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9033: Re: A New World for Haitians (fwd)

From: Sicla@aol.com

A New World for Haitians
Refugees have been met with prejudice on American soil. Many have responded
pride, perseverance and achievement.

By JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG, Times Staff Writer

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

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

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

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

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."