The Miami Herald
Sun, Nov. 13, 2005

Sailing north only way to escape for some Haitians


CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti - He wanders the slums and shipyards, listening for murmurs of the next boat getting ready to leave.

When Jude Bernardin's father died three years ago and an uncle commandeered his family's land, he went to the city to find work. But with the economy in ruins, he found only mud and decay and people like himself.

So he wagered what little money he had on a chance to climb aboard any rickety vessel that could get him out of Haiti.

He lost.

A boat captain tricked him and about 200 other passengers out of their cash in July. It was Bernardin's third attempt to get to the Turks and Caicos Islands -- the entry point in a 700-mile archipelago of human migration that leads to Miami.

Now, in mid-August, the 21-year-old is ready to go again. And across the north coast of Haiti, so are thousands of others.

In this old French colonial port, one sailor plans to smuggle his own family out. A journalist is fleeing political gangs. An unemployed mechanic hopes to be a better father from afar. A single mother prays that she can find a future for her children in Miami, even as she leaves them behind.

They are people whose wrenching personal stories are often lost under the category of ''economic refugees.'' They drown, they get robbed, they climb into the most wretched of boat holds, packed body to body in steaming heat, hoping to go anywhere but here.

Haiti's relentless poverty has bred a paralyzing sense of helplessness, with thousands of people concluding that the only way to take control of their lives is to leave -- no matter what the risk.

They make news now and then, as in the televised landing of 220 Haitians on Miami's Rickenbacker Causeway in 2002 and the drownings of three women whose bodies washed up in Pompano Beach on Nov. 5. But mostly, they are invisible.


Bernardin dreams of finding work and returning to Haiti someday with the money to take care of his little sister and show his uncle that he is a man. But that scene, which burns so brightly in his imagination, dims every day he waits here.

He comes to a shack propped over an open sewer, down an alley barely wider than his shoulders. When men don't use it to meet prostitutes, he sleeps here, and on a shelf above the fetid mattress, he keeps one of his only points of pride.

It is a secondhand trophy he won in a soccer game -- with a gold figurine rubbed to gray plastic and a placard celebrating ``the 22nd Annual City of North Miami Gold Coast Cheerleading Squad.''

As the slum slowly grinds away at his sense of self, it reminds him that he has to leave, no matter how.

''I have no life here,'' he said. ``Even if I die at sea, I have no choice. There is no life for me in Haiti.''


U.S. and Bahamian officals stopped about 3,200 migrants in the last fiscal year, fewer than in some years, more than in others. The Coast Guard has clamped down since the 2002 incident, dramatically reducing the number of migrant ships sailing straight into Miami. Smugglers have reacted accordingly. They carry fewer people at a time, charge more and take a circuitous route.

Like Bernardin, migrants often make several attempts just to complete the first leg of the journey, to Providenciales in the British colony of Turks and Caicos, 150 miles north of Haiti. From there, they hope to move into the Bahamas and then try to slip into Florida on speedboats.

In the north coast port of Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city, handmade boats with anywhere from 10 to 200 passengers sail into the pipeline every week. Many more leave from the northern town of Port-de-Paix and the offshore island of La Tortue.

Some make it to their destination. Others don't.

Storms sink them or drive them far off course. Winds die and stall them for weeks as passengers run out of food and water. Coast Guard cutters intercept them, destroy their boats and send them home. Smugglers deceptively loop around and drop them back off in Haiti, or leave them to perish on uninhabited islands. Armed bandits attack them.

Ima Pyrrhon, 23, lost her husband on a trip that left here with 15 people in August. She was told that he and six others drowned when the boat capsized.

She says she can barely speak since it happened.

"We had three children and another baby on the way. . . . We made this decision. We had no choice.

"He was all I ever had.''


Haiti is one of the poorest nations in the world and getting poorer. Only parts of sub-Saharan Africa are worse off. The armed rebellion that ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide early last year and the continuing insecurity ever since have steepened the decline. Prices rose 15 percent this year, while most incomes stand still at less than a dollar a day. And many Haitians fear that elections later this year will erupt in violence.

''We will never let the election find us in Haiti,'' said Jippy Hamilton, a 29-year-old mechanic.

For the past eight months, Hamilton and his childhood friend Ricardeau Felix have been scouring the city for scrap, building a 16-foot speedboat for a rare direct shot at Miami.

Cap-Haitien is an open-air market for what they need. Junk of every sort is freighted here from the Miami River.

Street hawkers sell bicycle sprockets and engine parts, tables, baby cribs, trophies, pots, pans and salad bowls. Vinyl billboard banners originally sold at flea markets in Florida are resold here as boat sails; the bay is full of creaky old sloops with billowing ads for Nissan, Tanqueray gin and Sunkist.

Hamilton found two broken-down Evinrude outboard motors, which he soon got working. He and Felix began to construct a hull with odd bits of plywood and coated the outside in fiberglass. On the motors, they mounted pieces of an old truck chassis they had welded together. They turned three salad bowls into air-intake vents on the bow.

Finally, they painted their boat white -- with pink, green and blue stripes -- so they could blend in with the pleasure craft of South Florida, they say. They stenciled the name in formal Gothic lettering:

Air Florida 2.

All they have to do is fix a starter and find a reliable battery so they don't end up stalled at sea, trying to rope-start two outboards.


In mid-September, they would go. About 25 passengers, including Felix's wife and five children, would take their places on the crowded floorboards.

They would have no marine radio, no charts, no life vests, no weather reports, no emergency flares. They would throw their fate to God and the Vodou spirits who stir the sea, motoring into the night for a destination 700 miles away.

''If I didn't think I was going to make it, I'd never take my kids,'' Felix said.

Felix is Air Florida's captain, a paunchy, baby-faced man who grew up sailing in the Windward Passage. His stepfather captained commercial freighters to the Bahamas. Felix could find work only carrying charcoal and migrants to Nassau. He made enough money that he once bought a car, a used Daihatsu.

But those days are long gone. His last boat, Air Florida I, was confiscated by a Bahamian patrol boat.


Now, he plans to smuggle himself and his family out. He is cocksure that he can slip by the Coast Guard and survive any storm. He has no second thoughts, no desire to see whether Haiti improves after elections.

''By the time Haiti changes, me and my wife and kids will be dead,'' he said.

His friend Hamilton sees Haiti's future just as bleakly. His family life is too strained to take his children along. But he hopes that he can be a better father from Miami.

He has found no regular work since 1999. The sense of impotence he feels for not being able to support his 3-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter is a constant source of shame.

He lives a three-hour trip from them, but doesn't visit because he has nothing to bring them.

"My son loves crackers. He always asks me for crackers. If I had something to buy him some, it wouldn't be so bad. But I feel terrible every time I see him.''


Every plan that Hamilton has come up with to make a living as a car mechanic has been thwarted at the start. He is as thin as a reed and falls into bouts of depression, sulking off by himself. He sleeps on Air Florida, occasionally dousing his sorrows with Barbancourt rum, waiting to go to the place where he hopes he can be a better man.

''God, my people are humiliating me,'' he said one day on the dock, gazing off. ``Even if I get to the other world and they mistreat me, I will have a better life. There would have to be no mechanics, no cars in America for me not to survive there.''

He won't even think about not making it to Miami. He is at the end of his line in Haiti. There is nothing left for him here but time and shame.

By the end of August, their boat is almost ready. Hamilton still needs to fix the starter on one of the outboards and find a battery. Felix is haggling with the passengers for money that he says he needs to buy 200 gallons of gasoline.

Bernardin tries to get a spot, but there is no room for those who can't pay. This direct trip to Miami is a rare endeavor and carries a high fee. Felix is charging $800 to all but family members and close friends.

Air Florida is afloat and tied to the remains of a fallen dock. Men waiting for work in the port sit in the meager shade of some scraggly trees. Dozens of fishing and coastal trading sloops with splintered planks and crooked masts bob and creak in the harbor.

Marie Joseé Germain, one of Felix's passengers, comes down every day to check on Air Florida's progress.

She stares with a set jaw at the little boat that will take her away from her children.

Germain, 31, is a serious, churchgoing woman who carries her portly figure with an unshakable calm and dignity. Her locked jaw betrays her anxiety -- and her displeasure when Felix and Hamilton play-fight in the parking lot or waste money on rum.

She gave her last bit of savings to Felix for gas. She trusts that he will not disappear with it but is wary enough to check up on him regularly.

She returns to her apartment, torrid in the afternoon heat. Her 14-year-old son cradles her baby on the bed. Sheets divide a space no bigger than a prison cell. Bible readings are posted on the walls.


For years, Germain's only means of survival were the men she lived with. Because there are fewer jobs for women in urban Haiti, they are often forced to rely on men to avoid destitution. Now, she has three children with three long-gone fathers.

''I'm a three-time loser,'' she says flatly. When her last boyfriend walked out on her, Germain had enough. She decided that her family of four was going to make it on its own.

''I just want to be independent,'' she says, "not depend on men to survive.''

She has been braiding hair to get by. Yet with the cost of living going up, the only women she knows with money are a few neighborhood prostitutes. By summer, she has to do something.

She makes the wrenching decision. She pays the money that was meant to send her son to school that year for a spot on the boat.

''If I don't go looking for a life for us all, we're all going to die,'' she says.

She hasn't slept much since, worrying about dying on the ocean, orphaning her children.

Her brothers urge her not to leave, saying the trip is too dangerous. She doesn't know how to swim. The deepest she has ever been in water is up to her waist. But now she is determined to get to Miami by early September -- so she can send money back and get her boy into school.

"If I make it, I will be living strictly for them.''