By Josue Rojas, New America Media
A delegation of lawyers and doctors from the Bay Area went to Haiti in March to assess possible candidates for so-called humanitarian parole to the United States because of their dire situations. NAM videographer Josue Rojas joined the delegation and filed these reports.
PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti –– It’s 7 a.m. and the courtyard of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) is a beehive of activity. I awoke to about a dozen people sitting in folding chairs. The tent I’ve just slept in shares a blue tarp-roof with the makeshift “waiting room” just outside the offices of the human rights offices-turned-community center.
BAI is supported by the Institute for Justice and Democracy and has been working for justice in Haiti for over 15 years, pioneering movements to prosecute perpetrators of human rights violations in past political upheavals. Mario Joseph, its director, has spearheaded the prosecution of perpetrators of massacres and political human rights violations. BAI is synonymous with community justice, what has been coined a “victim centered” approach. The New York Times called Joseph “Haiti’s most important human rights lawyer.” He’s also well connected to Haiti’s grassroots organizing community.
BAI, which hosted a delegation of lawyers and doctors from the Bay Area, which I joined, was there to assess possible candidates for so-called humanitarian parole. These are people whose conditions are so unbearable that they need to leave Haiti in order to survive. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security enacted the program following the Haiti earthquake to allow individuals with urgent humanitarian needs to come to the United States for a temporary stay.
Joseph and other community leaders put the message out through BAI’s word-of-mouth network connecting families in tent-cities and small groups. Hoping to be chosen, dozens of families have made their way through the soot-covered density of Port-au-Prince to tell their stories. The lawyers and doctors are here to turn their personal narratives into medical and legal language, and in turn, into applications for humanitarian parole.
Here began my introduction into people’s lives, as I ran around all day, taking photos and video and hearing snippets of people’s stories. Many had made it through waves of prior political violence, repression, systematic use of rape, terror and family separation. Then an earthquake. Then the aftermath.
Jayne Fleming led the delegation of lawyers & psychotherapists to Haiti. She is the national director of pro bono work at the law firm Reed Smith. Fleming has specialized in working with asylum and immigration cases involving gender-based violence and torture. I met her a couple of years ago while doing a story about her defense of Central American refugees, my people.
“We did see patterns in the cases. In terms of just the gravest needs,” Fleming said. She has identified five categories of need. “Women who have suffered gender-based violence; orphans and vulnerable children; elders––I call them elder-orphans– who don’t have families who can take care of them; people with very severe medical needs that can’t be treated in Haiti; and then, I would say, people who were disabled before the earthquake and have a severe disability and simply can’t subsist and survive because the ordinary social structures and support systems are non-existent.”
Violence against women is the most alarming pattern her group has seen. “We’ve seen pre-earthquake gender-based violence during some of the political conflict that has occurred in the country, where rape was really used as a political weapon against women,” said Fleming, “in some of the most egregious forms where women were gang raped, women were raped in front of their daughters, daughters were raped in front of their mothers as a sort of psychological and physical torture. Lamentably, what we’ve seen after the earthquake is the same pattern of rapes against girls and women during the time when the country is grieving.”
Especianise Loresca fled Haiti as a child, and now lives in the Bay Area, where she studies medicine. “Words can’t really describe what this has created for people,” she said, “because now you have hundreds of thousands of people who are sleeping in the street who are not getting help.”
Tent cities in Haiti are hell. Losing a loved one is traumatic, and if you add to that the reality of being in a place where you are threatened from every angle, it can be unbearable. People live with the uncertainty of not knowing whether the person sleeping next to you in a tent is a friend or a threat. There’s no water, food or sanitation, and competition for limited resources is strong. Morale and the will to live is a challenge when you’ve lost multiple family members, guardians.
All this points to a very vulnerable population, the poor who are unable to fend for themselves, defend themselves in a fallen country. A woman, who was raped, then shot in the vagina during an era of political repression.
A woman who suffered a stroke that left half her body paralyzed after learning that her husband and four of her six children were killed in the earthquake. Now, she can’t work and has to deal with the trauma while looking for food.
An 18-year-old girl who lost every member of her family was lured to a man’s home with the promise of help and then raped and then somehow stumbled on our delegation.
An elderly woman loses her dog and family pictures in the earthquake. She has no place to live. In 1991, she was shot and left for dead. She woke up in an alley and tried to carry on with a normal life.
An 18-year-old man rushed home from school only to find that it was too late for his family. He tried to pull them out of the debris, but could not. He wanders the street.
Orphans with no one. Elders with no one. Amputees of all ages, shapes and sizes. No one has gotten food or water.
I feel guilty for eating a Cliff bar all by myself.
Holly Cooper is a star immigration lawyer who joined the delegation. “There’s no safe place to grieve,” she said. “People can’t grieve over the loss of their father or their husband because they don’t have water. They don’t have food, they don’t have safety.”
I asked Cooper if she’d ever heard such stories in the 10 years of hearing accounts of why people need to leave their home countries that include political torture, repression and gang-life. Her answer is a simple “No.”
I recall a benefit concert on TV late in January. Alicia Keys sang in the key of sincerity. Stevie Wonder sang the inspirational “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Many of my friends boasted about getting on their Facebook profiles the following day. No doubt Americans think something’s being done with their grain of salt, and having given, feel free to forget about it.
“Since January 12th conditions have gotten worse. So just because it’s not in the news doesn’t mean the needs are not there,” Loresca states. “It’s sad to see that we’re no longer in the headlines but the problems are just increasing, and the level of devastation is getting worse because people are not getting help.”
When I asked a woman to smile for her photo her face said it all. She pointed at her chest and said, “I can’t.” I don’t speak Creole, but I understood.
Fleming maintains a positive attitude whether or not humanitarian parole is granted. “I am fairly confident that our government will do the right thing and grant these applications for humanitarian parole,” she said. “I certainly hope so because it would be the only rational thing to do.”
Of the 150 families interviewed, 52 will be submitted for humanitarian parole in May. It is estimated that it will take four to six weeks for the government to reach a decision.
I’m about ready to leave the BAI. As I walk out to the airport after hearing 50 stories a day for a full week, I notice a woman singing to a little girl who’s holding an open book. She found this little girl under a huge pile of debris. The rubble was once her house. Now it’s a tomb where the rest of her family lie crushed.
The woman picks up the girl who has a broken hip bone and can’t walk. She carries her everywhere she goes, holding her tightly. She sings to her, reads to her, guides her drawings. The whole time, I never, not once, saw the woman let her go. The whole time, I never saw the girl’s face without a smile.
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