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17068: (Hermantin)Miami Herald-Haitian family finds struggles in new land (fwd)
From: leonie hermantin <email@example.com>
Posted on Wed, Oct. 29, 2003
UP FRONT | IMMIGRATION
Haitian family finds struggles in new land
The Silien family is among 48 Haitians who landed in Dade one year ago and
have been granted political asylum. They're barely making ends meet.
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
Before anyone knew her name, they knew what she wore: yellow ribbons in her
hair, and a matching ruffled, yellow dress.
The poignant image was captured in news photos everywhere one year ago
today. It was that of 8-year-old Guerline Silien, one of more than 30
Haitian children who made it safely to shore after leaping from a wooden
boat near Key Biscayne into the arms of strangers and waist-deep water.
Since that dramatic landing last Oct. 29, 110 of the 214 migrants taken into
custody have been returned to Haiti. Ten remain detained at U.S. government
detention centers in South Florida; 48 have won political asylum and the
rest are still awaiting their fate.
The Silien family, two adults and six children ranging from 6 to 19 years
old, are among those who have been granted asylum.
But like the risky boat trip from Haiti's northern coast, life in the U.S.
has not been easy. The family is struggling, living humbly in Delray Beach,
barely making ends meet.
Still, the family lives for the intangible: the overwhelming sense of
freedom, the uniquely American ability to pursue real dreams.
''We knew we would have some problems,'' mother Guilene Silien, 38, said
recently inside the family's sparsely furnished living room. ``But we thank
God and the U.S. government. We could not live well in Haiti. We did not
have security. We had to hide. We have no regrets.''
The Siliens made up the largest and most recognizable family on the Oct. 29
boat. Guilene Silien, afraid to jump, was among the last to hurl herself off
the boat. She had used $19 to buy that yellow dress, something for a special
That day arrived last fall when the family, after months in hiding, headed
for the seaside shantytown of Chouchou Bay, just outside of Cap-Haitien at 5
There, a modern-day Mayflower was about to set sail with 233 migrants. Some
paid, others did not. Villagers called it a community effort to escape
Haiti. They came from all walks of life: school teachers, farmers, masons.
The trip would end on live television with men, women and children dodging
traffic on the Rickenbacker Causeway after wading ashore. Police helicopters
buzzed overhead, search dogs sniffed underneath bushes. Nineteen migrants
never made it to land, and were repatriated to Haiti.
That day seems long gone for the Siliens, whose focus has now switched from
staying in the United States to surviving here. The monthly $600 stipend the
family received from Catholic Charities to help them get on their feet is
The family has moved twice. They now live in an $890-a-month apartment. The
father, Charles Silien, 50, who suffers from a weak heart, is the only one
working. He works as a groundskeeper at a Palm Beach County golf course. His
wife and oldest child, Samuel, haven't been as fortunate.
`WE CAN'T FIND WORK'
''We can't find work. They tell us work is slow,'' Guilene Silien said.
``Things are tough.''
Still, it's a far different life than the one they left behind.
There, the Silien family ran a small restaurant in the country's northern
city of Cap-Haitien until pro-government thugs ransacked it and their home
with a tractor in December 2001. The Siliens say they were targeted because
of their close relationship with a Baptist minister who used his pulpit to
rail against Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Lavalas Family
After months in hiding, the family found themselves in the belly of the
Florida-bound boat, along with Guilene Silien's sister and the sister's
The Siliens were immediately taken into U.S. immigration custody where they
remained until they were released Feb. 28 after an immigration judge agreed
their lives would be endangered if returned to Haiti.
During their four months in detention, Guilene Silien and the five youngest
children lived at a West Miami-Dade motel. Charles and Samuel, 19, were
placed at the Krome detention center in West Miami-Dade. Her sister was sent
to the Broward Work Release Center in Pompano Beach where she remains.
The clothes they were wearing that day -- including the yellow dress -- were
replaced with government-issued sweats and prison wear. The family spent
their days watching television, their nights praying.
Detention was difficult, especially for the children who communicated with
their father by slipping notes into the pockets of their attorney, Yasmin
Jacob. In quiet Creole whispers, they pleaded that she pass the messages
''We did not have anyone to talk to,'' said Guilene Silien, who taught
Sunday School back in Haiti and worked as a nurse's aide. ``It was not good
As the family fought to remain positive, immigration advocates and attorneys
found themselves in a losing battle. The U.S. government, hoping to stem the
tide on illegal Haitian immigration, repeatedly denied bond and parole
requests to release the migrants while their asylum cases were considered.
And eventually, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a formal ruling,
saying Haitians would remain detained indefinitely. He cited State
Department concerns that Haiti has become a staging point for terrorists --
Pakistanis, Palestinians and others -- attempting to illegally migrate to
''Haitians who are genuinely in fear of their lives have nowhere to go. They
are unwelcomed in the U.S., they are unwelcomed in the Bahamas and the
Dominican Republic,'' said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida
Immigrant Advocacy Center. ``Haitians continue to be subjected to
Little's office, along with Catholic Charities Legal Services, represented
most of the Haitians. The sight of Guerline Silien in the yellow dress
remains one of the most powerful images in Little's mind.
''This is a very cruel policy,'' Little said. ``In this country we talk
about the importance of family values, but we completely disregard family
values when determining Haitian policy. No young child should be a virtual
prisoner in a room for extended periods of time, with no access to fresh
air, to toys.''
Among the things Guilene Silien remembers about her confinement was the day
an immigration judge, during an asylum hearing at Krome, gave the children
coloring books and crayons. The materials were confiscated before they
returned to the hotel. The children cried.
Today, most of the tears have been replaced with childhood laughter, and the
Creole is slowly giving way to English and Spanish, picked up from watching
''Hola, cómo estás?'' a giggly Guerline, now 9, said.
Said Guilene Silien: ``Even if things are not comfortable, the children are
And that includes Guerline, who still dresses in yellow. It's her mother's
Deeply religious, the family found friends at Calvary Bible Alliance Church
in Delray Beach. In fact, it was the church congregation that collected
about $1,500 to help the family with rent deposits.
Jean Celin, a pastor at the mostly Haitian congregation, was the first to
befriend the family after their arrival. A pastor in Haiti gave the family
Celin has opened his home, his wallet and his church to the family. He put
them up in an $85-a-night hotel room the first day of their release.
''People brought them food and brought them furniture,'' said Celin, 50, who
housed the family for two months. ``That is how they got to where they are.
Still things are not OK for them.
``It takes someone with courage and strength to leave the country with the
family intact. They didn't know what could happen . . . seeing those people
jump, it was amazing. Still right now I can't comprehend it.''
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