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9013: A New World for Haitians (fwd)

From: ralph@gozing.com

From: Ralph Reid

A New World for Haitians 

Refugees have been met with prejudice on American soil. Many have responded with pride, perseverance and achievement.

Times Staff Writer

September 4 2001

MIAMI -- Twenty years ago, Ricles Fabien--a bulldozer operator in the most impoverished country in the Western hemisphere--staked his life and $100 of his skimpy savings on a chance at a better future.

He purchased passage across 600 miles of treacherous seas, from the Caribbean island nation of Haiti to the eastern coast of Florida. Twenty people boarded the frail, wooden boat at Port-de-Paix on Haiti's northwest tip. The trip would take six days.

Soon after arriving, Fabien got a job as a dishwasher in the Miami area, earning $3.35 an hour. He was among the lucky ones. An untold number of Haitians perished at sea on similar voyages during the 1980s, their bodies sometimes washing up onto Florida's beaches. In the same decade, an estimated 23,000 other Haitians were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard, and towed back home.

If any immigrants attempting to reach America literally fit the definition of wretched and tempest-tost, it was these Haitian boat people.

Arguably no group has been less welcome, or had greater obstacles to surmount once it arrived. But that was a generation ago.

Today, Fabien is head chef in the prepared foods department at a natural foods supermarket in the upscale Miami suburb of Aventura. "Your life is in your hands" is his personal credo. In his white chef's tunic, he earns six times what he did when he washed dishes and is building a $200,000 home. His American-born daughter, Vanessa, 17, has been elected president of the student government associations of Miami-Dade County. She hopes to go to an Ivy League college, and then to become not merely a pediatric heart surgeon, but the first Haitian American president of the United States.

"It will happen," the bright-eyed teenager said with quiet confidence.

Admittedly, the saga of the Fabiens, father and daughter, is the exception. Most of Florida's Haitians live modestly, or even on the wrong side of the poverty line. But because of their strong work ethic and reverence for education, their collective progress has been impressively steady and upward. The Haitian Americans' story, one anthropologist has written, has been one of "pride against prejudice."

For 18 years, Thomas G. Wenski, now an auxiliary bishop, was pastor of Miami's largest Roman Catholic church ministering to the boat people, Notre Dame d'Haiti. He remembers some arriving at church with their pants still damp from wading through the surf.

Ten years later, the priest was called upon to bless the homes some of these boat people worked and saved to purchase.

"The Haitians brought two qualities that American society supports," an admiring Wenski said. "They are decision-makers and they are risk-takers. If they were going to succeed, it was by their own efforts, nerve and persistence. There is a whole lot of Horatio Alger in the Haitian story."

No 19th century novel, though, could begin to convey the daunting challenges the people of this pathetic exodus faced. From a society so underdeveloped that burning charcoal is the major source of energy, they ferried themselves across the waves to the richest, most technologically advanced country in the world.

Shunned and Stigmatized

Few wanted them here.

They were black. They were predominantly poor. They spoke a language of their own, Creole. Many were sick. There was a widespread rumor in South Florida for years that they were endemic tuberculosis carriers, and fears they might have AIDS.

If Americans knew anything about their native land, it was probably unfavorable. Haiti was a place of voodoo and zombies.

U.S. immigration policy slowly evolved, but in general, "the Haitians always got the short end of the stick," Wenski said. Later in 1981, the year Fabien made his voyage, the Immigration and Naturalization Service began jailing all new Haitian arrivals, and the Coast Guard was authorized to interdict boats suspected of carrying refugees.

As the number of Haitians land

ing swelled, U.S. authorities moved to a policy of long-term detention that many American blacks denounced as rank racism.

Cubans, meanwhile, were getting a much better deal. For one thing, they were fleeing communism, while the bulk of the Haitians were deemed only to be seeking a higher standard of living. In Miami, a refugee from Cuba could count on the legal and economic benefits secured by a powerful, well-established ethnic community. Haitians usually got nothing.

And, unlike the Haitian boat people, many arriving Cubans were educated professionals, valued additions to the South Florida economy, and most were white.

Under current immigration rules, most Haitians who try to enter the United States without papers are still returned home. Cubans benefit from a policy known as "wet foot/dry foot," under which they are sent back if intercepted at sea, but allowed to stay if they manage to set foot on American soil.

In the early 1980s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified Haitians as a prime at-risk group for AIDS, making the boat people even greater pariahs. Many elected officials and other members of South Florida's political elite saw them as a disruption, draining scant resources. The Cuban American community did little to help, preferring to aid the simultaneous exodus from Cuba.

Finally, for some African Americans, Haitians were not fellow black-skinned men and women in desperate need, but threatening newcomers who would take away their jobs.

"We were received well by no one in this town," recalled Josephat Celestin, 45, a builder and architect who emigrated from Haiti by commercial airplane in 1978. "We didn't speak the language. We were not welcomed even by our brothers and sisters. They thought there wouldn't be enough of the apple to share."

Last May, in a small but significant apotheosis for Haitian Americans, Celestin was elected mayor of North Miami, a city of 59,000 that is the fourth largest in the Miami area. Joyous Haitians turned out by the hundreds for his investiture, waving the red-and-blue flags of their homeland and singing the national anthem, "La Dessalinienne."

Yesterday's boat people, one immigrant told a reporter, had become today's vote people.

"After today, those in the elected offices, those sitting in elected office can no longer afford to take our vote for granted," said Celestin, a Republican. For Haitian Americans, the mayor maintains, he is now as important a figure as President Bush.

It was Dec. 12, 1965, when the first boat from Haiti nudged onto Florida's shore, carrying a group that had shot up the presidential palace of dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Over the years, thousands more followed, fleeing dictatorship, drought, famine, a military coup, civil unrest, the devastation of a hurricane and the ordinary misery of day-to-day existence.

Exodus, in Fits and Starts

Boats still make the attempt, but they are a trickle compared to the cockleshell flotillas that set sail in the '80s and '90s. As recently as last week, Miami-based U.S. Customs agents announced they had stopped a 27-foot boat, running without navigation lights, that was carrying 15 illegal Haitian immigrants.

"The exodus has gone in fits," said Alex Stepick, an anthropologist from Florida International University who lived among Haitian Americans for four years. "There are times when you don't hear anything about it, and then a boat shows up."

Early last year, when crowds of Cuban American demonstrators in Miami were demanding that 6-year-old Cuban shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez be allowed to stay in the United States, a rusting freighter crammed with 407 people, mostly Haitians, ran aground off the Florida coast. The INS ordered the would-be immigrants returned to Haiti.

Just two decades ago, the word "Haitian" in South Florida conjured up images of restaurant dishwashers and busboys, hotel janitors, maids and maintenance men, and farm laborers. There still are plenty of those. But now there also is an association of Haitian American elected officials with 10 members, including a Democrat in the Florida House of Representatives.

These days, hundreds of lawyers, doctors, nurses, engineers and other professionals of Haitian origin call the Miami area home. Some are home-grown, others have moved down from older and more upscale Haitian communities in New York City and Montreal. Florida has more than 267,000 people of Haitian origin, the 2000 U.S. census found, more than double the 1990 figure.

Underground, Undercounted

Because the boat people came illegally, there is no way to tell how many were aboard the motley flotilla. "The problem is that you're dealing with a population that's underground; it's very hard to count, actually," an INS official in Washington said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Two years ago, the federal agency estimated there could be as many as 50,000 Haitians in the United States without proper documents.

Despite the inspiring success stories, many of the Haitians live hardscrabble lives, performing menial jobs shunned by native-born Americans.

"Little Haiti" is an oblong rectangle of old, single-story bungalows north of Miami's downtown, where boat people settled because of cheap rents. An estimated 60,000 refugees and descendants now live here, with the per capita income a mere $5,693. Increasingly, local problems mirror those of other inner-city areas--youth gangs, crime and drugs.

But as well, there is an undeniable energy that makes the Haitians one of the most dynamic ingredients in the ethnic cocktail that is metropolitan Miami. Taptaps, or jitney cabs, ply the streets of Little Haiti, on the prowl for passengers. Music from Haiti and the French Antilles blares from small shops painted in bright colors.

"Very rarely you'll find a Haitian who took the boat, risked getting eaten by sharks, who came here and isn't working," said Emile Viard, program administrator for Catholic Charities in Little Haiti. "They are very ambitious. They want a car and a house."

Last month, three suspects aged 18 to 20 who called themselves the True Haitian Boys were arrested in nearby Fort Lauderdale on suspicion of robbing convenience stores and a Dunkin' Donuts. The incident was more proof of rising crime in the Haitian community, where it was once virtually nonexistent.

But the gang's alleged motive, in its way, was also typically Haitian. One of the men told police the robbery proceeds were supposed to pay for high school equivalency diplomas.

"The Haitian community is the best community in Miami-Dade County," said Santiago C. Corrada, principal of Miami Edison Senior High School and son of Cuban-born parents. "There is a reverence for education, a respect. Haitians show the same respect for the teacher that the Japanese do. The family wants education as a vehicle for success."

Stepick, the anthropologist, says the Haitians have braved challenges in America experienced by no other ethnic group. "Mexicans may face prejudice in the Southwest, but the region has come to be dependent on their labor," said the author, who also is director of FIU's Immigration and Ethnicity Institute. As for the Vietnamese, "They were brought over here legally and given benefits," he said.

Recently, a group of investors started the country's first all-Haitian radio station, Radio Carnivale, to give their community an even more prominent presence. "We're in the midst of history being made," said Brian Stevens, correspondent for the Haitian Times, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based, English-language weekly. "Haitians are much more willing to assert themselves on whatever stage. They are showing up in places and situations where you wouldn't have expected to find them before."

There also is a more palpable sense of pride, of affirmation of one's Haitianness. It once was common for children of the boat people or younger immigrants to try to pass for native-born American blacks--to become, as the term goes, "cover-ups." In a famous incident, a Miami high school student shot and killed himself after his sister addressed him in Creole at the McDonald's where he worked, blowing his cover.

Uncovering Haitian Pride

Cover-ups still exist. But something has changed, and many cite the televised moment in 1996 when hip-hop musician Wyclef Jean displayed a Haitian flag at the MTV Music Awards. The following year, Jean wrapped himself in the same colors during a performance at the Grammy awards.

For Haitians, the collective surge in pride seems to have been akin to what American blacks felt when Jackie Robinson was called up from the minors to start for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

"Now kids who before wouldn't say a word of Creole wear T-shirts full of Creole sayings," said Viard, of Catholic Charities. "Now everyone in the street says sak pase--what's going on?"

But such self-affirmation is already causing problems. Celestin beat out an African American mailman in the North Miami mayor's race, and received telephoned death threats for days. For a time, he was assigned an around-the-clock police bodyguard.

Dario Moreno, professor of political science at Florida International University, predicted that a dominant theme in Miami politics during the coming decades will be the degree to which older, established African American politicians co-opt the Haitians, or are forced to share power. Politically speaking, the apple may not be big enough for everyone. "The Haitians' share of power has come, and will come, at the expense of African American politicians," Moreno said.

Currently, four of the 13 members of the powerful Miami-Dade County Commission are black. Moreno believes two of those "black" seats will ultimately be occupied by Haitians. That will be yet another jolt for Miami's African Americans, who already have seen much of their city's political and economic power pass to the Cuban Americans.

In June, Alex Duge, 18, stood on an auditorium stage, clad in a scarlet mortarboard and gown. Four years ago, when he arrived from Haiti by airplane, he didn't speak a word of English. By dint of determination and hard work, he finished as valedictorian of the Edison High Class of '01. The school, once overwhelmingly white and English-speaking, became predominantly Haitian in the late 1980s.

"They used to make fun of me," the slightly built teen with a wisp of a mustache remembered in his valedictory address. "It wasn't just African Americans, but Haitians too. When I learned a little bit of English, they made fun of my accent."

Duge turned a deaf ear to the mockery and resolved to become the top student in his 503-member class. "What I want to do, I can do," he said he told himself. By graduation, he had a 4.085 grade-point average. Last week, he enrolled at Florida State University to study engineering on a scholarship. His sister Erica, 19, is already there.

For Alex and Erica's father, who drives a vegetable delivery truck, their success is sweet. He arrived in Florida by sea in 1985, his wife three years later. They sent for their four children in 1997.

"We had a dream to bring the children here," Jean Duge said. "Sometimes we didn't eat, but we wanted to be the best." --- Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story. 

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