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#4675: Refugee mom grapples with U.S. life (fwd)
Published Sunday, July 23, 2000, in the Miami Herald
Refugee mom grapples with U.S. life
Reunited family awaits asylum hearing BY SANDRA MARQUEZ GARCIA
Yvena Rhinvil, the pregnant Haitian mother who was separated from her
children on a New Year's Eve smuggling journey that made headlines for
its slave-era ship conditions, says her seven months in South Florida
have not lived up to the glorified accounts she heard back in her
homeland. ''When you go there, you will find money on the floor,'' the
voices on Port-au-Prince's bustling streets had promised. The reality of
life as a new immigrant -- sharing a bedroom with her sister and their
four children in a crowded Broward apartment and not having her own
source of income -- has deviated from the fantasy spun back in Haiti.
But she says she doesn't regret the risks she took to come to the United
States. ''I never really thought like a lot of people that this would be
paradise,'' Rhinvil, 33, said wistfully. ''Even if you only work to pay
the bills, [life in America] is still better than in Haiti.'' Rhinvil
was one of four women -- three of whom were pregnant -- who were brought
ashore for medical reasons; she was allowed to remain here while
immigration officials consider her case for political asylum. Rhinvil
has in many ways already beaten the odds. Her case generated intense
media attention because her children were sent back to Haiti at a time
when Elián González's supporters were paralyzing traffic in Miami to
keep the Cuban boy here. With her 2-week-old daughter, Anne Mitchelle,
bundled by her side, Rhinvil reflected on the bright moments and the
hardships she has encountered so far: Her two eldest children, Marc, 10,
and Germanie, 8, who were reunited with her at an emotional gathering
before television cameras at Miami International Airport in
January, are in summer school and making swift progress learning
English -- and Spanish, too. But they often come home and tearfully
relate to their mother that they were beaten up and taunted by other
children on the school bus for not speaking English. Unspoken tensions
are also brewing at home. Rhinvil's sister, Rosna Adras, a
factory worker and single mother of a 5-year-old boy, has four new
mouths to feed. The children don't always get along with their cousin,
and Rhinvil says she's uncomfortable in the role of disciplinarian.
To contribute financially, Rhinvil recently parted with a pair of
earrings for $100 at a pawnshop.
But her biggest challenge could still loom ahead: In September, Rhinvil
must make her case before an immigration judge that she will face
political persecution if returned to Haiti. She'll be backed by her
attorney, Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant
Advocacy Center, and experts who will try to convince the court that
Haiti's fractious new democracy poses hazards on par with those of the
military junta that U.S. troops helped to oust in 1994. ''We believe she
has a meritorious case, but it is clearly an uphill battle,'' Little
said. ''Regardless of the strength of the claim, Haitians are generally
denied asylum. At the end of the day, most are ordered deported.''
Little wouldn't divulge much about her client's claim, except to say
that Rhinvil suffered because of her political beliefs while in Haiti.
''Obviously, she will tell her own story about why she is afraid to
return,'' she said. Until then, Rhinvil plans to continue forging ahead
with her family's new life at the three-bedroom apartment she shares
with her sister and three other adults in the Whispering Palms complex
in Lauderdale Lakes. Her days are mostly spent inside the apartment, and
there are long hours consumed by confusing doctor's appointments for her
baby that she said sometimes make her long for the familiarity of Haiti.
''Every time I go to the hospital, I spend many hours. Maybe it's
because I don't have insurance,'' she said.
She said she is looking forward to resuming the English classes she
began before giving birth, but already there are signs of progress. She
proudly spells her baby's last name, ticking off the letters in English:
''R-H-I-N-V-I-L!'' On this sticky afternoon in July, an uncle and his
wife have popped by the apartment for a brief visit and marvel at the
infant's ability to hold up her head. ''Li kembe tet li [She's keeping
her head up],'' they exclaim. Rhinvil beams as if the comment was
intended for her. When describing her situation, she does not
sugar-coat it: ''I'm not bad off. But I am not well off. I don't have a
house. I'm living with my sister, and I have three kids to feed.''
But where an outsider might see obstacles,struggle and sacrifice ahead,
Rhinvil knows what she has already accomplished. In Haiti, she would be
living in fear for her family's safety, and everyday necessities -- such
as electricity and running water -- often would not be available, and in
the case of water, sometimes contaminated, she said. Here, her two
eldest, Marc and Germanie, attend Mirror Lake Elementary in
Plantation, without having to pay costly tuition.
As her mother talks, Germanie displays her new skills, writing
sentences in English with ease and drawing sketches in her lesson book.
In Florida, she has discovered the taste of apples, pizza and chicken
nuggets, she said. She wants to be a doctor when she grows up.
On a nearby couch, brother Marc takes turns playing with a toy cell
phone and reading sentences out loud from a book in English. He said he
wanted to be a pilot until he learned that planes could crash.
When the conversation shifts to the New Year's Eve journey to Florida,
Germanie covers her face with both hands. Marleine Bastien, the
president of Haitian Women of Miami, who is on hand for the interview,
asks if she has a bad memory of the trip. ''I thought the boat would
sink,'' Germanie says quietly. In fact, passengers on the bloated vessel
reported that as many as 10 people suffocated or jumped overboard to
escape the inhumane conditions at sea. In all, some 413 passengers --
mostly Haitian, but also some Dominicans and two Chinese -- traveled
navel to navel for nearly one week in a 60-foot homemade boat
without toilets. To avoid tipping the boat over, hundreds of passengers
were crammed into the lower hold ---- only being allowed to come up for
air for brief intervals. The boat's journey came to a climactic end
after the vessel ran aground within a few miles of Key Biscayne just
after midnight on New Year's Eve. Those on the upper deck
were treated to a spectacular fireworks show. Rhinvil -- separated from
her children almost immediately -- said she doesn't remember much about
the trip. ''From the moment I set foot on that boat I had problems,''
she said. ''I started to vomit. I couldn't eat.'' Already it seems a
distant memory, she said. Her thoughts seem focused on the
future. ''I want to go to school, but the immediate thing I need to do
is get a job,'' she said. ''Here, you have to pay for your water, your
electricity and your house. I don't regret it. If I have problems, I
have to solve them.'' Anne Mitchelle, born at Broward General Hospital
on July 7, already has benefited from her mother's sacrifice. ''At least
she is an American citizen, and they can't deport her,'' Rhinvil said.