The Miami Herald
November 29, 1998
Abandoning one dream for another, thousands of Haitians return to roots

             By LESLIE CASIMIR
             Herald Staff Writer

             PORT-AU-PRINCE -- While countless Haitians continue to smuggle themselves
             into South Florida, and thousands of others fight for the right to stay, some are
             quietly returning to Haiti, building homes and nursing their severed roots.

             It is the Haitian immigrant's twist to the American dream.

             Lochard and Elizabeth Noel, who have lived in the United States for most of their
             lives, recently sold their three-bedroom North Miami home to live in one under
             construction in the mountainous Port-au-Prince suburb called Petionville.

             Although bare for now, without windows or phones, the Haitian house represents
             everything the Noels have ever wanted. They are home.

             ``Living in the States was very much like having all the food you wanted -- but still
             you could not eat,'' said Elizabeth Noel, 41, who taught Creole-speaking students
             at Edison Middle School and is now a teacher in Haiti. ``Wherever I went, the ties
             with Haiti were always there. They were never cut. This is where I belong.''

             Since the downfall of the Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier regimes, Haitian
             Americans like the Noels have been steadily trading in U.S. comforts of 911
             emergency services and reliable electricity for childhood memories of sweet
             mangoes and street vendors who sing about pastries filled with meat.

             Older Haitian Americans, who have worked hard to build up savings and Social
             Security, yearn to do away with the deep sense of guilt for leaving their
             countrymen behind, suffering under coups and economic hardships.

             With every dream come sobering realities. Many who have returned -- estimated
             at 10,000 -- have found a country where poverty and misery have intensified.
             Those who escape the violence find themselves struggling to make a living in a frail
             economy with few job opportunities and an unstable currency.

             The changes have forced many homesick Haitians to run back to the States. The
             childhood image of Haiti, the one carved in memories and told to the first
             generation, is no longer the same.

             A changed country

             Most of the country's landscape has been stripped of its trees to meet a desperate
             need for charcoal, used as fuel. Once-clear rivers and streams are now muddy
             trickles used as toilets, garbage dumps and washing machines.

             ``It's hard to re-create the life you left,'' said Claude Charles, a Miami-based
             anthropologist who has studied Haitian society. ``Haiti is not the same.''

             Despite the distorted landscape, they come and go like the waves' ebb and flow:
             after Jean-Claude Duvalier, after Jean-Bertrand Aristide rose to the presidency,
             and after Aristide returned to power under a U.S.-led intervention in 1994.

             Some are civic-minded Americans, professionals, retirees and homeowners who
             are haunted by prideful stories of the rich history of the first independent black

             ``There is a tremendous amount of pain, but I'm not responsible for it -- I'm not
             the one who caused the problems,'' said North Miami business consultant Yves
             Fontaine, who bought land last year in a mountain hideaway known as Thomassin
             for $25,000. Construction of his home starts next month.

             ``I've done the professional thing, managed large county departments,'' Fontaine
             said. ``I've paid my dues here professionally and politically. With what I've gained
             here, I can be of tremendous help to the country.''

             Resentful greeting

             Despite their relentless aid to the country -- as much as $1 billion annually that is
             wired to relatives in Haiti -- not everyone welcomes them back.

             ``It's a problem of space -- there is not enough room for every player, and you are
             considered a challenge and thus a threat,'' Charles said. ``The ones who were
             stuck in Haiti consider it unfair they have not had those choices.''

             Moving back has not helped Haiti improve, says Gary Sanon-Jules, general
             manager of South Beach's Tap Tap restaurant. His sister, Jessie Francois, went
             back to Haiti several years ago.

             ``Sure, you can build a beautiful house in Haiti, but I don't see what good that's
             doing for the country,'' said Sanon-Jules, 31. ``You still have unpaved roads and
             poverty. People need to return with more than just the thought of reliving their
             romanticized childhoods.''

             Haitians who live outside the country are often termed Jaspora. It can have a
             derogatory meaning, referring to poor and uneducated people who flee to the
             States to find small fortunes and return with gold chains and gaudy values.

             The stereotype is often not true. Most people come with the mind-set to help
             change Haiti -- the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, one that has been
             without a functioning government for almost 18 months and one that is increasingly
             a stop on the drug-smuggling circuit.

             Unpleasant encounters

             The tragic examples are many, and the horror stories are passed among the
             estimated one million Haitians who live throughout the United States, especially in
             South Florida and New York.

             Take Yves Phanor, a former Miami police officer who was fatally shot in the chest
             by robbers in front of his wife, Chantal, in 1996, as the family was moving into its
             home in La Plaine, a suburb where many of the people who have returned are
             building houses.

             Phanor, 38, had left his job in Miami to become an instructor for Haiti's new police

             ``This is something he always wanted to do. He always talked about it, and I
             would say, `Are you crazy?' '' said Chantal Phanor, who moved to Long Island,
             N.Y., after the murder.

             His killers remain free.

             ``He loved that country, but I didn't share the same love he had,'' Chantal Phanor

             Still, she and her three children, Ashley, Mark and Ryan, had joined him in his
             search for a simpler life. And Chantal Phanor almost believed they had found it,
             describing a feeling repeated by many immigrants when they return to Haiti for the
             first time: You are a man, a woman, a child. No one looks at you as a black
             person or an immigrant, she said.

             Longing for homeland

             It is a message that artists conveyed in songs over and over again. Like the one by
             the late Ti Manno, who yearned to once again live in Haiti:

             Every time I remember, water pours out of my eyes. I must return to my country, it
             is time for me to go. I've spent enough time outside. Bring me back, bring me

             For some, the complicated reality of Haitian living is too much, and they return to
             the States.

             Roger Biamby, the new administrator for Miami's Little Haiti Neighborhood
             Enhancement Team, is rebuilding his life after returning from a two-year stint in
             Haiti a year ago.

             Biamby left his job as executive director of the social agency Pierre Toussaint
             Haitian Catholic Center in 1995 to start an economic development agency in Haiti.

             But after he moved his belongings, depleted his savings (close to $20,000) and
             sold his Haitian painting collection to set up the organization, government officials
             refused to grant him an operational license. They claimed his plans were

             ``I did everything they told me, but after a while, I said forget it,'' said Biamby, 51.
             ``If you're not part of the clan, they are not going to let you operate.''

             A clear-cut choice

             Others, like Lochard Noel, 43, a former teacher at Miami Park Elementary, can't
             imagine living anywhere else.

             Two months ago, he and his wife, Elizabeth, landed jobs as English and social
             studies teachers with the Union School, a private, English-speaking institution set
             up in 1915, when U.S. troops began an occupation of Haiti.

             One-third of the 400 students enrolled there -- including the Noels' three children,
             Sebastien, 11, Laurent, 8, and Gilbert, 6 -- are American-born of Haitian parents,
             school officials said.

             The transition can be tough, said Linda Boucard, guidance counselor at Union
             School, who is a Haitian American who lived in New York for most of her life.

             ``They become very defensive and have a hard time making friends,'' Boucard

             For eight years, the Noels have been building a two-story home off Route de
             Frere. The corner structure faces the mountain of Boutilliers, which resembles a
             patchwork of green squares, trees, amid billowy white smoke.

             The land was a gift to the couple from Elizabeth Noel's parents. The couple have
             spent nearly $115,000 on the four-bedroom house, which they call Villa Lilly.
             They figure they'll need $50,000 more to complete it.

             There have been many snags, and the price of cement bags has ballooned since
             they started building.

             Making do for now

             Until the home is complete, the family will live on the second floor in two rooms,
             equipped with four fold-up beds, a table and a refrigerator. Their furniture,
             shipped from Miami, remains stored at the home of Elizabeth Noel's parents in
             Jacmel, two hours from Port-au-Prince.

             There is a new addition to the Noels' family, one of the treats that most Haitian
             Americans who reminisce about the Haitian lifestyle revel in: a maid who cooks,
             cleans and does the wash.

             Elizabeth Noel proudly shows off her peach-hued manicure:

             ``I even have nails,'' she said. ``I have time to spend with my children. As far as
             I'm concerned, I'd rather live in Haiti with all the problems because I feel alive

             Herald staff writer Leslie Casimir can be reached by e-mail at


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