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West Indians, county find growth pains in influx
By Alexandra Navarro Clifton, Palm Beach Post Staff
Wednesday, December 26, 2001
Alfred left behind a teenage daughter for a country where she knew no one and didn't speak the language. Last week, after months of relying on strangers for a place to stay, Alfred asked the Haitian American Community Council to help her apply for legal status. She hopes that move will help her get a job.
"It's time," Alfred said. "I need a job to help bring my daughter here."
Alfred and thousands like her escaping poverty and political strife in Haiti have helped Palm Beach County's West Indian population more than double during the past decade, according to recently released U.S. Census estimates.
Numbering just 20,441 in 1990, people of West Indian ancestry now count for an estimated 50,116 of the county's population, or about one in 25 residents. The Haitian community accounts for nearly 38,000 of the county total.
The growth, which has been seen throughout South Florida, is even more pronounced on the Treasure Coast. The estimated West Indian population in Martin and St. Lucie counties exploded from 2,465 in 1990 to 20,362 last year. Haitians made up 17,227 of those.
The category also includes other Caribbean nationalities such as Jamaicans and Bahamians, but does not include people of Hispanic ancestry, such as Cubans, Puerto Ricans or Dominicans.
The 2000 estimates come with a caveat: They are based on surveys of less than 1 percent of the population. The smaller the sample, the greater the margin of error.
In Palm Beach County, the estimated number of West Indians can range from 37,723 to 62,509. In the Treasure Coast, the highest estimate, 32,725, is four times the lowest, 7,999.
Better estimates, based on surveys of about 15 percent of the population, are due next year. For Haitians, leaving their homeland is never easy, but there is no shortage of reasons for taking to sea in rickety boats or paying smugglers exorbitant fees. Just last week, seven people died after an unsuccessful coup attempt in Port-Au-Prince. Commandos stormed the presidential palace in an effort to oust president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose supporters took to the streets in protest.
Lesly Jacques estimates that about 300,000 people from Miami to Fort Pierce listen to 980 AM, a Creole-language station in Boca Raton that he runs. He gives them educational programs and news from home.
"Haitians all talk about going back and they all want to know what's going on in Haiti," Jacques said.
Jamaicans are the county's second-largest West Indian group. Census estimates show that nearly 8,700 Jamaicans live in Palm Beach County and 2,228 in the Treasure Coast.
"We are not as visible as the Haitians because we don't have the language barrier," said Jamaicans of the Palm Beaches President Hopeton Kenton.
Most of the group's 30 members are health care professionals, Kenton said. The group is working on a mentoring program to encourage students to enter the nursing field, and plans to open a community center in Pleasant City that will offer an after-school program.
Haitian figures said to be low
Daniella Henry, executive director of the Haitian American Community Council, said she believes the Haitian census numbers are too low. Some Haitians may have avoided the census for fear of being sent back to Haiti, she said.
Despite language and cultural barriers, the Haitian population has swelled all over the county, but especially in Delray Beach, which Henry calls the capital of Palm Beach County Haitians.
"People follow their families and the people from their villages back in Haiti," Henry said. "If they know that their cousin or neighbor came to Delray Beach, they'll come here for the support system."
Dugan Goseph left his rural Haitian town in 1980 with plans to return home soon. But two decades later, five of his eight children were born here, he owns a house and has a good job at a local golf course.
"It was hard when (I) first came over," Goseph said as his son, Nodes, translated. "But it's better here, there's more opportunity and there's a strong Haitian community here."
Goseph's English isn't good, even after 20 years in America, and he prefers to speak Creole, his son said. The ever-growing Haitian community allows him to keep putting off mastering English, Nodes Goseph said.
Henry's agency helps Haitians with every aspect of adapting to life in America and the labyrinth of English paperwork, such as school registration and immigration documents. Although Cuban refugees are guaranteed residency once they reach U.S. shores, that's not true for Haitians or any other group.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Henry said, her small office at Congress Avenue and Lake Ida Road has been swamped. A majority of local Haitians works in the hospitality and service industry and scores lost jobs when tourism declined sharply after the attacks.
Henry said she hopes some day to establish an emergency relief account that could provide cash for help with rent and food bills. Last year, for the first time, the United Way provided Henry with a $10,000 grant.
"They have no idea how far that money has gone," Henry said. "I thank them greatly, but we need more. We always need more."
Creole translations available
As Haitians have learned to adjust to life in the United States, Americans and Palm Beach County governments are learning to adjust to them.
It's been nearly two decades since the Haitian influx began but police agencies, schools and even elections offices have now made Creole translations and translators available.
In Delray Beach, nearly two dozen city employees are Haitian-American. The city just offered its sixth Haitian citizens police academy, a class that gives residents a primer on police work and has a volunteer Haitian patrol.
"It's foolish not to reach out to the Haitian community," said Officer Skip Brown, who runs the academy.
Many Haitian immigrants fear police because they've seen police brutality and other atrocities in Haiti, Brown said.
"They've chosen to live here and we want them to feel safe and welcome," Brown said.
The Palm Beach County School District has an estimated 10,000 Haitian students, an increase of 200 percent since 1990. Some south county high schools have reported tensions between Haitian and African-American teens, said Robert Arrieux, who sits on the local NAACP board.
"With every new group, there is an idea or misunderstanding of who they are and what they are," Arrieux said. "We need education on both sides."
In the political realm, Palm Beach County's Haitian community isn't as active as those in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Haitian-Americans have been elected to the Florida Legislature from those counties and to posts in the cities of El Portal and North Miami, where Joe Celestin was elected mayor this year.
Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Theresa LePore said the county's new electronic voting machines won't have Creole instructions for the municipal elections in March. The translation will be available for the November 2002 national elections, LePore told a small group including Arrieux.
"There is a growing realization that is very good to see in the community," Arrieux said. "It is that Haitians are here to stay and we pay taxes and we are looking to get involved in our communities."
Probably the most alarming problem the Haitian community faces is the number of HIV-positive and AIDS patients. Palm Beach County ranks in the top five U.S. metropolitan areas in the rate of new AIDS cases and the Haitian population is perhaps the hardest hit.
Dr. Serge Alexandre, a Delray Beach internist who hosts a weekly health show on 980 AM, has made HIV education his mission. Sitting in his tiny office in a strip mall next to a Winn-Dixie, he explains why he happily pays the station for the air time.
"Our biggest obstacle to fighting HIV is education," Alexandre said. "I'm scared for my people."
Alexandre said he's spent the past six months explaining HIV to his listeners. In Haiti, education and health are low on the government's priority list, so many citizens, especially in rural areas, never learn the basics of how to avoid HIV. Some don't believe the virus exists, while others are convinced it's a voodoo curse, he said.
"Americans don't know the Haitian culture and don't understand the customs that have been practiced for centuries," he said.
One Haitian custom is for "herbal doctors" to wander from town to town offering shots of antibiotics and vitamins such as B12. The same needle is used several times, increasing the risk of spreading a host of diseases, including HIV, he said.
Leech treatment -- allowing leeches to suck blood from a wound -- is still practiced in some parts of Haiti, he said.
"I've seen it here in Delray Beach," Alexandre said. "One of my patients said she paid $10 for a leech treatment."