Haiti; Little to live on but hope; Refugees freed from US detention camps
Tampa, Fla. — What has become of the thousands of Haitian refugees who fled to the United States in the wake of the 1980 Cuban boatlift?
A US federal court this summer ordered some 2,000 of them - those held in seven prison-like detention camps in the US and Puerto Rico - to be released in the care of US relatives.
Raoul Felix, a carpenter, was one of the first to be released under the court order. He spent almost a year in the Krome Avenue detention camp near the Florida Everglades, and has few kind words about life in his camp.
''It was terrible.'' he said as he emerged from the camp. ''Every day seemed longer than the last. . . . Many people became violent or very sad and turned away from others.''
Still ahead of him - and the others - is a hearing to determine his eligibility to stay in the US. If he is found to have fled Haiti in fear of political persecution, he may stay. But if he left to escape poverty he will be expelled.
About 750 Haitians have been released from camps so far. The court found the detention policy ''null and void'' because the government established the camps without first giving adequate notice. About 1,500 Haitians are still in camps.
Some are keeping tabs on a bill before Congress that could provide amnesty for Haitians already in the US - but not for any that may try to leave Haiti now.
With little education, few skills, and uncertain status, most Haitians in the US are living hand-to-mouth.
''Many have gotten into the migrant labor stream, traveling around the US picking fruit and vegetables,'' says Peter O'Donnell, Florida's refugee program administrator. ''Most of them live in incredibly bad housing conditions.''
But there is hope. In Tampa, for example, the United Methodist Church set up a Haitian Center where refugees can learn English - and get job-hunting and housing help.
''Jobs have been slow, especially this summer,'' says the center's Haitian coordinator, Jean-Albert Alexis. ''Some are working in the garment industry, others are laborers in warehouses or in shrimp-processing factories. But most are waiting for agricultural jobs.
''A lot of them would like to get into a trade type of job,'' he says. ''But first they know they must learn English.'' Despite their troubles, he says, almost no one wants to go back.