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By Kathleen Rohr


The Montréal Review, May 2011


L.A. street mural




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The next Saturday I walked into the waiting room, saw there are new clients, and waved at Idor, who had the sports pages in front of him. I learned he was a soccer player and wanted to read the international scores.

I interviewed him with Liz translating. During a break, I asked him how he was doing in school. "I am good. I tell my teachers 'I do not say English good. I learn pretty quick.' They like me. I play soccer best."

I prepared the next part of his statement, knowing that if I missed a part of the story on which INS would be focusing, I had not served my client:

Three days after the election, the international election commission declared Aristide the winner with 67 percent of the vote. I continued to participate in Aristide-sponsored activities in Les Cayes.

On September 29, 1991, eight months after he had been sworn in as president, Aristide was overthrown by the army that was taken over by pro-Duvalier groups, including Ton Ton Macoutes, the men that were like paramilitary who traveled through the country beating up and killing anyone they believed was for Aristide. Some people said that the Macoutes were zombies.

The army drove through neighborhoods in dark-colored Toyota trucks, the soldiers sitting in the back. The day after the coup, soldiers beat, kidnapped, and murdered Aristide supporters. They burned houses and looted businesses.

Three days later they came to my neighborhood and arrested some of my neighbors and burned their houses and gardens. That day I fled to the jungle. I heard shots and screaming. I smelled smoke. I slept little because I had to be vigilant. I did not have food. After a few days, I found a house in a rural area that supported Aristide. They gave me food. The jungle was dark because of the thick foliage; sometimes I could not tell night from day.

I stayed in the jungle for 40 days.

When Idor told me about the days in the jungle, his voice was a whisper, as though he was telling a secret, but his hands were active. Always information passes through the hands. His eyes were fixed on the floor to a nonexistent path home.

I found a man, Dinald Laguerre, who was the owner and captain of a boat who gave me passage. His father had been the captain for a long time to take people out of the country to help them to go to other countries including the United States. I had to pay Laguerre $15,000.00 Haitian. We did not have a long time to plan for the departure. After the coup d'etat, the opposition was moving very fast to get their grip on power over the country.

That night, I sneaked into town to collect money from my relatives and, supplies for the boat. Sad and terrified, manman told me a soldier came to our house and took some of my things. I stayed in the shadows, but a soldier saw me on the road and chased me. I ran fast and lost him in the dark jungle.

Along with 66 other people, I escaped from Haiti on a black wooden and aluminum boat with outboard motor, but no seats or life preservers. The boat was filled beyond capacity. Ours was one of the first boats to leave Haiti after the coup d'etat. The people on the boat were mainly single men like me who were very vulnerable to the opposition of Aristide. There were only a few children.

The leader on the boat was Laguerre. I became one of the leaders of the group. People showed me a lot of respect due the fact that they knew I was very smart in school. When I spoke they seemed to listen; therefore, I used that to my advantage to speak freely when time permitted.

I brought food on the boat, but someone took it. I was not able to sleep. I wondered what was going to happen because I did not know where I was. I could not see land. It was just water all around us. There was talk of going to Cuba.

It rained part of every day. People got sick from waves lashing onto the boat again and again and again. Some waves were huge. One time I thought we were going to die. I closed my eyes as tightly as possible, and when I opened them I was still alive. We were scared and prayed we would be rescued. I hoped we would get to the United States, but wherever I ended up was fine as long as it wasn't Haiti.

As he talked about the days on the boat, Idor's hands gripped the edge of the table and his knuckles turned white as if to ride out the violent swaying over which he had no control.

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.

For the first time since the interview began, he seemed unsure when he recited the facts about his move from ship to detention to Miami to Los Angeles, as though he has lost his moorings.

Five hours later, we landed in Los Angeles and were brought to Catholic Charities. A lady told me I was going to move into an apartment in Inglewood. I thought she meant I had to leave Los Angeles. I was very upset. I found the person who I thought was in charge, and I said I wanted to stay in Los Angeles. All the time I had been on the ship, at Guantamo Bay and in the hotel I said nothing. I didn't ask for anything. But I said I wanted to stay in L.A. A person in charge told me that Inglewood is part of Los Angeles.

I was taken to a two-bedroom apartment where I would live with only five other people. A church gave us furniture and a TV. Someone took us to a place where we got clothes. I took English classes every day and worked at a factory at night, cutting fabric to patterns. I started Inglewood High School in the 12th grade after my transcript came from Haiti.

The weeks went by. I finished Idor's application, and it had been submitted to Immigration. Idor was in the waiting room every weekend.

One day as I was walking toward Jerry's office a toddler about three years old materialized. She had orangish hair an inch long around her head, the sign of severe malnutrition. She was wearing a blue gingham dress with white collar and brown flip flops. She looked at me with her hands behind her back. I found something in my handbag and clasp one fist around it. I put my hands behind my back. I produced one hand, palm up. It was empty. The girl brought her left hand forward. She held a banana. I took it and produced my right hand, palm up. I held out a pack of peppermint gum. The girl took the gum and offered what she had in her right hand. It was a condom.

I laughed and said, "At least she's protected."

All Haitians as they were processed at Guantanamo or in the United States were given condoms. There was the ever-present fear of AIDS, which, like so many killers, had been delivered to Haiti.

Idor and I usually ate lunch together.

Jerry said, "You've taken him under your wing, haven't you?"

One day I asked, "What courses do you have this quarter?"

"I am taking American History, Political Science, Senior English, Trigonometry, and French."

"French? Isn't that cheating?"

"I wish a course that I know because I do not know Senior English."

I conceded.

In the middle of April I invited Idor to have dinner with my family. My husband, my 17-year-old daughter, a high school senior, and I picked him up at his apartment. Idor wore a dark blue suit, and his appearance reminded me that Haitians have the lock on style. We went to Musso & Frank Grill, a well-known Hollywood restaurant. Idor ordered New York Cheesecake, because it was one of the cities he wanted to see. During dinner, he and my daughter talked about school.

She said, "I've applied to UCLA and NYU. How about you?"

"I do not know the universities."

"Go see a guidance counselor. She'll help you. What's your college major going to be? I'm going to major in Public Relations and then work for a cable television station doing PBS-like programming."

"I finish high school and university and go home to Haiti. I be candidate senator, later president. I teach people be free." My daughter's ambitions did not include running a country. The four of us toasted future success in college.

Two weeks later, on April 29, 1992, a jury acquitted four white Los Angeles Police Department officers seen on a videotape beating African-American Rodney King. Thousands of people in South Central Los Angeles--which is primarily composed of African-Americans and Hispanics and which is one of the areas where the Haitians have been placed in apartments--riot, loot and burn, assault and murder.

That afternoon I called Idor on the "community" phone, the one phone number all the Haitians in the Inglewood apartments use. I asked him what he thought of the riots. "For a moment, I thought I am in Haiti. Only in Haiti no respect for private property. I don't understand."

The Marines arrived the fourth day, Saturday, to quell crowds. I was not able to go to Catholic Charities because it was located in the main area of the riots.

On Sunday morning, the fifth day, Idor sat on the outside balcony to the stairs, listening to the sirens. He saw the smoke that filled the sky, gray chiffon floating, veiling the privation and desolation below. He saw and smelled the burning of Los Angeles. Did it smell like home? In Haiti, during riots, people are kidnapped, bound and gagged, with a tire put over their heads. The tires are set on fire. This is called necklacing.

Sunday night, Idor walked outside and stood under a street light. A pea green Toyota truck slowly drove by him; inside two light skinned teenagers, both wearing Peterbilt caps. The passenger stretches his right arm straight out of the opened window with his fingers like a gun and said, "Pop."

The driver yelled, "Die, fucker." Idor understood those words.


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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.


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