We had fled Haiti together because if we had stayed we would have been imprisoned, tortured, "disappeared," or murdered in front of our families. There were sixty-seven of us drenched from the rain and ocean water that almost capsized the boat. Waves washed seawater into the boat. Sometimes the waves were so high people screamed. I held onto the edge of the boat and prayed we would be saved. I told people to remain strong. We had left the country successfully to protect ourselves and our families. We would not die at sea.
On the afternoon of the third day in the ocean, we saw something a great distance off, something gray in the water. The gray shape grew bigger and bigger and then we could see that it was a ship, red, white, and blue with big bold black writing that said "U. S. Coast Guard."
The ship reached us, massive next to our boat. The ship let down small boats from the sides, and those boats approached us. With the waves beating against our boat and the U.S. boats, we were given life vests, and the crew helped us get from our boat into their boats. On November 16, 1991 we were grabbed from the sea. The small boats then came up next to the ship, and a rope ladder was lowered so that we could climb up. Our hands were raw from being soaked for three days, and the rope burned. Some people cried.
I was relieved but did not know what was going to happen next. However, I felt better being in that American boat than the one I had been in. The crew constantly talked to us over very, very, very loudspeakers in English, never in Creole or French. How could we understand?
After all 67 people were taken from Dinald Laguerre's fishing boat, the American crew swamped it so that no one could use that boat again. The Coast Guard managed to do what the ocean had not been able to do: sink our boat.
The body of the ship was white with two vertical red and blue lines on both sides of the ship. The deck of the ship was painted white (but it was very rusty, with rust taking over where the white paint receded). The ship had a very big and tall mast in the center. We were restricted to a marked off portion of the deck; nobody was allowed to go into any other area of the ship than where we were confined. Crew with guns watched us and to make sure that we did not attempt to go below decks. It was hot, very hot, and there was little shade.
The crew gave us Meals Ready to Eat (MRE). I would not eat the food at first. I didn't know the food and thought it might be bad for me, but I was hungry. Since someone stole the food I had on the boat, I had not eaten for three days. So I ate or I would have died. The foods had numbers written on them. Number 7 was my favorite when I got used to it.
The Americans tried to find out who could interpret Creole to English for them to better communicate with the Haitians. That was the only time the Americans tried to talk with the Haitians. A Haitian man said to me, "You can translate. Are you going to tell them that you understand some English?"
If I had spoken to the Americans some people would have thought I was a spy for the opposition government. We made up a code where every Haitian agreed to be tight-lipped to the Americans.
We were on the ship for about a week, staying the entire time in the one confined area. The Coast Guard could have returned us to Haiti. Instead, we learned that we were going to Cuba. I figured that anything was better than having the opposition army hunt me down. We landed using the same boats as a week earlier.
I learned that I was at Guantanamo Bay (called Gitmo) from the immigration officials during the interviewing process. The immigration officials seemed to be very knowledgeable about social issues and they were open to answer questions unrelated to the actual interview.
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was a place which I had not known existed. As I understood the location of the place, we landed in the west side of Guantanamo, a camp--some will say that they were concentration camps--called Macalla, a large tent that lay over a dusty field. The camps were numbered camp 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on. Females and males were separated and placed in their respective camps. There was a camp that only housed family members who were qualified to come to the United States. I was placed in all male camp named "Camp 2."
From there the Americans immediately sent us to a place called Berkeley where I stayed for approximately one and a half months. Berkeley was constructed to house a few hundred people. I lived in a house with walls and a roof. There two people were being placed in a room. As more Haitians came in, that number doubled rather quickly and in some cases five, six, and even seven people were placed in a single room. With that many people in one room the sanitation became deplorable. Therefore, living conditions were not pleasant.
Conditions were even worse socially. Haiti has a class system so wherever Haitians go they carry that system with them. The Americans did not know about this apparently; it became a huge problem. There was a small percentage of refugees who were either upper class or middle class, and who did not want to live with the poor. They talked about it all the time to the officials. I was living with people from different parts of Haiti, and their mannerisms were different from mine.
My group was one of the first groups to reach Guantanamo; after a while more and more Haitians came in and places to live were becoming very scarce. As overcrowding made conditions unlivable, a riot broke out. The refugees destroyed all the tents that housed people. The Americans reacted by depriving the refugees of basic human necessities such as food and water for a period of four to five days.
During that time, there were rumors going around that President Aristide would visit the camp, but it turned out to be Rev. Jesse Jackson whom I met for the first time. I talked to him through an interpreter. He said, "Conditions in the camp will change."
"Will Aristide come?"
"No. Aristide himself is in exile and cannot move about freely."
Before Rev. Jackson left for the United States he made sure more tents were built and basic necessities were provided.
The Americans gave me some clothes, a white gown and short pants. My friends and I made fun of each other wearing the same clothes everyday.
The military police (MP) drove me to Berkeley and Macalla. I was transferred between them many times. It became a routine. I got used to it so whenever they called for me over the PA system I immediately packed my stuff and got ready to go.
Before the riots, I knew my brothers and sister were in camp 3, categorized as a family camp. Camps 2 and 3 were close to each other, so when the riot occurred the camps merged; however, the MPs were able to evacuate some families to a newly-created camp. All except one brother was fortunate to go to the new camp. One of my brothers was left in Camp 2.
The Americans tended to talk to us as a group and they seemed to always give directions and instructions. They were not having conversations with any one of us, but during the interviewing process the immigration officials talked to me directly and politely. The interviewers were in civilian clothes. They were somewhat more approachable. I felt very comfortable expressing myself in my broken English. And also when I began to understand English, I approached them directly trying to have conversations and they were very responsive.
In the beginning, nobody was allowed to leave; however, when more and more people came, they had a choice of staying at Gitmo or leaving to go back to Haiti.
There were a few people who were registering Haitians to apply for asylum in the United States, also for other countries; however, the United States was my first choice to apply for asylum, but I applied to any country that might want to take me in. In fact I almost ended up in Surinam.
When I was told I was leaving Guantanamo, I had a good indication that I was going to the United States, but I was not sure because the Americans had lied to me and members of my family.
The Americans had a process in which they called a person's name and they took us to an isolated area and the next day they sent for us.
I received a call that I was qualified to come to the United States. Immediately after, I was escorted to Berkeley where I boarded a military helicopter and flew to Miami. Florida. America.
"Where are we being taken when we get to Miami?" I asked through the interpreter.
As the word "Miami" was spoken, first by me, then the interpreter, I nodded my head and repeated, "Miami."
Rumors spread that we were going to be placed in the Krone Detention Center in Miami. Haitians always were sent to Krone, we heard. But when I got to Miami, my brothers and sister and I were immediately taken to a hotel called Motel 6. There were six of us in one room, and so I thought the hotel rooms were for groups of six. I ate McDonalds for the first time in my life.
There was an elevator to go from the first floor to the second floor. Some people had never been in an elevator and would not get into the it. I did. I wasn't afraid. There was a swimming pool. It had been so hot under the tent at Guantanamo overflowing with people. Swimming in the pool at Motel 6 was like swimming in the Caribbean with warm light blue water.
We stayed at Motel 6 for about three days and then we were picked up from the hotel in a van and taken to the airport without being told where we were going. We boarded a commercial airplane. I had never been in an airplane. Some people cried, others yelled, "O lord jesus presye." They put their hands over their ears and closed their eyes tight. I kept my eyes open to see America. I saw lights on the ground and darkness and the lights on the wings as we flew to Los Angeles, California.