Dateline

Caught between two worlds

PORT-AU-PRINCE December 15 1997
Dateline

Caught between two worlds

PORT-AU-PRINCE December 15 1997

Caught between two worlds

Dateline

PORT-AU-PRINCE

Andrew Phillips

The young men sitting around the table in Le Paradis des amis, a modest restaurant in the centre of Port-au-Prince, are no angels. One is a convicted cocaine dealer. Two others were once members of the Crack Down Posse, a gang pushing drugs on the streets of north-end Montreal. For the moment, though, they are on their best behavior—fiddling nervously with their hands, trying to persuade a visitor that being dumped suddenly into the poverty and chaos of Haiti amounts to cruel and unusual punishment for their transgressions. “It is,” says Touché Caman, not putting too fine a point on it, “torture.”

Caman and his pals are among hundreds of Haitians deported from Canada and the United States after being convicted of crimes, usually drug offences. Many arrived in Canada as young children and are being shipped back to a country they know only from tales told by their immigrant parents. Somehow, they never acquired Canadian or U.S. citizenship—and both governments, responding to public outrage against foreign-born criminals, have stepped up efforts to get rid of them. The policy is a sore spot between Ottawa and some governments. Jamaica, most notably, has loudly complained that lawbreakers raised—if not born—in Canada and the United States are a prime cause of its exploding crime rate. Haiti has similar concerns, fuelled by the impending arrival in Port-au-Prince of Patrick Pinder, a contract killer for Quebec’s Hells Angels. Pinder left Haiti for Montreal when he was only 9. He is returning as a 27-yearold violent criminal—deported by the government of Canada.

That is the image, and sometimes the reality, of deportees to countries like Jamaica and Haiti. But there is another side, one that Caman and his friends are anxious to tell. For one thing, being deported to Haiti—the poorest, most deprived corner of the Western Hemisphere—is a harsher fate than being sent back to almost anywhere else. For another, there is less evidence that foreigners are a major factor in crime there than they are in, say, Jamaica. The numbers are

small: only 21 were deported from Canada in 1996, with 13 more so far this year. And in Haiti, some deportees are involved in something that hasn’t been tried anywhere else: a program designed to help them make new lives and keep away from crime.

In Creole it is called Chans Alternativ (Alternative Chance), and it was founded last year by Michelle Karshan, an American supporter of Haiti’s democracy movement who moved to the country in 1995. Chans Alter-

nativ has contacted several hundred deportees; about 60 take part most weeks in its language classes, job skills courses and discussion groups. ‘These guys don’t know what hit them,” says Karshan. “They come right from New York or Montreal, and they can’t handle this place. And the local people are against them: the feeling is, you had your chance over there and you blew it.”

Not all were deported. Some are so-called throwbacks—teenagers shipped back to Haiti by parents worried that their sons are getting into trouble or simply becoming unruly in North America. Seeing what their families escaped from, goes the thinking, may straighten them out. Joe Occeus, 20, left Haiti for Montreal when he was 4. By the time he was in his mid-teens he was involved with the Crack Down Posse; his outraged parents sent him to stay with an aunt in Connecticut, but he did not get along with her. Two years ago, they shipped him back to Haiti. It is, says Karshan, a common pattern when conservative Haitian parents see their children running

wild, but it often strands them in a place they know nothing about. “I have no friends, no family, no money here,” says Occeus. “It’s terrible.” His former Posse mate Jimmy Sylvain, 22, was deported from Montreal a year ago, after serving 18 months on a drug charge. “There’s nothing at all here,” he says. “It’s awful how much I miss Montreal.”

The young men who lived in Quebec are, by some measures, the lucky ones. They at least speak French. For onetime American residents like 28-year-old Touché Caman, Haiti is truly a strange land. Caman left with his family for Stamford, Conn., when he was just 5. “I used to see Haiti on TV and change the channel,” he says. “All that poverty and violence. Who wants to go to Haiti? You want to go to Hawaii.” He grew up American and spoke no French, but never took out U.S. citizenship. He got involved in the drug trade and served 3 Y years for trafficking in cocaine. Then, four years ago, U.S. authorities put him on a plane to Port-auPrince. “I was shell-shocked,” he says. “I thought they’d sent me here to die.” Caman knows there isn’t much sympathy for him and his friends. North Americans tend to say good riddance. Haitians often blame deportees for rising crime. In fact, crime in Haiti is mostly homegrown. Until the country’s military regime was toppled in 1994, the biggest organized gangs were the army and police themselves. And new arrivals from North America find that turf is already staked out by local gangs—including former attachés, as members of the old paramilitary groups are known. “It’s closed tight here,” says Caman. ‘You have to have connections.”

residents like 28-year-old Touché Caman, Haiti is truly a strange land. Caman left with his family for Stamford, Conn., when he was just 5. “I used to see Haiti on TV and change the channel,” he says. “All that poverty and violence. Who wants to go to Haiti? You want to go to Hawaii.” He grew up American and spoke no French, but never took out U.S. citizenship. He got involved in the drug trade and served 3 Y years for trafficking in cocaine. Then, four years ago, U.S. authorities put him on a plane to Port-auPrince. “I was shell-shocked,” he says. “I thought they’d sent me here to die.” Caman knows there isn’t much sympathy for him and his friends. North Americans tend to say good riddance. Haitians often blame depor-

tees for rising crime. In fact, crime in Haiti is mostly homegrown. Until the country’s military regime was toppled in 1994, the biggest organized gangs were the army and police themselves. And new arrivals from North America find that turf is already staked out by local gangs—including former attachés, as members of the old paramilitary groups are known. “It’s closed tight here,” says Caman. ‘You have to have connections.”

The members of Chans Alternativ, at least, are trying another path. It’s not easy: unemployment in Haiti runs around 80 per cent, and the few jobs that exist pay minuscule wages by North American standards (the equivalent of perhaps $150 a month). This week, the group is moving into a new headquarters, a house left vacant by a former Haitian politician now living in Canada. And they plan to open a small restaurant in Port-auPrince early next year, creating jobs for some of their members. It’s a long shot, but they have few choices. “There is,” says Caman, “no way back.”