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Crenshaw Center Helps Haitian Refugees Chart Their Course in L.A.

August 21, 1994|LUCILLE RENWICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 1:30 p.m. on a recent weekday afternoon, the Haitian Community Refugee Center is abuzz with the sound of lilting Creole from refugees, interpreters and workers.

In the Spartan front office, two Haitian men talk and laugh with executive director Gerry Gaspard about jobs and other issues of life in Los Angeles, their home for about two years.

For many Haitians recently fleeing the political strife in their country and venturing to the unknown in Los Angeles, the Haitian Community Refugee Center gives them more than a little feeling of home. It is a lifeline.

"The center is a haven for these Haitians," said Maggie Barnes, who volunteers at the organization as a translator. "They feel safe there and can trust people."

The Haitian Center--as it is commonly called--opened in 1985 in a small office of a rundown law office building far in the back of the Santa Barbara Plaza off Buckingham Street in the Crenshaw area. Its purpose is to help Haitians trickling into Los Angeles from Haiti and the refugee camps of Guantanamo Bay adjust to life in this sprawling metropolis.

With a scant Haitian population in Los Angeles and no other organizations with workers or volunteers who speak Haitian Creole, the center has become the gathering spot for newly arrived Haitians and even those who have been here for a few years.

"We're trying to create an infrastructure to give (the Haitians) a sense of community, a place for them to feel like their home," said Gaspard, a native of Haiti and head of the center since April.

Catholic Charities has resettled 200 Haitians in Los Angeles since 1991 through a program supervised by the U.S. Catholic Conference, which contracted with the U.S. Department of Justice. The missionary organization set the refugees up with housing and temporary jobs and helped them start the application process for political asylum.

Since it opened, the Haitian Center has helped about 150 Haitians learn English, find jobs and housing and understand the mass transit system.

It is also a place where Haitian refugees know there are people who understand their culture, their language and their plight, and possibly where they can connect with other Haitians throughout the city.

Currently, the center's primary objective is helping refugees gain asylum in the United States, said Gilbert Perpignand, president of the center's board of directors.

Most of the Haitians who have come to Los Angeles since 1991 are living on kind of a "parole" status. They have been granted temporary permission to enter the country while they press their bids for political asylum.

So they are not legal refugees, but neither are they illegal immigrants, said Neil Frenzen, an attorney with Public Counsel, who is providing legal assistance to the refugees for their asylum requests.

Of the 50 or so asylum applications Frenzen has filed since the summer of 1992, only six or seven have been granted, he said. Others are caught in a backlog that could last two years, he said.

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