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28311: Hermantin(News)Bahamas' Haitians face identity crisis (fwd)

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

Miami Herald

Posted on Tue, Apr. 18, 2006

Bahamas' Haitians face identity crisis
As the Bahamas seeks to deport undocumented Haitians and other migrants, many Bahamians of Haitian descent remain torn about their roots.

NASSAU, Bahamas - Nearly six decades ago, Valentino O'Bainyear's father moved to these sun-bleached shores to start his new life as a Bahamian. He became William Bain, a new name for a new beginning.

He passed that new life to his son, who grew up thinking most of his identity was rooted in the Bahamas. Then he realized it wasn't.

''I didn't know anyone who was a Bain,'' said O'Bainyear, 48, a telecommunications expert who in 1984 reached into his father's past and changed his name back to its Haitian roots. ``I consider myself 75-percent Bahamian, 25-percent Haitian.''

Therein lies the struggle of the Haitian-Bahamian community: Many feel unable to celebrate fully who they are in a country where Haitians remain marginalized.

Even the children of Haitian migrants born in the Bahamas do not automatically become Bahamians. They and other children of migrant parents have one year -- when they turn 18 -- to apply for Bahamian citizenship, and there's no guarantee they'll get it.


The struggle of those born here of Haitian descent has become even more urgent as Haitians living in the chain of islands face get-tough immigration policies. This past weekend, more than 300 suspected illegal migrants -- most of them Haitians -- were rounded up in Eleuthera, Exuma and Ragged Island, alarming Amnesty International's Bahamian office, which has asked its London office to investigate.

About half of those initially detained were found to be illegal and will be returned to Haiti, said Shane Gibson, the Bahamas' immigration minister. The latest roundups come on the heels of nightly ''Quiet Storm'' operations where police and immigration officers go into communities to arrest illegal migrants, whose numbers have been rising. Unlike Cubans, detained Haitians are returned within days.

Indeed, this is not the first time the Bahamas has attempted to get rid of Haitians, the largest and most visible ethnic minority in the tiny nation of 301,790. Long a staging ground for migrants trying to illegally enter the United States, the Bahamas has become a final destination for Cubans, Chinese and Jamaicans, too.

''Anytime you have illegal immigrants coming into your country you have to find some way to stanch that flow,'' said Immigration Director Vernon Burrows, who noted that in 2001.

No one can say what percentage of the Bahamas' population is Haitian or of Haitian descent, but at least 21,426 identified themselves as Haitians in the Bahamas' 2000 census.

The Haitian presence is creating concern that the Bahamas will soon be overwhelmed even as Bahamians concede that Haitians do the low-skilled work they won't do. Similar sentiments exist in nearby Turks and Caicos Islands, where the government has toughened immigration policies.

''The flood today, we cannot handle, and Bahamians are beginning to resent that,'' said Arthur Foulkes, a Bahamian-born former ambassador whose mother migrated to the Bahamas from Haiti in 1902.

Foulkes, like O'Bainyear, offers little sympathy for undocumented migrants -- despite their own Haitian lineage.

Their position is not that unusual, said Reber Dunkel, a sociologist at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., who has studied Haitian migration in the Bahamas.

Dunkel noted that talk in the Bahamas of cracking down on illegal migrants is no different from what is happening in the United States.

''Ethnicity is just as powerful a potential social conflict as race,'' Dunkel said.


Many Bahamians of Haitian descent -- born and educated in the Bahamas -- have gone undercover, shunning their Haitian heritage and assimilating into the Bahamas' nationalistic way of thinking.

''It's taboo to say you are Haitian,'' said Mary Lauriston Reckley, 50, who moved here from Haiti at age 5.

Reckley says there are plenty of Haitian Bahamians who are lawyers, doctors -- and even politicians. As a group straddling both worlds, they can build bridges in Bahamian society, she said, and transform the social dynamic by influencing the debate on the ``Haitian problem.''

'The image of Haitians is so bad here, they don't have the guts to go out and say, `I'm Haitian,' '' said Louis Harold Joseph, Haiti's ambassador to the Bahamas.

Though the plight of Haitian Bahamians has often been framed within the Bahamas' refusal to grant them automatic citizenship, Joseph and others point to Haitians' own ambivalence.

''There are plenty of Haitians here who would like for me to say Haitians are stateless,'' Joseph said. ``I cannot. According to the Haitian Constitution . . . regardless of where you are born, as long as you can prove one of your parents is Haitian you are entitled to a Haitian passport. They don't want their Haitian citizenship. They want the Bahamian one.''

Joseph has tried to celebrate Haitian heritage by sponsoring cultural programs on Haiti. Few show up.


Average Bahamians often lament that Haitians refuse to integrate. They complain that many Haitians prefer to live in isolated, dilapidated communities, known as Haitian villages, where rotted slabs of plywood form makeshift homes.

In the past few months, the Bahamian government has been bulldozing many of the houses, which have been illegally built on government-owned land, to make way for low-cost affordable housing.

''If you want to integrate . . . you don't create bidonvilles [barrios], you don't build out of the rules and regulations of the country,'' Reckley said. ``That is what I don't like. You go somewhere, and you can see that is a Haitian village.''

Although Haitians bear some responsibility for Bahamians' attitudes toward them, Reckley said some politicians also feed the frenzy by spewing anti-immigrant comments in the press and exaggerating the gravity of the problem.

Reckley grew up in a predominantly Bahamian neighborhood, and like many Haitian children -- then and now -- was taunted by Bahamian parents forbidding their children from playing ``with that little Haitian girl.''

Friend and business partner Julie Georges Smith, 46, was born in the Bahamas to Haitian parents. Like O'Bainyear's father, Georges Smith's also changed his name.

Unlike Reckley, Georges Smith was raised in a Haitian-influenced home.

Still, the businesswomen share something in common: Despite their ability to blend in with their perfect, Bahamian-accented English, they have embraced their ``Haitianness.''

''You can't hide it -- it will come out one day,'' said Georges Smith, who, like Reckley, speaks equally flawless Creole.

Dieuritha Ernest, a mother of three who recently had to leave her bulldozed shack near Joe Farrington Road, said many Bahamians miss the reality of her day-to-day challenges.

Many like her cannot find a job, despite having work permits. Even when they do work, they may not get paid. Although Ernest managed to scrape up $750 to rent a home, she and her husband have no idea where they will be in the coming days.

''Moving back to Haiti will not be good for us,'' she said.


Leaning against a makeshift grocery store across from a makeshift church in the Haitian village's Bwapen -- Creole for pine, or the woods -- Ernest said she's waiting to see what her husband decides. Like countless Haitians, she has heard the government's new edict: Work for someone other than those who sponsor your work permit, you will be deported. Stay without papers, and, if caught, you will be fingerprinted to prevent your immediate return.

''I am not at ease living here,'' Ernest, 30, said before thinking about her three young children born in the Bahamas. ``The ones who are born here, they can make a difference.''