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#722: Deportees reflect on life in Haiti (fwd)
Published Monday, October 11, 1999, in the Miami Herald
Losing the American dream_______
by YVES COLON_______ Deportees reflect on life in Haiti
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Harry Desir feels as if he's been caught in a
nightmare. He runs and runs, but can't get out. Every time he opens his
eyes, he finds himself in the middle of the poverty and chaos of Haiti,
and he says he doesn't belong here. Although he's a Haitian citizen, he
believes he belongs in the United States, where he lived from age 11 to
25, until 1995. The United States doesn't want him back. The
government calls him a criminal alien, an immigrant who was convicted
of armed robbery and blew his chance at the American dream. And the
Haitian government blames people like him for a rise in crime.
Desir says it was cruel to send him back to the country he knows only
from his immigrant parents. ``I'd rather spend my life locked up in the
United States than being down here,'' said Desir, 29. ``Being down here
is a big life sentence. I'm still locked up, but I don't know when I'm
going to get out. Once you can't get out, it's hell on earth.''
Desir and others like him are in Haiti because Congress, encouraged by
Americans fed up with crime and illegal immigration, passed a law in
1996 that mandates deportation for noncitizens who commit felonies.
Since then, about 900 ex-convict Haitians have been deported by the
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, most for drug offenses.
Several other countries, such as Jamaica, El Salvador, Honduras and
Nicaragua, also are straining to absorb the wayward children of
immigrants who left decades ago.
In a sense, Desir is one of the lucky ones. He found out about a
program called Chans Alternativ -- an odd concept in Haiti, where second
chances are rare. Other refoules -- as they call the deportees in Creole
-- who don't make it as far end up as crackheads on the street -- or
dead. ``We're the few with our heads on,'' said Frantz Jean, another
deportee from Overtown. The program is run on a shoestring by Michelle
Karshan, an American who has lived in Haiti for the past five years. It
tries to help young men like Desir and Jean cope in their new, strange
world. Like Desir, most of the deportees live on the few dollars their
families in the United States can afford to send them. But, as Desir
says, their parents are poor -- gardeners in Miami, agricultural workers
in Palm Beach, maids and cooks in Broward -- and they can afford to do
that for only so long. ``They're getting fed up with it,'' Desir said.
``By me staying down here, I'll never be able to take care of myself.''
Finding a job has been the deportees' biggest hurdle. It's not easy to
find a job in a country where unemployment runs about 80 percent. The
deportees say that Haiti's light-skinned business elite treat them with
contempt. Those who do get work can't get paid, they say.
Desir stands out among Haitians who are mostly poor and conservative. A
baseball cap is cocked sideways on his shaved head. He wears a designer
baseball shirt, short pants and high-top sneakers. Desir has attitude.
He doesn't smile readily. It's part defense mechanism, he says, because
Haitians don't like him. They resent him for losing the opportunity to
live in the United States, for which many risk their lives. They blame
him, and hundreds of other deportees, for one of the worst crime waves
the country has experienced. Haitians say the deportees are behind the
drug trade and are responsible for break-ins and shootings.
``They take us for thieves,'' Desir said. ``The way we dress, the way
we walk, they know we don't belong here. They call us thief to our
faces.'' That's why Desir keeps a low profile. Some nights, he doesn't
know where he's going to sleep. He can't rent a room because he lives on
the few dollars his mother sends him from the $310 a week she earns as a
school crossing guard in New York City. His mother, Bertha Desir, said
her son fell in with the wrong crowd back in the United States. ``I
would give everything for my child not to be in this position,'' she
said. Her son, meanwhile, dreams of the day he can visit his old
neighborhood in New York City. He's remorseful, and wants Americans to
know he's paid the time. Banishment to Haiti, he said, exceeds the
crime. ``They screwed up my life,'' he said of the U.S. immigration
agency. ``They destroyed my life.''
`SOME KIND OF MISTAKE'
Lurkson Nope, deported last year from Delray Beach following a cocaine
possession conviction, was only 2 years old when his family left the
Bahamas, where he was born, for Palm Beach County. The Bahamas does not
recognize him as a citizen because his parents were born in Haiti.
Like the other deportees who make up his new friends, his parents never
bothered to become U.S. citizens, or to obtain citizenship for their
children. Nope, who went from Calusa Elementary to Spanish River High
School, dropped out in the 10th grade. He learned crime along Atlantic
Avenue, near the family's home. Nope doesn't go out because he can't
speak Creole, much less French. He and other deportees say they feel
like garbage thrown out of a shining castle, garbage thrown into one of
America's penal colonies. ``This is supposed to be some kind of
mistake,'' said Renal Durosier, who has been in Haiti for three years
and has a 5-year-old daughter in Broward County. The mother, he said,
refuses to bring his child to visit him. Durosier, also
convicted of cocaine possession, claims he automatically became an
American because he was younger than 18 when his father became a
naturalized U.S. citizen. The immigration service is looking into his
Once the deportees get to Haiti, some are released at the airport,
while others are kept in jail until a family member can claim them.
Sometimes no one comes, and they stay in a closet-size room with several
other prisoners until someone else in the Chans Alternativ program
signs them out. When Nope got here, there was no one to sign him out of
the jail. He spent a few days in a cell until one of his nine sisters
came from Miami to bail him out. Then, ``the guys [in the program] took
him in and taught him how to live,'' Karshan said. About 60 deportees go
through the program on a regular basis, Karshan said. They take part in
the program's language classes. Karshan brought in a Canadian
to teach them how to teach English to others. They take classes about
HIV prevention, conflict resolution, mediation, peer counseling. They
learn how to apply for jobs. Many of the deportees are interested in
hip-hop and rap music and hope to produce a CD of their work. Eleven
graduated from a computer skills class and got jobs. In the program's
three years, Karshan said, only one person marginally involved with it
committed a robbery in Haiti.Even though the Haitian government is not
helping the deportees financially, officials say they are straining
under the weight of all these young men without jobs and a bleak
prospect for the future. Justice Minister Camille Leblanc said he wanted
to negotiate a new deal with Washington, saying his country could not
absorb the deportees at the rate they are being shipped. In August, he
said Haiti would begin returning deportees without documents proving
Haitian citizenship. The prime minister made good on the government's
word, ordering that a deportee from New York be returned to the United
States. He promised to penalize airlines in such cases. The U.S.
immigration service says only that it is working within its agreement
with the Haitian government. Haitian officials at first were quick to
blame the deportees for crimes and for increasing gang activity,
referring to them as bandits. ``The criminals that they are
deporting were not raised in Haiti. They didn't learn to become
criminals in Haiti. They learned those delinquent behaviors in the
United States or in Canada,'' said Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine, who heads a
human rights organization.
But others say the deportees are scapegoats for problems caused by
deteriorating economic conditions, the prevalence of guns among former
macoutes -- and the international drug trade. Karshan says the
deportees have not formed gangs. They ``hang together because they have
no one else from their backgrounds to take care of them,'' she
said. Others said such misperceptions spark unfair prejudice against
deportees. ``I've been here five years and I've never been involved in a
crime,'' Desir said. ``That tells you that what they're saying is
garbage.'' That image of the deportees as criminals may have its roots
in language. The word criminal in Creole is reserved for murder. And
many of them are unloaded from planes in chains and shackles.
``That was most embarrassing,'' Durosier said. His voyage began at the
Opa-locka Airport when four U.S. Marshals each grabbed a limb and threw
him on a small plane. ``Nobody would tell me where I was going,'' he
said. ``They just threw me up in the plane like a sack of garbage. And
here I was getting off at the airport and a bunch of people on a
balcony, all over the airport, were looking at me, pointing fingers.
They must have thought I was some great killer.''