of civil and environmental engineering.
“He selected Miami because of the large Haitian population. It gave him the opportunity to travel back and forth to Haiti and make contributions throughout his life,” said his ex-wife Leonie Hermantin, who works as an independent consultant on Haitian development issues. She was previously director of research and development for Sant La, which helped new immigrants with social services.
Jolibois died Jan. 14 of a heart attack, Hermantin said. He was 59.
So much work was yet to come, said colleague and friend Marlene Bastien, founder and executive director of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami (Haitian Women of Miami), a women’s empowerment group.
“We lost a very strong community leader and advocate,” Bastien said. “He contributed as an engineer and was always concerned about grooming the young students. That is what I was most impressed with — his work with the young students. He was a visionary. This is a big, huge loss for the community and for young leadership.”
Bastien recalls how Jolibois, as a volunteer, helped raise money for Haitian Women of Miami and worked alongside her to mentor students at conferences in Washington, D.C., to learn about transportation.
“He’d get them interested and focused on giving back to the community,” she said. “He worked well with the young and with the old and was supportive of community organizations like ours. He understood philanthropy well and the importance of community-based organizations having the necessary resources. We are the first gateway to the community. He’d work day to day in the community intent about those organizations getting those resources.”
He was a fighter and he died fighting. He really wanted to lead. As a professor at FIU, he used to try to help the young leaders.
Marlene Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami, on Sylvan Jolibois
Born Aug. 5, 1957, in Port-au-Prince, Jolibois left at 3 to move to New York with his parents. At 5, he moved to Africa when his father, Dr. Sylvain Jolibois Sr., had been hired by the World Health Organization. Ten years later, in 1972, the family moved to Spain and Jolibois went to school there for two years. Later, he moved to Venezuela, New York and, in 1993, Miami with his wife and two children.
Jolibois often shared his story with his students to inspire them to work harder and not give in to discrimination. Bastien was always impressed by Jolibois’ passion.
He told her of how fellow Berkeley students would question him on campus, doubting that he, a Haitian immigrant, belonged at the school of higher education. Teachers, he said, figured he’d quit before earning a degree.
“They saw he was getting As and that he had the intellect to be there,” Bastien said.
He had the fortitude, too.
“He shared with students that when facing discrimination, the way to really thrive and be successful is to study hard and do not give in or feel like a victim,” Bastien said. “And that is what he did. He decided he wasn’t go to be a victim and he studied hard.”
At the time of his death, Hermantin said, Jolibois had been looking forward to working with Miami-Dade Public Schools but ill health cut his plans short. He had left FIU in 2013 when the school, he said, denied him a sabbatical leave for teaching and research work in Haiti. He filed suit against FIU, alleging discrimination. The court ruled in favor of FIU in 2016.
The legal tangle “broke his heart” said Hermantin. But setbacks didn’t dim his spirit.
Jolibois visited elementary schools, science fairs and worked with college grads so that they could move on to graduate school.
“He was interested in supporting students, not just Haitian, but students into becoming more accomplished,” Hermantin said.
For Jolibois, revisiting Haiti in 1999 for Diaspora Week was a moving homecoming after 25 years gone. So many heartbreaking changes in his homeland.
“The week was strongly emotional,” Jolibois told the Herald after he led panel discussions there and delivered a speech on what the island needs for economic development. Four years earlier, in 1995, he had organized a conference sponsored by FIU in Miami on infrastructure reconstruction in Haiti. “We have a lot to do to improve the country,” he said.
A week after the Haiti earthquake in January 2010, “a nightmarish situation beyond human comprehension,” Jolibois wrote an editorial for the Herald that offered suggestions on rebuilding.
“Once the immediate challenges brought by the earthquake are under control, Haitians should request a formalization of the country’s dependence on the international community, i.e., a 25-year United Nations Protectorate (or some analogous political designation similar to the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo). This would provide the political space necessary for implementation of development and reconstruction plans,” he wrote.
Said Hermantin: “His commitment to education, to community empowerment and social justice was interwoven into everything he did beyond the walls of academia.”
Jolibois is survived by his children Ayodele and Khalil Jolibois, his sisters Rollande Jolibois Cuvilly and Myrtho Jolibois and brother Maurice Jolibois, and his partner Mireille Prosper. A celebration of life will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 29, at Little Haiti Cultural Arts Center, 212 NE 59th Terrace, Miami.