CITY OF ANGELS
The Montréal Review, May 2011
"The Grievances of the Haitian People" (Oil on Canvas, 20 x 32 inches) by Alexis Patrick
"I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."
On April 29, 1992, a jury acquitted four white Los Angeles Police Department officers seen on a videotape beating African-American Rodney King. In South Central Los Angeles, which was primarily composed of African-Americans and Hispanics, thousands of people rioted, looted and burned, assaulted and murdered.
A dusk-to-dawn curfew was implemented on the second day of the riots. The smell of smoke saturated the air and the earth.
On the third day, President Bush released his reaction to the events of the past two days:
|"What we saw last night and the night before in Los Angeles is not about civil rights. It's not about the great cause of equality that all Americans must uphold. It's not a message of protest. It's been the brutality of a mob, pure and simple."
The streets were patrolled by the National Guard in Humvees, bus and train service was suspended, entertainment and sports events were postponed or cancelled, and LAX was closed.
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center was open for business.
* * *
The graffiti on the faded green building that houses Catholic Charities was neither as inspired as the iconic pop artist Peter Max nor as benign as a kindergartener's finger painting. It was colorful: green, yellow, purple, black. Red, white, and blue were reserved for a tag of a pit bull, with blue bowler and red neckerchief, marking the Bloods' territory.
One Saturday in the spring of 1992 I walked into the waiting room of Catholic Charities as I did every Saturday and Sunday. The room was filled with two dozen men, a few women, and two babies. They smelled of a country 3,000 miles and 200 years away.
A teenaged boy sat on a metal folding chair pushed against a bright green wall. He looked at the front page of the Los Angeles Times with a color photo of a rope ladder thrown over the side of a Coast Guard cutter. In the photo people's hands grasped the rope. At their feet was a wooden fishing boat. The caption read, "U.S. Coast Guard Rescued 27 Haitians from Sea." I sat down next to the boy.
"Hey, can you read that newspaper?"
His unusual blue eyes did not meet mine. His were unusual because he had black hair and skin the color of the mahogany trees that lived beyond reason on the eroded hills of his country. His eyes rested on my hands. Significant conversations take place on the hands among Haitians.
"Maybe, I can," he answered.
French accent with something else. Creole. Not Creole of New Orleans. This Creole hadn't traveled north. This "Cray-o," born in a tiny Caribbean country, had never left home because it could not escape the poverty of its illiterate heritage. There was a luscious quality to the English words, spoken oh-so carefully. He had answered me in the manner Haitians communicate. He hadn't given me any information, yet would have argued he had told the truth.
"OK, come clean."
He frowned. "What means "come clean"?"
"Is your family here?"
"I am alone."
"How old are you?" I was a mother, always.
"I am 16."
"Where do you live?"
"I am cool. No problem. I live apartment, Inglewood, Los Angeles."
"Who lives with you?" I was not dissuaded by his nonchalance.
He gestured toward two guys sitting across the room.
"Do you understand what I've been asking you?"
He nodded. Universal assent.
"I am avoka, attorney. I volunteer here"- I made a circle with my finger-"at Catholic Charities. I work for Haitian refugees." I pointed at him. I probably didn't look like an attorney. I was wearing jeans and a soccer shirt.
"I leave Haiti . Coup d'état," slapping the upright horizontal palm of one hand with the top of the other, back and forth for emphasis.
"What is your name?"
"I am Idor Laurent."
I put my right hand out, "Nice to meet you, Idor."
Without hesitation he gripped my right hand.
"Can you read that newspaper?"
"I read some."
I stood up. "Read it to me later. I have to talk to Jerry now."
"Bonjour, Jerry. How are you?" I walked into the manager's office of Our Lady of Mercy branch in Los Angeles Catholic Charities.
"Hello." Not meeting my good mood. Black moods were more to Jerry's liking. "I have 58 more applicants. How am I supposed to handle all these people?" When he got excited, Jerry's French accent was thick. He slapped the palms of his hands, a sign of his agitation. He bore the burden of 58 additional applicants as though he had rescued them as their boat foundered in the warm tropical waters of the Caribbean and swum with them on his back all the way to Miami.
"Jerry, some of the interpreters don't speak Creole or won't admit they do." The Haitian upper class spoke French, while most people in the country spoke Creole. The Haitian-American community in Los Angeles might have had a hyphenated legacy that included egalitarianism, but it had preserved its privilege of superiority.
"Who's the teenager?" I asked. "He's alone."
"Idor. He was active politically in Les Cayes. After the coup, the army targeted him."
"'Active politically'? He's 16."
"Have him tell you his story."
"May I have his file? I'll do his application."
Jerry hunted on the credenza. Files are piled up in four stacks, each file representing a story of government-sanctioned brutality fused with incomprehensible optimism. He handed me the file.
"He's living in the apartments the county rented?"
"Is he in school?"
"Yes, manman," Jerry said, Creole for "mama."
"OK." I curtsied and left the office. Next I went to see Gabriel, Director of Immigration Services, who assigned attorneys and clients to specific rooms for interviews.
"Gabriel, my winged friend."
"Ah. How are you going to aggravate me today?"
"I want to interview this client," showing him Idor's file.
"I assigned another client to you today."
"You're impossible. If we were paying you, I would fire you."
"Duly noted. Where am I interviewing him?"
Gabriel checked the chart. "In the pre-school classroom. Is that acceptable to Madam?"
I met with the interpreter, Liz Cerant at the coffee machine. She was a Haitian-American accountant from Pasadena. "Idor speaks some English, but I'll ask him to listen to your translation, not me."
"That's a good approach," Liz said, stirring her coffee.
I collected Idor from the waiting room where he was napping.
"Excuse to me. I go school daytime and work nighttime."
They walked into the pre-school classroom with wide tables and short chairs. There were bulletin boards decorated in yellow, red, green, blue, and pink construction paper.
"It is child school," Idor looked around, smiling when he saw numbers and the alphabet.
I set out a yellow legal pad. "I am your attorney. I am going to ask questions for your asylum application. The interpreter will translate my questions into Creole and then translate your answers into English. Do not withhold information." Liz translated simultaneously. She began talking a second after I began and ended a second after I ended. To live in two worlds simultaneously.
The interview started and paused and lurched forward as he got comfortable with the question-answer process.
We spent all day slogging through the cumbersome process, taking a short lunch break with donated bag lunches.
At 5:00 I stopped. The three of us are tired of talking, straining to bend sounds in our mouths to be understood. I sensed that Idor was spent, having to reveal yet again his story. "Merci, Idor. We will continue next Saturday. Merci, Liz."
I walked by the offices, blowing kisses to Gabriel and Jerry. "Bon nuit."
That night, I wrote the first part of his statement, using my words to express his thoughts. My goal was to match my heart to his so that I wrote what he wanted to say:
I left Haiti because I was afraid I would be killed because I belonged to organizations that supported President Aristide. Since the coup d'état the army is more powerful. If I return, I will be killed.
I lived in Les Cayes, a town 100 miles from Port-au-Prince, all my life with my manman, three brotmys and one sister. My papa lived on an island off the coast of Les Cayes with four other brothers and three sisters.
Our white and blue house was traditional Haitian made of concrete blocks and steel. We had banana, mango, avocado and coconut palm trees, gardens and rose bushes.
I had chores. Every day I walked to public wells five miles away to get water. I took the trash out and tended the garden. I worked with my papa on his fishing boat during the summers.
When I was six years old I started Les Mains Ouverte. I walked to school every day and had perfect attendance. I was a good student. My favorite subjects were history, math and art. I played soccer, volleyball and did martial arts. I was in the 12th grade when I left Haiti.
President-for-Life Jean Claude Duvalier was overthrown in 1986 when I was 12. The pictures of him were torn from the school walls, and bodies of Duvalierists lay in the street. In school I heard about a priest named Jean Bertrand Aristide, who was going around the country giving passionate speeches, saying he was for the people, not the government, and all Haitians could read and have clean drinking water and good roads.
Everybody talked about him on radio, television, and in groups. I heard him speak at a church. I wore shirts with his picture and passed out his posters. I had "Aristide" signs tacked outside my house. I am an artist, and I made a painting of Aristide wearing a long white robe with angel's wings. In the painting his hands were folded over his heart. The painting hung in my school.
I joined New Generation, a group associated with Aristide. Pro-Duvalier groups, still strong in pockets of the country, said lies about Aristide. I made announcements at RTC radio station telling people not to listen to false information and to stay strong with the movement. Aristide thanked our group during radio broadcasts.
One Aristide plan was to have clean communities. I joined the neighborhood committee. Every Saturday I trimmed trees and cleaned the streets. Soldiers took our pictures. I later learned they kept a file on people who were involved in Aristide activities.
In 1990 people said there would be an election. Aristide was a candidate for president. Even though I was young, I was a delegate who registered people to vote. I campaigned for Aristide, saying he wanted change. People listened to me because I was educated.
Election Day December 16, 1990 was a day that could not come fast enough for most people. It became an instant national holiday. The whole country came to a halt. Almost all government offices and businesses were closed. It was an historic day of remembrance and celebration. We grew up during the presidencies of both Duvaliers, who were elected for life, when the only person to be voted for was a Duvalier. During those elections if an individual did not vote, he was persecuted. The 1990 election was free and democratic.
I left Idor's story for the next week and returned to Catholic Charities on Sunday. In addition to the refugees, the waiting room included new volunteer attorneys. Even though I was not planning on interviewing Idor, he sat in the waiting room.
"Bonjour, why are you here? We are not scheduled today."
"I come help for some people."
"OK, since you are here, you can--" I stopped and slowed down my talking, "--sit in on the meeting. We teach attorneys how to prepare asylum applications."
I met with the attorneys in the conference room. I began, "This experience will be one of the most satisfying things you do in your life. Our clients are refugees who fled Haiti after a 1991 coup overthrew the fairly-elected government.
"Aristide, a Catholic slum priest, won 67 percent of the vote in an election international observers deemed free and fair. The poor people of Haiti, the majority of the population, were mesmerized by Aristide, his compassion, and his campaign promises. After the election, Aristide dismantled divisions of the military linked to the Duvaliers. He began to implement programs for schools and clean water. Aristide's radical populist policies alarmed many of the country's elite. Eight months after he took office, he was overthrown in a violent coup. Anyone who had a connection to him was subject to mistreatment or death."
I reviewed the handout that gave examples of activities that satisfied the legal standard for asylum. "Your clients may resist telling you the truth. Truth is coiled with rumors, tempered by mistrust, honor, and humiliation.
Be persuasive, both with your client and in the application. Their stories are evidence. Remember, we want to protect them. If they go back to Haiti , they probably will be killed. In the U.S. , they will be safe."
The attorneys trained with the interpreters, practicing the questions. I asked Idor, "Do you think we can protect your friends?"
"In the United States many good things happening."
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Kathleen Rohr is an attorney. She has volunteered time to represent Haitian refugees making political asylum claims in the United States. She often travels to Haiti visiting hospitals, clinics, and schools and has a number of published law review articles on human rights issues.