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a1756: Haitian American Community Council helps weed throughpaperwork (fwd)

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

Haitian American Community Council helps weed through paperwork

By Rhonda J. Miller
Staff Writer
Posted April 21 2002

Medoza Janvier of Delray Beach clutches papers, as do most of the 20 people
waiting at the Haitian American Community Council.

In hesitant English, he explains that he needs help to change his address
and phone number for his son's immigration papers.

It's the same for most of the others who wait patiently, often before or
after work. Jacques Simeus of Boynton Beach, holds immigration papers that
need to be finalized for his children, ages 16 and 18.

Haitians gravitate to the Haitian American Community Council in a shopping
plaza at Lake Ida Road and Congress Avenue, where the complex paperwork of
immigration, the needs of their families and assimilation into life in the
United States are all given careful attention.

Demand for assistance has grown in the 10 years since the council was
founded. In the past year, 8,000 Haitians have sought the legal, social and
emotional balm the center offers. On many days, 60 people are lined up
inside and out.

Parents seeking to bring their minor children from Haiti sometimes find that
they have unknowingly bought illegal birth certificates.

One man who came to the center in March said he spent $2,500 for documents
for his five children, then found the certificates weren't valid. A woman
discovered that she had spent $1,000 on a fake Haitian divorce decree.

"Did you go to Haiti? Did you sign papers?" Daniella Henry, executive
director of the council, asked the woman in Creole. "It only costs $300 at
the courthouse here to get a legal one."

The woman came to the council for help with sending the paperwork. She has
remarried and was caught off guard.

"This kind of thing happens every day," Henry said. "I have 10 cases of fake
divorce papers right now."

Another common request is for help getting work permits, said deputy
director Karlie Richardson, who joined the staff two years ago.

Richardson, who lives in Boynton Beach and was formerly a property manager
for the Delray Beach Housing Authority, is charged with building bridges
into the social, educational and recreational networks of the wider

"The center is a one-stop shop," Richardson said. "No matter what the issue
or problem, if we can't offer the service, we help people find it. I think
people come here because they feel safe. They have a sense of trust."

Henry, the founding director, left Haiti in 1975 to follow her dream of
working on Wall Street. In the midst of a successful career in finance, she
came to visit friends in South Florida in 1990.

"Your people here need you," the friend told Henry.

The influx of Haitian immigrants to South Florida in the past few years has
overwhelmed the council's eight-person staff.

The increase is attributed in large part to the 1998 Haitian Refugee
Immigration Fairness Act. The legislation allowed many Haitian immigrants
living in the United States to apply for legal residency and made it easier
for those in the country since 1995 to bring in immediate family members.

According to the 2000 census, there are 267,869 residents of Haitian descent
living in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. But activists and
local officials think that number is closer to 500,000. Among immigrant
minority groups, Haitians outnumber all others in Palm Beach County.

The council has expanded substantially since it was created a decade ago by
Henry and co-founder Carolyn Zimmerman, who is active in a wide range of
service organizations.

"Daniella set up with a typewriter and a desk in a tiny office on Woolbright
Road that we rented for $200 a month," said Zimmerman, of Delray Beach. "I
went out to community groups asking for funds. For two years, Daniella
didn't have a salary. Haitians put quarters in a jar.

"Dozens of people came in every day because they had no one else to go to,"
Zimmerman said. "We got a Haitian doctor to donate his services."

After two years, the council moved to a small office on Southeast Second
Street in Delray Beach. A second location in Lake Worth, which opened six
years ago, has a staff of five to meet the needs of the growing Haitian
population in central Palm Beach County.

In November 2000, the Delray Beach office relocated to 600 N. Congress
Avenue. Pictures of the Statue of Liberty, the American flag and the New
York skyline, before Sept. 11, hang on the wall.

The council offers parenting education, after-school tutoring, health care
and legal referrals, and housing for those diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, as
well as technical assistance with immigration and employment papers.

The council got a grant to help cover the cost of a house for people with
AIDS and a van. The council also has submitted an application to the state
Department of Children & Families, Refugee Services, for a contract for
family counseling to prevent domestic violence. A final decision is expected
in September.

Zimmerman is pleased with the progress the council's clients are making in
South Florida.

"I think the Haitian people have proven they're an asset," she said. "They
want to work and have a good life."

Rhonda J. Miller can be reached at rjmiller@sun-sentinel.com or

Copyright  2002, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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