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26574: Hermantin (news)Sailing north only way to escape for some Haitians (fwd)
From: leonie hermantin <email@example.com>
Posted on Sun, Nov. 13, 2005
THE HAITIAN EXODUS
Sailing north only way to escape for some Haitians
BY JOE MOZINGO
CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti - He wanders the slums and shipyards, listening for murmurs
of the next boat getting ready to leave.
When Jude Bernardin's father died three years ago and an uncle commandeered his
family's land, he went to the city to find work. But with the economy in ruins,
he found only mud and decay and people like himself.
So he wagered what little money he had on a chance to climb aboard any rickety
vessel that could get him out of Haiti.
A boat captain tricked him and about 200 other passengers out of their cash in
July. It was Bernardin's third attempt to get to the Turks and Caicos Islands
-- the entry point in a 700-mile archipelago of human migration that leads to
Now, in mid-August, the 21-year-old is ready to go again. And across the north
coast of Haiti, so are thousands of others.
In this old French colonial port, one sailor plans to smuggle his own family
out. A journalist is fleeing political gangs. An unemployed mechanic hopes to
be a better father from afar. A single mother prays that she can find a future
for her children in Miami, even as she leaves them behind.
They are people whose wrenching personal stories are often lost under the
category of ''economic refugees.'' They drown, they get robbed, they climb into
the most wretched of boat holds, packed body to body in steaming heat, hoping
to go anywhere but here.
Haiti's relentless poverty has bred a paralyzing sense of helplessness, with
thousands of people concluding that the only way to take control of their lives
is to leave -- no matter what the risk.
They make news now and then, as in the televised landing of 220 Haitians on
Miami's Rickenbacker Causeway in 2002 and the drownings of three women whose
bodies washed up in Pompano Beach on Nov. 5. But mostly, they are invisible.
A DIMMING DREAM
Bernardin dreams of finding work and returning to Haiti someday with the money
to take care of his little sister and show his uncle that he is a man. But that
scene, which burns so brightly in his imagination, dims every day he waits
He comes to a shack propped over an open sewer, down an alley barely wider than
his shoulders. When men don't use it to meet prostitutes, he sleeps here, and
on a shelf above the fetid mattress, he keeps one of his only points of pride.
It is a secondhand trophy he won in a soccer game -- with a gold figurine
rubbed to gray plastic and a placard celebrating ``the 22nd Annual City of
North Miami Gold Coast Cheerleading Squad.''
As the slum slowly grinds away at his sense of self, it reminds him that he has
to leave, no matter how.
''I have no life here,'' he said. ``Even if I die at sea, I have no choice.
There is no life for me in Haiti.''
SLOWING THE FLOW
U.S. and Bahamian officals stopped about 3,200 migrants in the last fiscal
year, fewer than in some years, more than in others. The Coast Guard has
clamped down since the 2002 incident, dramatically reducing the number of
migrant ships sailing straight into Miami. Smugglers have reacted accordingly.
They carry fewer people at a time, charge more and take a circuitous route.
Like Bernardin, migrants often make several attempts just to complete the first
leg of the journey, to Providenciales in the British colony of Turks and
Caicos, 150 miles north of Haiti. From there, they hope to move into the
Bahamas and then try to slip into Florida on speedboats.
In the north coast port of Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city, handmade
boats with anywhere from 10 to 200 passengers sail into the pipeline every
week. Many more leave from the northern town of Port-de-Paix and the offshore
island of La Tortue.
Some make it to their destination. Others don't.
Storms sink them or drive them far off course. Winds die and stall them for
weeks as passengers run out of food and water. Coast Guard cutters intercept
them, destroy their boats and send them home. Smugglers deceptively loop around
and drop them back off in Haiti, or leave them to perish on uninhabited
islands. Armed bandits attack them.
Ima Pyrrhon, 23, lost her husband on a trip that left here with 15 people in
August. She was told that he and six others drowned when the boat capsized.
She says she can barely speak since it happened.
``We had three children and another baby on the way. . . . We made this
decision. We had no choice.
``He was all I ever had.''
Haiti is one of the poorest nations in the world and getting poorer. Only parts
of sub-Saharan Africa are worse off. The armed rebellion that ousted former
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide early last year and the continuing insecurity
ever since have steepened the decline. Prices rose 15 percent this year, while
most incomes stand still at less than a dollar a day. And many Haitians fear
that elections later this year will erupt in violence.
''We will never let the election find us in Haiti,'' said Jippy Hamilton, a
For the past eight months, Hamilton and his childhood friend Ricardeau Felix
have been scouring the city for scrap, building a 16-foot speedboat for a rare
direct shot at Miami.
Cap-Haitien is an open-air market for what they need. Junk of every sort is
freighted here from the Miami River.
Street hawkers sell bicycle sprockets and engine parts, tables, baby cribs,
trophies, pots, pans and salad bowls. Vinyl billboard banners originally sold
at flea markets in Florida are resold here as boat sails; the bay is full of
creaky old sloops with billowing ads for Nissan, Tanqueray gin and Sunkist.
Hamilton found two broken-down Evinrude outboard motors, which he soon got
working. He and Felix began to construct a hull with odd bits of plywood and
coated the outside in fiberglass. On the motors, they mounted pieces of an old
truck chassis they had welded together. They turned three salad bowls into
air-intake vents on the bow.
Finally, they painted their boat white -- with pink, green and blue stripes --
so they could blend in with the pleasure craft of South Florida, they say. They
stenciled the name in formal Gothic lettering:
Air Florida 2.
All they have to do is fix a starter and find a reliable battery so they don't
end up stalled at sea, trying to rope-start two outboards.
A PLAN FOR DEPARTURE
In mid-September, they would go. About 25 passengers, including Felix's wife
and five children, would take their places on the crowded floorboards.
They would have no marine radio, no charts, no life vests, no weather reports,
no emergency flares. They would throw their fate to God and the Vodou spirits
who stir the sea, motoring into the night for a destination 700 miles away.
''If I didn't think I was going to make it, I'd never take my kids,'' Felix
Felix is Air Florida's captain, a paunchy, baby-faced man who grew up sailing
in the Windward Passage. His stepfather captained commercial freighters to the
Bahamas. Felix could find work only carrying charcoal and migrants to Nassau.
He made enough money that he once bought a car, a used Daihatsu.
But those days are long gone. His last boat, Air Florida I, was confiscated by
a Bahamian patrol boat.
NO SECOND THOUGHTS
Now, he plans to smuggle himself and his family out. He is cocksure that he can
slip by the Coast Guard and survive any storm. He has no second thoughts, no
desire to see whether Haiti improves after elections.
''By the time Haiti changes, me and my wife and kids will be dead,'' he said.
His friend Hamilton sees Haiti's future just as bleakly. His family life is too
strained to take his children along. But he hopes that he can be a better
father from Miami.
He has found no regular work since 1999. The sense of impotence he feels for
not being able to support his 3-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter is a
constant source of shame.
He lives a three-hour trip from them, but doesn't visit because he has nothing
to bring them.
``My son loves crackers. He always asks me for crackers. If I had something to
buy him some, it wouldn't be so bad. But I feel terrible every time I see
Every plan that Hamilton has come up with to make a living as a car mechanic
has been thwarted at the start. He is as thin as a reed and falls into bouts of
depression, sulking off by himself. He sleeps on Air Florida, occasionally
dousing his sorrows with Barbancourt rum, waiting to go to the place where he
hopes he can be a better man.
''God, my people are humiliating me,'' he said one day on the dock, gazing off.
``Even if I get to the other world and they mistreat me, I will have a better
life. There would have to be no mechanics, no cars in America for me not to
He won't even think about not making it to Miami. He is at the end of his line
in Haiti. There is nothing left for him here but time and shame.
By the end of August, their boat is almost ready. Hamilton still needs to fix
the starter on one of the outboards and find a battery. Felix is haggling with
the passengers for money that he says he needs to buy 200 gallons of gasoline.
Bernardin tries to get a spot, but there is no room for those who can't pay.
This direct trip to Miami is a rare endeavor and carries a high fee. Felix is
charging $800 to all but family members and close friends.
Air Florida is afloat and tied to the remains of a fallen dock. Men waiting for
work in the port sit in the meager shade of some scraggly trees. Dozens of
fishing and coastal trading sloops with splintered planks and crooked masts bob
and creak in the harbor.
Marie Joseť Germain, one of Felix's passengers, comes down every day to check
on Air Florida's progress.
She stares with a set jaw at the little boat that will take her away from her
Germain, 31, is a serious, churchgoing woman who carries her portly figure with
an unshakable calm and dignity. Her locked jaw betrays her anxiety -- and her
displeasure when Felix and Hamilton play-fight in the parking lot or waste
money on rum.
She gave her last bit of savings to Felix for gas. She trusts that he will not
disappear with it but is wary enough to check up on him regularly.
She returns to her apartment, torrid in the afternoon heat. Her 14-year-old son
cradles her baby on the bed. Sheets divide a space no bigger than a prison
cell. Bible readings are posted on the walls.
`A THREE-TIME LOSER'
For years, Germain's only means of survival were the men she lived with.
Because there are fewer jobs for women in urban Haiti, they are often forced to
rely on men to avoid destitution. Now, she has three children with three
''I'm a three-time loser,'' she says flatly. When her last boyfriend walked out
on her, Germain had enough. She decided that her family of four was going to
make it on its own.
''I just want to be independent,'' she says, ``not depend on men to survive.''
She has been braiding hair to get by. Yet with the cost of living going up, the
only women she knows with money are a few neighborhood prostitutes. By summer,
she has to do something.
She makes the wrenching decision. She pays the money that was meant to send her
son to school that year for a spot on the boat.
''If I don't go looking for a life for us all, we're all going to die,'' she
She hasn't slept much since, worrying about dying on the ocean, orphaning her
Her brothers urge her not to leave, saying the trip is too dangerous. She
doesn't know how to swim. The deepest she has ever been in water is up to her
waist. But now she is determined to get to Miami by early September -- so she
can send money back and get her boy into school.
``If I make it, I will be living strictly for them.''
© 2005 Herald.com and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.