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Meet the Gay Bahamian-American Fighting to Rebuild His Island

Shevrin Jones
Florida House of Representatives

Shevrin Jones, a gay Florida legislator, said America must lead with love and help the Bahamas rebuild.

For Shevrin Jones, the Bahamas don't represent some far-off vacation spot.

The Florida legislator's grandfather grew up in the islands before immigrating to the U.S. and building railroads to the Florida Keys. Most members of Jones's extended family on his father's side still live in the Bahamas to this day. "They are scattered all over all of the islands still," the gay lawmaker told The Advocate.

And that includes parts of the Abaco Islands, where Hurricane Dorian made landfall last week as a Category 5 storm, creating vast devastation.

The personal connections to the Bahamas led Jones to be among the first American politicians calling for foreign aid and philanthropic assistance for the Bahamas. Jones also traveled to the Bahamas as soon as it was safe for planes to fly from Florida to the island nation, arriving with an aircraft filled with supplies, according to Florida Politics.

Hurricane Dorian stalled over Grand Bahama Island and pounded the nation for 14 straight hours last week; that's actually the longest recorded time a hurricane remained stationary over land. Jones reports firsthand the devastation wrought by the storm.

"I've never seen anything like that. It looked like an explosion," Jones said of the state of the storm-stuck communities. "We have to remember, the building codes here are different than in the Bahamas."

It's a mess that won't be cleaned up in days or months, he says.

"Bahamians are going to need a lot, really over a couple of years, to help them rebuild," Jones said.

The Democratic politician has called on federal and state government officials to step in, suggesting a vested and critical interest for the United States in the well-being of the nearby nation. Many in Jones's home district in Florida are Bahamian-Americans, including himself. Besides holding personal and family connections for many, the nation is important because the tourism market in the Caribbean drives economic benefits through Florida as well.

Now Jones is reaching across the aisle to plead his case, including daily calls with Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. And that may be working: Rubio has already asked the White House to waive visa requirements for Bahamians with family in the U.S., the Miami Heraldreports.

It remains an open question if the Trump administration will offer help, especially considering treatment of Puerto Rico, an American territory, after Hurricane Maria in 2017. But Jones remains hopeful, and said so far the federal government has shown itself ready to help.

Thanks to Jones's family connections to the Bahamas, he's armed with compelling stories of the impact of the storm on island residents. Jones stunned many with a tragic text message he'd received from cousin Chrissy Gibson, a Bahamian government employee involved in cleanup efforts.

"My team and I found a whole family curl[ed] up in each other's arms dead!" Gibson wrote to Jones, declining to share photos of the scene. "Emotionally some of my team is falling apart and I have to keep them focused."

Those deaths were among the first recorded after Dorian.

The death toll in the Bahamas has already hit 23, most on Abaco, but officials tell the Nassau Guardian that's a conservative figure that will surely leap as search and rescue teams continue their work.

Sadly, Jones's family is one of many waiting for news from search and rescue teams. His cousin Gibby remains unaccounted for days after the storm. Whether that's because of broken communication lines or something worse remains to be seen.

Besides seeking foreign aid, Jones hopes Americans will reach into their own pocket and offer philanthropic assistance during this humanitarian crisis. He's directing interested individuals to the National Association of the Bahamas to ensure money and donations go to reputable charities and not online scams.

Some question sending money to the government in the Bahamas, which has a poor record as far as LGBTQ rights. Jones, who grew up in a religious home and came out only last year at age 34, knows well the stigma that exists in Caribbean culture. But he hopes that won't stop anyone from helping the Bahamas in this moment of need.

"Our help to individuals cannot be bound by how individuals will treat someone else," he said. "If we lived a world that was tit for tat, no one would get help ever. We have to step outside of how [victims] may view policy and look at it from a humanitarian perspective."

Jones quotes Cornell West: "You can't lead the people if you don't love the people."

And who knows? If a gay lawmaker from neighboring Florida can direct the aid Bahamians need, maybe that will open people's eyes to the worth of LGBTQ leaders around the globe, he hopes.

"I'm showing up saying, 'Look, it doesn't matter my lifestyle, I am here to help you,' " Jones said. "And the Bahamians right now are not asking the Coast Guard 'Tell me about your sexuality before you help me.' I can guarantee you that doesn't matter to them right now."

"No one asks to talk about your sexuality when they need help," he added.

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