Haitians Booted by US Get Leg Up at Home
Started by US deportees, Haiti group provides job training and breakfast to 'throwbacks.'
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — Accompanied by four United States Marshals, "Frank" was put in shackles and deported from Miami to Haiti last August after serving a one-year sentence for selling drugs.
Once in Haiti, he was taken to the Police Processing Center, where he was fingerprinted and photographed. The captain told Frank he would release him only when a family member came to retrieve him.
But Frank's family was in the US, where he'd grown up. Before being deported, he had visited Haiti only twice during summer vacations. He speaks neither French nor Creole. "If it wasn't for Chans Alternativ, I'd be really messed up, even dead," the young man says. "Chans Alternativ found me in jail, and it was like a mission sent from heaven. They managed to get me out and teach me the ropes."
Chans Alternativ (An Alternative Chance) was founded by a group of criminal deportees and adolescent "throwbacks" from the US. It is unique in Haiti, and, one American volunteer says, the only program for criminal deportees she's found in the world.
"A lot of my friends were in the same situation," says cofounder Reynold, who asked that his last name not be used. He returned to Haiti in 1992 after nearly 17 years in the US. "We started kicking around, and the first idea we had was to put together a newsletter explaining what services are available, to make the experience of being sent back to a place we didn't know a more positive one."
The organization became official last March. To become a member, every deportee has to go through an initiation. They meet with a substance abuse counselor and take classes on survival skills, such as how to change money and make tap water drinkable.
Under the guidance of American Michelle Karshan, Chans Alternativ has grown to more than 200 members, of whom 50 are regulars. The program is growing, but its survival depends on its success - so far limited - in finding jobs for participants.
The program gives participants a hearty breakfast, along with language, computer training, and job development classes, all taught by the deportees. It also offers family counseling for adolescents who have been sent back to Haiti by their parents.
Many criminal deportees are ostracized by their relatives for having wasted a coveted opportunity lot bo dlo (on the other side of the water), so many deportees prefer not to contact them. And the organization has had trouble finding jobs for participants, because most business owners close their doors on deportees.
"These men have very little chance of succeeding unless someone gives them some help," says Janet Lugo, an American volunteer for Chans Alternativ. "The only skills they have are in street violence."
Some of the participants in Chans Alternativ are frustrated. They say they don't want a discussion group, they want a job. "I hear the same thing from people every day. 'We got to stop talking and get us some work,' " says one adolescent whose father sent him back from New York during a messy divorce. The teen says all he wants is a ticket back to the US.
But the majority of men interviewed say they're grateful to have a place to stay off the streets and plan for the future. "We even have deportee wannabes," says Ms. Karshan. "When [people] hear about all the things we offer, they want to be a part it."