Haiti Memories : Searching for a New Life, Hundreds of Refugees Have Arrived in L.A. With Their Stories of Despair and Brutal Treatment Back Home.
In 1991, as military thugs ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide as that country’s first democratically elected president, droves of citizens started fleeing Haiti for political reprieve in the United States.
Tens of thousands have ended up in the United States, and hundreds of those refugees have come to Los Angeles in search of a new, safer life. Here, the Haitians cope with language barriers that isolate them from a populace that generally knows little of their language or culture and struggle to find work. Meanwhile, they await word on whether they will be granted political asylum.
The 1990 U.S. Census counted 2,781 Haitians, including recent refugees as well as long-time immigrants, in Southern California, spread from Orange and San Bernardino counties to various parts of Los Angeles County. But Gilbert Perpignand, president of the board of the Crenshaw-based Haitian Community Refugee Center, said many Haitians did not check off their nationality on census forms and estimated that at least 5,000 live in Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties.
More than 1,000 live in the city of Los Angeles, Perpignand said, with significant clusters in Van Nuys and Inglewood. About 300 Haitians were resettled in Los Angeles--as well as other cities--with the help of Catholic Charities to disperse the refugees from more common destinations such as Miami and New York City.
The refugees have brought to Los Angeles little more than stories of incredible despair in one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. But even more disturbing are accounts of torture as bad, if not worse, than anything inflicted during the regime of former dictator Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier.
“Your average Haitian today has suffered much more egregious persecution than in the 1980s,” said Neil Frenzen, an attorney with the public interest law firm Public Counsel who specializes in political asylum cases.
For this reason, Haitians in Los Angeles are cautious about what they say about their homeland. They fear what the military regime might do to their families who are still in their own country if their protests somehow make their way back home.
“Right now, people won’t talk too much about politics, because they’re afraid of things getting back to Haiti,” Perpignand said. “Some also worry that saying the wrong thing could ruin their chances of gaining asylum.”
The following are pieces of the lives of a few Haitian refugees, who at one time or another relied on the Haitian Community Refugee Center to help them adjust after the struggles that forced them to leave Haiti and to their sometimes awkward transitions to life in Los Angeles.
Yves can never forget Haiti. If his memory ever fails him, the raised scars sliced through his back will remind him of his country, plagued by a brutal government that has been accused of random torture and killing.
For a number of years before the 30-year-old man fled Haiti for the United States two years ago, he was beaten, stabbed, cut with machetes and had his life threatened repeatedly by soldiers and government supporters, he said. All because he followed the orders of a priest for whom he was working and supported the National Front for Change and Democracy (FNCD), an umbrella organization started in 1987 that joined 64 unions and social and political organizations.
“I protested against Duvalier and later was an Aristide supporter. That’s why the police gave me a hard time,” said Yves, who asked that his last name not be used to spare his family in Haiti any trouble.
A short, beefy man with closely shorn hair and thick hands, Yves speaks of Haiti in bittersweet tones.
In 1982, when he was 18 and living in an impoverished section of Port-au-Prince, Yves started working for a priest at St. Joseph’s Church in the city. He helped distribute food to the city’s indigent and was able to make some money to get ahead. But the job also pitted Yves against poor Haitians who demanded to be given some of the free food.
At various times, these people tried to pummel him, he said. He recalled beatings, arrests, days in jail for no reason and death threats, some at the hands of police, others from people assisted by the militia. The worst assault was in February, 1991.
According to Yves, 20 civilians burst into the priest’s home wielding knives, guns and machetes. Yves said he stepped between them and the priest to protect the vicar. He was cut on the chin and chest, but the most severe wounds were the machete slashes to Yves’ back--nearly half a dozen--that have left prominent scars.
“The police called me a troublemaker because I was trying to do good,” Yves said. “They didn’t like that.”
More than a year later, in April, 1992, with rumored death threats against him, Yves was urged by a friend to leave Haiti. Without a word to his parents and siblings, Yves boarded a boat from Port-au-Prince bound for Miami at 4 a.m., paying his fare with five buckets of pasta he received from the church, he said.
On the boat, when a Haitian was in trouble for allegedly stealing money from crew members, Yves said he was asked to help the man. His benevolence nearly cost him his life. Yves said crew members of the boat pushed him overboard, possibly in an attempt to kill him.
After swimming for what felt like an hour, Yves was rescued by another group of Haitian boat people. Both boats were seized by the U.S. Coast Guard and taken to the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where Yves spent nearly two months before being screened by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He was finally sent to Los Angeles in July, 1992, by Catholic Charities.
He lives in Inglewood and is studying English to take the General Equivalency Diploma exam. But ultimately, Yves hopes to return to Haiti once--and if--Aristide is returned to power.
“I dream of my country,” Yves said in broken English. “I am born (in) Haiti. This is my country. I dream of my country.”
There are still times when Estella Fleury dreams of her 6-month-old son--seeing his face or hearing him coo.
Then she remembers the gunshots allegedly fired by members of the notorious Tontons Macoutes hit squad that riddled her shanty home in Port-au-Prince--particularly the bullet that killed her son while he was lying in bed with her.
Four years after the incident, Fleury, sitting in a gold velour-covered chair in her sparse Van Nuys apartment and cradling her 10-day-old daughter, Sheri, recalls the incidents that forced her to flee Haiti for her life.
In the late ‘80s and into 1990, Fleury was a strong supporter of the FNCD party in Haiti, which promoted more democracy in the country and included Aristide as one of its members.
The Tontons Macoutes “knew where Aristide supporters were and they would go after them and shoot at them,” Fleury, 26, said in Creole.
The first attack was in early 1990 when her son was killed. The second assault was later that year during a pro-Aristide meeting in wealthy Petionville, just outside Port-au-Prince. Government supporters, allegedly supplied with weapons by the police, burst into the meeting and started beating people--Fleury included.
The attacks continued in 1991, when attackers--also allegedly Tontons Macoutes--broke into Fleury’s home and beat her mercilessly, she said. She was three months pregnant.
Weeks after the incident, Fleury returned to her birthplace, La Gonave, a Haitian island that lies about 62 miles off the country’s mainland. It was on her return to La Gonave in late 1991--on a boat that took three days to get there--that Fleury decided to flee to America.
“I didn’t care where I went because I knew (the Tontons Macoutes) would kill me. I just wanted to get out of Haiti,” she said.
The boat on which she escaped was intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard and sent to Guantanamo Bay. Fleury spent eight days in the hospital with pregnancy complications from the beatings she suffered.
In June, 1992, with the help of Catholic Charities, Fleury arrived in Los Angeles and was resettled in Van Nuys. She spent her first eight days here in a hospital, again because of problems with her pregnancy stemming from the 1991 beating. She gave birth to a girl, Marjorie, now a rambunctious 19-month-old.
Fleury said her life here is clearly better than it was in Haiti. She said she hopes the United States goes through with its military intervention plan against the government of Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras. But even if that goes through and succeeds, Fleury said she is skeptical of what positive progress it will bring to Haiti.
“I don’t see much of a future for Haiti right now,” Fleury said solemnly through an interpreter. “They always talk about changes, but nothing ever happens and the little people are always getting killed. Maybe if the Americans go in, it will be better.”
When he stepped off a plane in Los Angeles in March, 1992, Laguerre Fresnel thought his life would be transformed into one of prosperity. At 18, he hoped to find work, learn English and be rid of the political pressures he endured in Haiti.
Now, at 20, Fresnel is unemployed and shares an apartment with a woman with nine children, often sleeping on the floor.
“I thought my life would get better, but now it’s worse because I’m not working,” Fresnel said in his lilting Haitian Creole as a volunteer translated.
For most Haitians in Los Angeles, finding work is one of their greatest hurdles, according to the Haitian Community Refugee Center, which helps refugees find work.
Even at such a young age, Fresnel looks worn, perhaps from years of worrying and struggle in Haiti. Fresnel says little about his life in Haiti. When asked why he fled his country, “political problems” is all he’ll say in response.
Fresnel hails from Dame-Marie, a small spot near the coastal town of Jeremie, the point of departure for hundreds of Haitians fleeing the country for better prospects in America.
In Dame-Marie, Fresnel worked packing fish for export to the United States. He was hoping to get a similar job when he arrived in the United States after spending six months in Guantanamo Bay after the boat he was on was seized by the Coast Guard in November, 1991.
Without a choice or notice, he was resettled in Los Angeles by Catholic Charities and sent straight to Ventura County for one year to cut and pack flowers for a company in Somis along with a handful of other Haitians.
The job was OK, but it was only temporary. Besides, Fresnel explains, he couldn’t work and go to school at the same time to learn English. Right now, he stumbles along with the little English he knows, but mainly relies on staff and volunteers at the Haitian Community Refugee Center for help and converses with other Haitians in the city.
“Life would be better if I would be able to go to school . . . to learn a trade, something that I can learn for the future,” Fresnel said. “I could get training in telephone repair, anything.”
In Los Angeles, Catholic Charities set Fresnel up in an apartment on Dalton Street and gave him $450, which lasted for one month. After that ran out, Fresnel went on welfare and discontinued it each time he found a job.
Fresnel said he doesn’t like welfare. A job is really what he wants.
Fresnel has kept the address on Dalton Street for the past 1 1/2 years, but in recent months he has been staying with other Haitians--wherever he can find someone to put him up until he can afford to help pay the rent.
With the help of the Haitian Center, Fresnel has found a few jobs, all of which lasted some months, but never long enough to get him on his feet.
On a recent afternoon, Fresnel sat for hours in a Spartan office at the Haitian Center with a volunteer, poring over business cards and contacts of job prospects scribbled on sheets of yellow legal pad.
If he doesn’t find work here after a while, Fresnel said he’ll move to Miami, where his brother lives. In the meantime, he will look for work and hope for the best.
“If I can find work, things will be better for me,” Fresnel said. “I wouldn’t have to leave.”
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