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a150L Woman's years of sorrow end in safe haven (fwd)
From: leonie hermantin <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Woman's years of sorrow end in safe haven
By Jeremy Milarsky
December 23, 2001
Adrift in dark water and surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, as a refugees'
boat quickly sinks into the abyss, a young girl clutches her even younger
sister, moving her legs and arms furiously to stay alive and afloat.
It is the young girl's blackest moment. "I'm praying, I'm praying," she
recalls. But there the memory ends.
She wakes up inside the wire fences of Camp 9 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- 90
miles from the United States. She is a Haitian child among scores of other
Haitian children. Many are alone or orphaned. Most are illiterate and
uneducated. All of them are terrified.
She is homeless.
It's been more than seven years since Esther Magdale Deristile first read
the letter from former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno that allowed her
into the United States. Most of her 21 years of life are marked by tragedy,
cruelty and worst of all, the lack of a sense of home.
For her, it's perhaps appropriate that the first place where she truly felt
at home in her new country is called The Haven.
Tucked out of the way off a side street next to Florida's Turnpike in Boca
Raton, The Haven is a home for abused and neglected children, mostly teens.
For the staff members, helping young people regain their trust in people is
job one. Children live in cabins with adult mentors who help them with their
studies, and therapists who help them with their inner demons.
An average of 32 children stay at The Haven, located at 21441 Boca Rio Road,
at any given time. More than half of the charity's funding comes from
For Deristile, The Haven was one of the only places she has felt safe since
her early teens. She spent 21/2 years there, until her 18th birthday. Today,
she is a pre-med student at the University of Florida in Gainesville. She
lives off campus with her older sister, Milange, while her younger sister
lives in South Florida.
At the North Florida campus, studies are difficult. Esther cut a Friday
afternoon telephone conversation short to go spend the evening studying for
In Port-au-Prince, studies were almost nonexistent. She cannot remember ever
going to classes nine months out of the year.
Many times, she'd have to stay home because some thug with a rifle was
shooting up the school, she said.
"Just like Columbine, but it's not the children doing the shooting. It's the
As a little girl Esther remembers her father sprucing up in front of a
mirror, wearing a jacket and necktie. He told her he was heading off to
America. She asked him whether he would come back for her. He said yes.
But he never did, and probably couldn't if he wanted to. Haiti has
historically been a hotbed of violent politics and coups -- one was
attempted in Port-au-Prince last week -- and by 1991, the young girl's
family was marked for death.
Esther's mother was part of a "famous" family that had grown politically
unpopular at the time. Even today, she will not divulge her mother's maiden
name, fearing for her own safety.
Esther's oldest brother was a radio personality and journalist who often
criticized the government.
She remembers evenings when her mother would plead with the young man,
begging him to stop broadcasting commentary. She thought it was only a
matter of time before trouble came to their home.
It did, on March 30, 1994. A group of men burst into the house and shot
Esther's brother dead while she watched. She was 13 years old.
Her mother disappeared. Esther hopes she's still alive and fantasizes about
returning to Haiti to find her.
Esther, her two surviving brothers and two sisters fled into the mountains
of the Haitian countryside. For periods of two, maybe three days -- but no
longer -- families would hide them from bands of thugs.
It became safer to hide on Mount Cocoye, inside a church, where even thugs
are less likely to intrude with rifles.
By mid-April of 1994, someone approached the children with news that a ship
was leaving for the United States. They had to meet at a bank, the Bank de
Paris, and wait. It was a risk, but "we couldn't stay in the church
forever," Esther said.
She remembers a merciless ocean and a rescue by the U.S. Coast Guard. It's
the part that haunts her the most.
Two years ago, Esther Deristile tried to watch the movie Titanic with a
friend. When it got to the part where the big boat sinks, Esther ran out of
the theater. She couldn't watch because she had lived through the real
She was one of five Deristile children who ended up in Camp 9 at Guantanamo
Bay. It was Esther, her younger sister Bastian, her older brothers Jude and
Anatael, and her older sister Milange.
At the time, the federal government had been sending children back to Haiti
because technically, the country still was holding democratic elections. But
in the minds of the children of Camp 9, the island was caught in a
stranglehold of violence.
Eventually, Miami attorney Cheryl Little helped Esther and her siblings into
the United States, mostly because her father had been in this country for
When she left Guantanamo, Esther had stayed in a military camp for seven
months and 24 days.
"I forgot the hours," she said, shaking her head. "I used to know how many
Esther's father's house was not home for her and her younger sister. Her
father had heard rumors from back on the island that the two girls were not
really his, but the product of an extramarital affair.
"He can take care of the other kids, but me and Bastian, he can't take care
of us," she said. "In our culture, it doesn't work that way. But I was
innocent. How can I be punished for something I did not do?"
The father was a hard man, a drinking man. Something would set him off and
he would hit the girls. If they cried, he'd hit harder.
"You know when he's drunk, not to mess with him," Esther said. "I used to
say, OK, don't cry, don't make any noise. Because that would make it worse.
But Bastian, she would cry. A lot."
Esther and Bastian did not speak English yet, but their bruises told a
teacher at Atlantic High School in Delray Beach enough.
The girls became wards of the state and were sent into foster homes.
Eventually, Esther landed in The Haven. For her, it was just that.
"If the children who live here have anything, they have a home."
To donate to the Children's Fund online, go to: sun-sentinel.com/donate
Jeremy Milarsky can be reached at email@example.com or call
Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
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