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Date: Sun, 29 Nov 1998 10:02:35 -0800 (PST)
From: Robert Corbett <bcorbett@netcom.com>
Subject: Abandoning one dream for another... (fwd)
To: Bob Corbett <bcorbett@netcom.com>
Message-ID: <Pine.3.89.9811291017.A26442-0100000@netcom2>


Abandoning one dream for another, thousands of Haitians return to roots

By Leslie Casimir, Miami Herald, 29 November 1998

PORT-AU-PRINCE—While countless Haitians continue to smuggle themselves into South Florida, and thousands of others fight for the right to stay, some are quietly returning to Haiti, building homes and nursing their severed roots. It is the Haitian immigrant's twist to the American dream. Lochard and Elizabeth Noel, who have lived in the United States for most of their lives, recently sold their three-bedroom North Miami home to live in one under construction in the mountainous Port-au-Prince suburb called Petionville. Although bare for now, without windows or phones, the Haitian house represents everything the Noels have ever wanted. They are home.Living in the States was very much like having all the food you wanted -- but still you could not eat, said Elizabeth Noel, 41, who taught Creole-speaking students at Edison Middle School and is now a teacher in Haiti. Wherever I went, the ties with Haiti were always there. They were never cut. This is where I belong.Since the downfall of the Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier regimes, Haitian Americans like the Noels have been steadily trading in U.S. comforts of 911 emergency services and reliable electricity for childhood memories of sweet mangoes and street vendors who sing about pastries filled with meat. Older Haitian Americans, who have worked hard to build up savings and Social Security, yearn to do away with the deep sense of guilt for leaving their countrymen behind, suffering under coups and economic hardships.With every dream come sobering realities. Many who have returned -- estimated at 10,000 -- have found a country where poverty and misery have intensified.Those who escape the violence find themselves struggling to make a living in a frail economy with few job opportunities and an unstable currency. The changes have forced many homesick Haitians to run back to the States. The childhood image of Haiti, the one carved in memories and told to the first generation, is no longer the same.

A changed country

Most of the country's landscape has been stripped of its trees to meet a desperate need for charcoal, used as fuel. Once-clear rivers and streams are now muddy trickles used as toilets, garbage dumps and washing machines. It's hard to re-create the life you left, said Claude Charles, a Miami-based anthropologist who has studied Haitian society. Haiti is not the same.Despite the distorted landscape, they come and go like the waves' ebb and flow: after Jean-Claude Duvalier, after Jean-Bertrand Aristide rose to the presidency, and after Aristide returned to power under a U.S.-led intervention in 1994. Some are civic-minded Americans, professionals, retirees and homeowners who are haunted by prideful stories of the rich history of the first independent black republic. `There is a tremendous amount of pain, but I'm not responsible for it -- I'm not the one who caused the problems, said North Miami business consultant Yves Fontaine, who bought land last year in a mountain hideaway known as Thomassin for $25,000. Construction of his home starts next month. I've done the professional thing, managed large county departments, Fontaine said. I've paid my dues here professionally and politically. With what I've gained here, I can be of tremendous help to the country.

Resentful greeting

Despite their relentless aid to the country -- as much as $1 billion annually that is wired to relatives in Haiti -- not everyone welcomes them back.It's a problem of space -- there is not enough room for every player, and you are considered a challenge and thus a threat, Charles said. The ones who were stuck in Haiti consider it unfair they have not had those choices. Moving back has not helped Haiti improve, says Gary Sanon-Jules, general manager of South Beach's Tap Tap restaurant. His sister, Jessie Francois, went back to Haiti several years ago.Sure, you can build a beautiful house in Haiti, but I don't see what good that's doing for the country, said Sanon-Jules, 31. You still have unpaved roads and poverty. People need to return with more than just the thought of reliving their romanticized childhoods. Haitians who live outside the country are often termed Jaspora. It can have a derogatory meaning, referring to poor and uneducated people who flee to the States to find small fortunes and return with gold chains and gaudy values. The stereotype is often not true. Most people come with the mind-set to help change Haiti -- the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, one that has been without a functioning government for almost 18 months and one that is increasingly a stop on the drug-smuggling circuit.

Unpleasant encounters

The tragic examples are many, and the horror stories are passed among the estimated one million Haitians who live throughout the United States, especially in South Florida and New York. Take Yves Phanor, a former Miami police officer who was fatally shot in the chest by robbers in front of his wife, Chantal, in 1996, as the family was moving into its home in La Plaine, a suburb where many of the people who have returned are building houses. Phanor, 38, had left his job in Miami to become an instructor for Haiti's new police force.This is something he always wanted to do. He always talked about it, and I would say, `Are you crazy?' said Chantal Phanor, who moved to Long Island, N.Y., after the murder. His killers remain free.He loved that country, but I didn't share the same love he had, Chantal Phanor said. Still, she and her three children, Ashley, Mark and Ryan, had joined him in his search for a simpler life. And Chantal Phanor almost believed they had found it, describing a feeling repeated by many immigrants when they return to Haiti for the first time: You are a man, a woman, a child. No one looks at you as a black person or an immigrant, she said.

Longing for homeland

It is a message that artists conveyed in songs over and over again. Like the one by the late Ti Manno, who yearned to once again live in Haiti: Every time I remember, water pours out of my eyes. I must return to my country, it is time for me to go. I've spent enough time outside. Bring me back, bring me back. For some, the complicated reality of Haitian living is too much, and they return to the States. Roger Biamby, the new administrator for Miami's Little Haiti Neighborhood Enhancement Team, is rebuilding his life after returning from a two-year stint in Haiti a year ago. Biamby left his job as executive director of the social agency Pierre Toussaint Haitian Catholic Center in 1995 to start an economic development agency in Haiti. But after he moved his belongings, depleted his savings (close to $20,000) and sold his Haitian painting collection to set up the organization, government officials refused to grant him an operational license. They claimed his plans were insufficient.`I did everything they told me, but after a while, I said forget it, said Biamby, 51.`If you're not part of the clan, they are not going to let you operate.

A clear-cut choice

Others, like Lochard Noel, 43, a former teacher at Miami Park Elementary, can't imagine living anywhere else. Two months ago, he and his wife, Elizabeth, landed jobs as English and social studies teachers with the Union School, a private, English-speaking institution set up in 1915, when U.S. troops began an occupation of Haiti. One-third of the 400 students enrolled there -- including the Noels' three children, Sebastien, 11, Laurent, 8, and Gilbert, 6 -- are American-born of Haitian parents,school officials said. The transition can be tough, said Linda Boucard, guidance counselor at Union School, who is a Haitian American who lived in New York for most of her life.They become very defensive and have a hard time making friends, Boucard said. For eight years, the Noels have been building a two-story home off Route de Frere. The corner structure faces the mountain of Boutilliers, which resembles a patchwork of green squares, trees, amid billowy white smoke.

The land was a gift to the couple from Elizabeth Noel's parents. The couple have spent nearly $115,000 on the four-bedroom house, which they call Villa Lilly.They figure they'll need $50,000 more to complete it. There have been many snags, and the price of cement bags has ballooned since they started building.

Making do for now

Until the home is complete, the family will live on the second floor in two rooms, equipped with four fold-up beds, a table and a refrigerator. Their furniture,shipped from Miami, remains stored at the home of Elizabeth Noel's parents in Jacmel, two hours from Port-au-Prince. There is a new addition to the Noels' family, one of the treats that most Haitian Americans who reminisce about the Haitian lifestyle revel in: a maid who cooks,cleans and does the wash. Elizabeth Noel proudly shows off her peach-hued manicure:I even have nails, she said. I have time to spend with my children. As far as I'm concerned, I'd rather live in Haiti with all the problems because I feel alive here.