Jonathan Cunningham

The Real Fugee-La

haitian refugeeDespite its infamously lush green mountains, fertile countryside, remarkable art and culture, and mouth-watering Creole cuisine, Haiti is also the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with over 7 million people living in poverty. Roughly 70% of Haiti's 8.2 million citizens are unemployed and two-thirds of Haiti's population is presently living on $1 a day. Life expectancy is a mere 53 years, with infant mortality rates at 14%.

In a country of haves and have nots, the majority of wealth in Haiti is held by the nation's bourgeois elite, which comprises only 5-10% of the population. As a result, many Haitians are left in an endless poverty cycle that is broken at times by international assistance programs and remittances from the 2.5 million Haitians living abroad (

The socio-economic deterioration that Haiti has faced for the past 50 years stems from the heinous Duvalier regime (1957 to 1986) and the tumultuous civil war that ensued, leaving many Haitians with no choice but to flee Haiti or perish by one means or another. Thousands of Haitians attempt to sail away from their homeland each year and many are never heard from again. Many of these disappearances are in part due to undocumented migration, which is filled with the dangers and deceptions migrants encounter in attempts to reach the U.S.

Long before Elian Gonzales drifted into the international media spotlight as the poster-boy for Cuban raft migration, most attentive global news watchers were aware that Haitian refugees sailing to Miami and seeking asylum often faced the same perils as those of their Cuban counterparts. Many have seen the pictures of overcrowded makeshift rafts off the coast of Florida being turned away less than 10 miles from the shore, with Haitian refugees screaming and sometimes drowning as U.S. Coast Guard members stand by.

Haitian refugees often leave on overcrowded boats such as this one.

According to the World Refugee Survey of 2003, the United States stopped over 1,500 Haitians at sea in 2002, and summarily sent all of them back to Haiti. Within the Caribbean, the political discussion regarding the Haitian refugee dilemma always returns to the basic fact that Cuban migrants more often than not are granted asylum as political refugees in the United States, whereas neighboring Haitian refugees are not afforded the same human rights courtesies. According to Church World Services, "the U.S. agrees to admit at least 20,000 Cubans each year either through refugee admissions, immigrant visas, parolees, or a special lottery." In comparison, the United States Committee for Refugees reports that an estimated 33,200 Haitians sought asylum in the United States in 2002. Only 1,600 of those applicants were granted asylum, while 29,200 Haitians were still pending a decision at the year's end (

The U.S., however, is not the only destination for Haitians fleeing their country. In July of 2003 while visiting family in the Bahamas, I was offered the opportunity to visit a Haitian refugee camp in the hills of Nassau. Most Haitians on the island live in hiding due to fear of deportation from Bahamian immigration officials. Because many Haitians are often forced to squat in uninhabited areas of the island to maintain anonymity, I wanted to shed light on the untold horror stories of Haitian migration. The deaths and disappearances that occur during these voyages often go undocumented and are rarely given a place within American media outlets.

During 2001 and 2002, Bahamian officials subjected thousands of Haitians to mass expulsions, leaving many Haitians wary of outside inquiries. Due to this fact, I was asked not to take any photos upon arriving at the refugee camp, a request that I obliged.

The camp itself is no more than 15-20 shanties set up in a remote region of the island with several fire pits built for cooking and to provide heat. There was no running water and no electricity available to sustain this tiny enclave of fisherman and migrant workers, yet the mood during my visit was upbeat.

Although many of the refugees spoke minimal English at best, one individual volunteered to step forward and tell his story as best as he could. Despite the Pidgin English, I was able to sit down and chronicle the journey of one 23 year-old Haitian refugee. Due to the nature of this interview, all names have been removed or changed to protect confidentiality.

WireTap: Some people are beginning to say that Haitian immigrants are becoming a problem here in the Bahamas, what is your response to this viewpoint?

Some people talkin' bad 'bout Haitians in Nassau now. Haitians come 20, 30, maybe 50 at a time -- so Bahamian people don't have respect for you. They do not know what we Haitians go through and how dangerous the journey is. People never know how many Haitians die tryin' to live. Many people think Haitians are dirty. If you clean, talk and smell good, Bahamians respect you.

WT: Do you consider yourself to be a refugee -- if so what kind of refugee are you? Political, economic, etc?

I am an economic refugee. I leave Haiti because I cannot make good money there. Only illegal [money]. In Port Au Prince, tings are very rough. Many people wan' teef [rob] you or kill you. It is very dangerous! Just because people have job doesn't mean they have money. Haiti is different. Many people have job that don't have nothing to eat.

WT: When you first decided to leave Haiti, how old were you?

It was in 2000. I was 20 years old. I leave because, well, I leave Haiti for many reasons. Everyone trying to leave Haiti for somewhere else: Paris, Miami, Jamaica, anywhere. I have a job working for an Israeli man selling Marlboro cigarettes. I have a good job making $100 a month. I am happy but problem is that people see me make money. One night, somebody send gunmen to my house to kill me. Him shoot up my apartment while I sleep. I live. I don't get hurt or nothing but I learn, and from then I know I must leave Haiti.

WT: Do you have lots of friends that have migrated to other countries?

Yes, plenty friends leave! If you wan' go, leave Haiti, I could sweat you and help you leave…if you pay me. Plenty people leave Haiti but it is expensive. Many Haitians don't want to work. It's not like here in Nassau where people will wash your car for a dollar. If you ask Haitian to wash your car, he be like, what? Haitians have too much pride. Plenty young people only want to party, sell dope, and that's it.

WT: How many times have you left Haiti?

Two times. The first time I leave for Miami in 2000 but I end up here [in Nassau]. I get caught by immigration and sent back to Port Au Prince. After sometime I catch another boat to Nassau and now I am living here again.

WT: Tell me about your migrating experience.

I leave by myself. I knew a man that helps people go to Miami so I talking with him and every ting seem okay. He had a rice boat and sometimes five or ten Haitians go with him to Miami at a time if they pay money. He say every ting is safe. I pay him $2,000 to go to Miami, but I have to wait. Finally, one night, my friend tell me every ting is ready and that I must leave for Miami right away. When I got to the boat, there was a different man driving the boat, not my friend. Him real mean and he start pushing everyone around and yelling. Everybody hide below after the boat took off because we were scared. After a few hours, the man start calling some people to come up on top of the boat to make business. I start to get nervous because five or six people go up on top of the boat but only three come back.

WT: What happened to the other three refugees?

He push them! He push them off the boat. I real scared then because…I don't know if I am going to live. These tings are very common in Haiti. People pay money to go to Miami and then get tricked. Sometimes people sneak on the boats but don't pay. When they catch you they kill you. So everybody real quiet when the first three people get pushed. Nobody say nothing! After time go by, the man tell everyone to come on top of the boat. We all scared! There are only four of us now. Me and one family with two children. The man on the boat say, "We are here, this Miami! Jump, jump you have to swim." Everything dark but I see lights on the beach so I think we reach Miami. The husband start screaming at the man to take us closer. His children cannot swim. The man on the boat pull out a gun and say no! We have to jump, so I jump. The family jump too, but everyone screaming and the children cannot swim. Soon they drown. The mother drown too. I see them go under, screaming with water in their mouths. The husband try to save them but they dead. The husband can swim, but he don't want to. Everything is sad and soon the husband, he go under too. What else could he do? Me, I just swim and swim until I reach the beach.

WT: So you are the only passenger that survived the journey?

Yes, God save me! I scared because I all alone hiding near a tree. In the morning I walk until I find a phone to call my family. I have many cousins in Miami. I see a man standing by the phone and I can tell he is Haitian. Then I am not speaking English so I happy because we could speak Creole. I tell him I need to call my family to let them know I am in Miami. He say, "Fool, this is not Miami, you in Nassau." I shocked! First I get angry, then I get scared because I don't have family here and all my money is gone!

WT: How did you survive?

The Haitian man, named Pascal, take me to a camp full wit Haitians so I have a place to live. There I find my cousin and learn the same ting happened to him. My cousin help me find a job and soon I start making my own money.

WT: Was it hard to leave your family behind in Port Au Prince? What did your parents say when you left?

I don't tell nobody I am leaving. I leave in the night! I don't tell my mother nothing because it is too hard. I call them after everything is okay here in Nassau and my sister tell me our mother is dead. She die the same night that I leave Haiti. I say okay mama, now we both have peace. My father is sick too, but he still drunk and mean. When he die, I will go home and bury him. Now I don't have family to worry about. Here, I am forgetting my life in Haiti.

WT: You mentioned that you were caught by immigration at one point, what happened?

One day after work, I am riding the bus and immigration stands up and start asking people for their papers. They sitting there the whole time but I don't notice them because I sleeping. I don't speak any English so when they get to me, they touch me on my shoulder but I don't say anything. They ask if I Haitian and I say no. They arrest me and send me back to Haiti. I here in Nassau one year, five months, and then one day, everything finish.

WT: How did you work your way back to Nassau?

I stay in Haiti for five months working again to save money. I get my old job back and I find some other jobs selling tings. I am not proud, understand, but I make money. After five months, I bought a ticket on a tourist boat to Nassau and came back here.

WT: If you are a refugee, why don't you seek your refugee status with the government and attempt repatriation?

Things are very difficult now. If you want permit [through Bahamian repatriation program] it takes one year. I too scared to ask for permit now because I get caught. I am scared of immigration. Some policemen just greedy! They ask you for your papers, but they don't care if you have papers or not, they only want money. Them say 'give me $100' and if you don't have it, they carry you. So here I am hiding from immigration now. I don't want to make business with them.

WT: Do you feel taken advantage of because you are an illegal immigrant here in Nassau?

Yes, people take advantage of me plenty. Because I don't speak English and I do not have a working permit. One Bahamian say he can find me a job, but he try and sell me to another man. I say no! I am poor but I am not for sale. At first I make $300 a week working in a hotel. It is good money. After September 11th, America blow up, Bin Laden, he blow it up -- now tings slow and I don't make much money. My job now, they hide me, give me place to stay for free and I like that. Tings are tough, but I know I will be okay.

Jonathan Cunningham, 23, writes for Globe Magazine and The Michigan Citizen. He can be reached at

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