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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.

August 21, 1994|LUCILLE RENWICK

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.

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