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.

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.

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."

Jacques-Riché says there is one group in Haiti that embraces deportees: "The thugs respect you ... they think you're really a big time criminal," he says, "even if you don't want nothing to do with them."

In recent years, word on the Haitian street commonly blamed a rise in violent crime on deportees. Human rights groups disputed such claims, but it is clear to all sides that without assistance, many deportees lack the capacity to become productive members of society.

For the past two years, the UN and US have funded an IOM program to provide job assistance to new arrivals. It reached more than 1,000 deportees and was praised by US government officials. It is soon to be replicated in Guyana and the Bahamas, while funding for the Haiti program remains on hold, placing a greater burden on deportee associations.

Hurdles for those trying to help

In spite of weekly meetings with officials, CARDH is barely recognized by government officials. Back at the police station, the volunteers enter the front room as the buses of new arrivals arrive, but they are soon kicked out of the building. So, as young men file in, the volunteers peer through the windows and ask who needs help.

Men approach and describe their situations. Some have a place to stay, but they don't know for how long. One was born in the Bahamas to Haitian parents and has never before set foot in Haiti.

By the end of the day, the volunteers have signed three deportees out of police custody and taken one, the Bahamian, home with them.

Meanwhile, at another police station, Joel Auguste is trying to procure the release of two jailed deportees. Mr. Auguste says unjustified arrests of deportees are common here because corrupt police see opportunity.

"They know it takes one call to the United States and money's coming soon because Ma don't want us to stay in jail in Haiti," he says. In this case, the two men are released, but only after paying several hundred dollars.

In 2000, Auguste founded one of Haiti's first deportee associations, called FONHFARA, or Haitian Foundation of Returnees' Families. His group's public awareness campaign is credited with the shift in recent years away from automatic incarceration of new arrivals.

Auguste and other FONHFARA volunteers are entirely supported by remittances. Because of the recession, some members say that they are already receiving less money from the US.

Auguste, however, is hopeful. His immediate goal is to raise $2,000 to pay next month's rent for the organization's office. FONHFARA's long-term goal is to open a center that provides shelter, food, clothing, job training, Bible study, and counseling.

In short, Auguste says, "FONHFARA's dream is for us to be received as human beings."

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