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#5199: Activist's fervor garners award (fwd)
Published Saturday, September 30, 2000, in the Miami Herald
Activist's fervor garners award BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
The phone inside the office of Haitian Women of Miami seldom stops
ringing. Almost always, it's for Marleine Bastien, president of
Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami. The mayor of El Portal calls to ask her to
attend a last-minute meeting with detainees at the Krome detention
center. A crew from Fox News wants to come by and tape an
interview on the Haitian elections. A New York radio station needs her
perspective on an immigration issue. Bastien, who began her day at 5:30
a.m., is tired and hungry. But that doesn't break her focus, which for
the moment is Friday's protest at immigration headquarters on behalf
of dozens of Haitians who had been detained at Krome after coming
ashore in Broward last week.
``These people are asylum seekers. They are not criminals. They should
not be detained for weeks and weeks,'' Bastien says in a soft,
melodic voice. In the world of grass-roots activism, though, Bastien's
voice always booms loud. A political activist, social worker,
songwriter, dancer and mother, Bastien is among an elite group of
Haitian-American women who are turning heads in the male-dominated world
of Haitian leadership. Her accomplishments and accolades are many, as
reflected on her office wall with newspaper clippings, photographs and
plaques. On Sunday, she'll make room for one more: the annual Human
Rights Award from the Miami Chapter of Amnesty International.
``It warms my heart that my efforts for years are being honored,''
Bastien says of the award. ``I spend entire nights not able to sleep
thinking about this bitter world I live in. I get into depression
periods, sometimes. I can't change the world, but I feel like there is
something I can do to make things better.''
Gladys Pérez, local coordinator for Amnesty International, says the
group chose Bastien because of her endless devotion to her work -- from
educating women about breast cancer, to counseling the families of
children with sickle cell anemia to rallying on Capitol Hill for
immigration laws on behalf of Haitians and Hispanics.
``Being an educated woman, being a woman with her own career, she has
chosen voluntarily to form Haitian Women of Miami,'' Pérez says. ``She
is there to promote the rights and empower women and men so they can
build a community and be respected in the future. ``Giving this award to
Marleine is for her past human rights effort, support so she
continues to do such a great job and to give support to the Haitian
people at a time when they need it.'' Bastien, the oldest of eight
children, grew up in Pont Benoit, a village in northern
Haiti. Her father was a rice and mango farmer who also doubled as the
town's nurse. Like her father, she wanted to go medical school but
settled on a career in social work after coming to Miami in 1981. One of
her first jobs here was working as a paralegal and interpreter at the
Haitian Refugee Center, where she often visited detainees at Krome.
Today at 41, Bastien continues to devote her life to helping Haitians
adjust to American life and teaching America about her people.
Last month, after balancing her full-time job, Bastien quit. After 13
years as a clinical social worker at Jackson Memorial Hospital, she
wanted to give her full attention to Haitian Women of Miami, or FANM,
the nonprofit advocacy group she founded nine years ago.
``It had gotten overwhelming,'' Bastien says. ``Trying to be there
full-time, and trying to provide services, and at the same time trying
to mobilize people and wake them up. I didn't have any time to sleep.
Now, I can have more of an impact.'' It also gives Bastien more time to
spend with her three sons: Omar, 12, Akim, 7, and Tarik, 4. ``She is a
very dynamic and charismatic person to be able to keep the
organization going and grow as much as it has, all that going,'' says
Laura Quass, FANM's part-time program coordinator. Jean-Robert
Lafortune, president of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition
who has known Bastien for nearly 20 years, says she is a tireless
``voice for the voiceless.'' ``She has the passion to fight and the
passion to help the disadvantaged,'' he says. ``She is very consistent.
She is somebody who is not afraid to speak her mind.''
Bastien founded FANM to empower women socially, politically and
economically. For now, it operates out of an office at 8340 NE Second
Ave. The owner has allowed it to stay there rent-free for two years but
recently asked the group to pay up, something it can't afford to do.
Still, she presses on. Among FANM's issues: breast cancer awareness,
citizenship, mobilizing nursing home workers, immigration and domestic
violence. In fact, domestic violence remains such a touchy issue that
Bastien recalls the negative reaction she and other FANM members
received when they began talking about it on Haitian radio and in the
community years ago. ``They told me I was dividing families, that I want
to be a man, and I was encouraging women to wear the pants in the
household,'' Bastien recalls, noting that she even received death
threats. ``Now they say the Haitian Women of Miami are taking over.
That's better than death threats. That's better than `We are
dividing families.' Now they are coming to us to mend families.
Patience pays. ``My mission of empowering women means also empowering
the families. Empowering women means empowering society. The women are
the backbones of the family,'' she adds. The phone rings, once more.
Bastien answers the call. It's a detainee from Krome
on the line. After listening to the young man go on about not
understanding why he and others are locked up, Bastien, in that soft,
melodic voice offers these words of comfort: ``Tell the people inside to