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For Haitians deported from the US, an unlikely welcome-home committee

Haitian volunteers, including former criminal deportees, help new arrivals in a land many find hard to negotiate.

By Amy BrackenCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 26, 2009

PortauPrince, Haiti

For a moment, it feels like a family reunion. Two buses drive from the airport to a nearby parking lot, where several young men are waiting. They throw their arms up and yell, "Welcome!" as heads poke out of the bus windows.

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But this is no picnic – it's the police station that processes criminal deportees from the US.

After a lull – when the US suspended deportations to Haiti – deportees are now again flowing in at a rate of about 100 a month. But the US-funded program to integrate new arrivals remains on hold indefinitely, and without explanation. So those now helping deportees are an unlikely group of volunteers – including former deportees themselves.

The six volunteers gathered at the police station are all members of a group called CARDH, the French acronym for Support Center for the Rehabilitation of Haitian Deportees, an association of former criminal deportees that provides temporary housing and logistical, employment, and moral support for newcomers.

"We have to show them how to get around, because living in Haiti is hard," says Cerat Prud'Homme, CARDH's founder.

CARDH is one of several deportee associations in Haiti that are planning to merge as they work with the United Nations, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and Haiti's Interior Ministry to develop a reintegration plan.

Already, there's been progress. Many of the roughly 5,000 criminal deportees who entered Haiti over the past two decades were immediately thrown in jail. Bribes of thousands of dollars were commonly the cost of freedom.

Today, many deportees are released within days, if not hours, of arrival.

Deportees have few ties to 'home'

Still, the needs are enormous. According to a report released last fall by the Haitian human rights organization Ecumenical Center for Human Rights, most criminal deportees left Haiti when they were younger than 8 years old and lived in the US for upward of four decades. Some have only distant family ties and speak little to no Creole.

"We help deportees that, like myself, aren't from Haiti," says CARDH member Barnaby Jacques-Riché, who left Haiti as a toddler. "We try to give them a helping hand, help them find a job, 'cause it is hard out here."

Exacerbating the challenges is the stigma attached to these outsiders. "Everybody thinks that deportees are bad, that we're kidnappers and stuff," says Mr. Jacques-Riché, who claims he served six years for someone else's drug possession. "The way [Haitians] see it, you had a chance to go to the Promised Land called the United States, and you messed up."