Haitians prepare for boat journey to Florida


The unfinished wooden boat rocks gently in the backwater of Cap-Haitien Bay, lulling 17-year-old Douna Marcellus and two dozen others to sleep as tight balls of mosquitoes hover overhead. Cicadas serenade them from the reeds on one bank and, on the other, black pigs root through smoldering trash.

Like the others in the boat, Douna is a refugee from Port-au-Prince and the unspeakable horrors of the earthquake and its aftermath. Her parents and sister were crushed in their home, just seconds after Douna walked out the front door to run an errand for her mother. The government offered free bus tickets out of town and Douna took one.

But this city on Haiti’s northern coast is just a way station. When builders finish the boat in a few days, it will set sail with the teenager and at least 40 others for the United States. If they survive the 600-mile crossing, and aren’t intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard, they’ll soon be walking the streets of opportunity.

“America is a place where everybody can become someone,” Douna says before bedding down for the night, an expression of certainty on her pretty young face. “It’s where everyone lives like human beings.”

And besides, she says, “I have nowhere else to go.”

The Jan. 12 earthquake, and reports of a U.S. administration newly sympathetic to undocumented Haitians, has meant opportunity for the shady world of Cap-Haitien boat builders who promise to make the dream of life in the United States come true. The desperate are pouring into town and many of them, like Douna, plan to escape.

‘90s exodus

In the early 1990s, when a junta drove President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power, thousands of Haitians left by boat for Florida to claim political asylum. But the U.S. reinstalled Aristide to power in 1994 and in recent years the flow of boat people from Haiti has slowed to a trickle.

After the earthquake, the Obama administration quickly announced that it was granting “temporary protected status” to the more than 100,000 undocumented Haitians estimated to be living in the United States, and suspending deportation proceedings. That status can be extended up to 18 months.

The move was generally welcomed by politicians on both sides of the aisle as a fitting humanitarian gesture in the wake of the tragedy. But some expressed concern that it might trigger renewed efforts by Haitians to attempt to enter the United States by sea.

Haiti’s ambassador to the United States recorded radio messages discouraging his countrymen from trying to make the risky journey, and the Coast Guard increased its patrols.

“It’s clearly something people here have thought of,” said Charles Luoma-Overstreet, a spokesman with the State Department’s Western Hemisphere bureau. “But we’ve not seen any increased outflow from Haiti.”

To qualify for temporary protected status, Haitians have to prove that they were in the United States on or before the quake. But for people in the country illegally, that could be difficult to verify, and the would-be immigrants in Cap-Haitien are counting on that.

‘A lot of demand’

Dorcilien Louis, a taciturn man of 40, is the captain of Douna’s 42-foot boat. Late last week, he was overseeing the final stages of construction: Workmen with long saws were building the cabin, and he had a crew out looking for material for a sail and a second motor. (“Our first engine has a little problem.”)

It took three months to build the boat, at a cost of about $8,000, he said. When he began the project, he wasn’t thinking of Miami but of Providenciales, in the Turks and Caicos Islands, about 130 miles away, where the authorities are less vigilant than the U.S. Coast Guard.

During his 15 years as a captain, Louis has made a dozen journeys to the islands with passengers hoping to start new lives and, perhaps, eventually find a way to the United States. About half of those journeys were successful, he said.

(When the authorities on those islands intercept boats from Haiti, they sink them, jail the passengers and put them on the next flight home. The U.S. Coast Guard sinks boats it intercepts as well, but usually transports the passengers back to Haiti on Coast Guard ships.)

Louis changed his itinerary, though, and stepped up the ship construction after the quake, when thousands of people began arriving from Port-au-Prince. Some of them had money, and were looking for a way to get to the United States.

“We’ve got a lot of demand, and these people from Port-au-Prince are the big customers,” Louis said. “It’s time to take the risk.”

He said 40 passengers had signed up for the journey and he was expecting 20 new arrivals from the capital. The boat is built for 40 people, “but it can hold 60,” he said. And if a few more paying customers show up at the last minute, he added, “we’ll squeeze them on too.”

The boat is being built on a narrow, secluded waterway that feeds into the bay, out of sight of Haitian coast guard patrols and U.S. ships that Louis said he’s spotted on the shimmering blue sea just outside the bay.

“The U.S. Coast Guard is giving us a lot of worries,” said Walker Michel Bernard, one of the passengers, who was wearing an Ohio State University cap in the sweltering sun. “They’ve heard we are going. But we’re watching them, and as soon as we get a chance, we think we can make it.”

The fare for the journey is flexible. For those who can pay, Louis charges $2,000.

“But people who don’t have money can bring wood for the ship,” he said. “And people who don’t have wood, we put them to work as builders.” (As a teenager who lost her family in the quake, Douna is being allowed to go for free, he said.)

Louis has never made the journey to the U.S., and navigation has been a problem for the boats, which often spend two weeks at sea on a trip that, even in the rickety boats, should take less than a week. But this time he is bringing along two navigators who’ve made the trip, though both were on boats that were stopped by the Coast Guard.

If he makes it to Miami, Louis said, it’ll be his last trip as a captain. He’ll push the boat back out to sea and won’t give it another thought.

“I’m not coming back to Haiti. Screw the boat.”

The time was right

Among Louis’ passengers is Fanise Jean, 24, who lives on the ground floor of a pastel-pink French Creole house a short walk from the water. Jean has twice attempted the journey, once a year ago and again in July. Those journeys depleted her resources, which she collected as a beautician, and her stamina.

“It’s a lot of suffering,” she said. “People throwing up on you, you can’t take a shower, there’s little food, and the boat is always shaking back and forth.” One of her journeys lasted 14 days because the captain got lost, and three people became ill and died.

Until last month, Jean had been resigned to waiting longer before trying again. But she began reconsidering two weeks ago, when she got word that her boyfriend, who lived in Port-au-Prince, had been crushed to death in the earthquake. “We had just talked that morning on the phone,” she said.

Then, she heard from a friend in Boston who had joined her on one of the earlier attempts to reach the United States. The friend, alone among those on the boat, had been allowed to stay because she was eight months pregnant. The baby was born and the friend was being held for deportation.

“She called to tell me that she got her papers,” Jean said. “Just like that. All the Haitians in the United States are getting their papers.”

So, Jean decided the time was right. On both of her previous trips, Jean got within sight of Miami before the Coast Guard arrived, and those memories have stayed with her.

“We saw a lot of beautiful lights and a lot of cars,” she said. “But we never touched the ground.”

If she can just reach Florida, she said, “I won’t have a problem. I know people everywhere there.” Leaving her family makes her sad, “but I’m not all that sad, because I’m going to look for a better life.”

Douna, though, feels that she’s leaving nothing behind.

“I saw the house go down on my mother,” she said. “No one is left for me.”

Audio slide show: Haitian boat holds hope of a better life