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Rise In Deportations Spawns Effort To Aid Deportees Struggling In Haiti

Mack Jeanlouis stands on an airport tarmac wearing a mask and holding a notebook.
Courtesy DipsOrg
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TARMAC MACK McKenson "Mack" Jeanlouis checks off names of deportees newly arrived from the U.S. at the Port-au-Prince airport whom his group DipsOrg will help settle into Haiti.

For an increasing number of Haitian deportees, Haiti is actually an unfamiliar — and seemingly unfriendly — country. A group called DipsOrg hopes to change that.

Two days before Christmas, Jean Duvercy was deported as an undocumented immigrant back to Haiti. He’s 32 and owns a party supply business in West Palm Beach. He's "a hard-working man," he insisted in a video taken after his arrival in Haiti, who "took care of my kids, took care of my wife, took care of my family…”

But as Duvercy was being flown across the Caribbean that morning, the main thing on his mind was that he had no family to meet him in Haiti. He came to the U.S. when he was just 2 years old and since then he’d never been back to the country. His Haitian grandmother had taught him some Creole — which he speaks with a heavy American accent. He says a dark panic set in.

“Once you get to Haiti as a deportee they won’t release you unless somebody’s willing to sign for you," Duvercy said. "And so I had made up my mind, like, I’m going to prison and I’m gonna die.”

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But to Duvercy’s great surprise and relief, someone did sign for him at the airport in Port-au-Prince. It was McKenson Jeanlouis – known as Mack.

Ten years ago, Mack was in virtually identical straits. His Haitian parents had also brought him to South Florida as a toddler. In 2011, when he was 26, he was deported to Haiti — to an earthquake-ravaged country he didn’t know, a language he didn’t speak.

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“I didn’t have family on the ground to receive me," Mack said. "So I was homeless for about three months, just sleeping in the parks.

"I got attacked several times. And I just said, ‘Wow, God, is this my life? This is how it’s gonna end?’”

Mack eventually found a shelter to live in. A job as a security guard. Creole lessons. But he also found a vocation: making sure other deportees like Duvercy don’t endure what he had to.

In recent years Mack has become a fixture on the tarmac at Port-au-Prince's Toussaint Louverture International Airport — meeting deportees’ flights so he can be the family they can link to. He helps them make that first call back to relatives in Miami or Boston. Find a place to stay. Land some work.

“To tell you, ‘Hey, it’s gonna be OK,'" Mack said.

"There was a guy that came last week, six-foot-six, 275 pounds but he broke down and started crying.”

SonyRaymondHaiti20.png
Haitian deportee Sony Raymond on his knees after arriving from Miami to Port-au-Prince last summer.

That's not an uncommon scene these days. In June, a Haitian-American deportee from Miami named Sony Raymond dropped to his knees on the Louverture tarmac shouting, "Please kill me! This is not my home, I don't know nobody. I ain't never been here!"

Much of his dread had to to with the fact that Haiti is in economic collapse. The government admits it doesn’t have the resources to help newly arrived deportees.

So Mack and others have turned their ad-hoc efforts into a nonprofit: the Deportees In Progress Services Organization, or DipsOrg.

Haitians tell me, ‘Why should I help these guys? They’re criminals.' As soon as you get off the plane that stigma is right in your face.
McKenson Jeanlouis

The need is big. Since last year, the U.S. has deported some 2,500 Haitians — nearly two-thirds of them under the new Biden Administration. Last week 69 Congress members urged President Biden to halt those deportations, given Haiti’s crisis — which includes a public security meltdown and a terrifying ransom kidnapping wave.

But if the deportations don't stop, DipsOrg will be one of the only groups in Haiti helping the growing number of deportees.

“So we recently put together a board because we have many visions of what we want to do," said Melania Reyes, a DipsOrg director.

PARIAHS IN HAITI

Reyes was living in Palm Coast, Florida, nine years ago when she came to Haiti with a church mission to help with earthquake recovery. She stayed in Haiti and helps run a guest-house in Port-au-Prince. A few years ago she met Mack and joined his work with deportees because she’d met many of them in Haiti and, as an American, felt a bond with them.

Their ambitions for DipsOrg are big.

“A community center where guys can stay," Reyes said. "Haitian culture classes; Creole classes; mental health services; small business startups as well.”

But Reyes says the deportees have a more urgent need.

“What can we do to get rid of the stigma – so Haitian people will stop believing that deportees are bad people,” she said.

Haitian deportees do often feel like pariahs in Haiti as well as the U.S. A big reason: in so many cases they were deported to Haiti because they were convicted of a crime in the U.S.

MackMelianaHaiti.jpg
Courtesy DipsOrg
Mack Jeanlouis (left) and Meliana Reyes preparing turkey for a Thanksgiving dinner for Haitian deportees in Port-au-Prince last November.

That’s what happened to Mack, for cocaine distribution, when he was 22 and living in Delray Beach.

At that time, Mack wasn’t really sure of his U.S. immigration status. He was born in the Bahamas, where his parents had fled in the early 1980s to escape death threats from Haiti's Duvalier dictatorship. They came to South Florida as undocumented immigrants later in that decade, when Mack was just 3. But that family history was rarely discussed as he grew up.

"Haiti was rarely if ever talked about," he said. "It was like a PTSD issue for them."

Mack is what we’d now call a Dreamer: someone who came to the U.S. too young to be responsible for his illegal entry. He knows his drug conviction made him more deportable. But he still questions deporting people to countries they don’t know — and so often don’t want them.

“Haitians text me and email me, ‘Why should I help these guys? They’re criminals,’" Mack said. "As soon as you get off the plane the stigma is right in your face.”

And so, he says, is an attitude that the deportees aren’t really Haitian — that since they’re Americans they shouldn’t need help from Haitians. Mack is Black, but he recalls many Haitians sarcastically called him “blan” – Creole for white or foreigner.

“What are you doing, blan? Go back to America," he recalls being told. "And I’m a very, very dark complexion, so for them to call me blan, I thought it was some joke.”

The experience is much the same for Jean Duvercy, the deportee Mack met at the airport at Christmas and found a place to stay.

JeanDuvercyHaiti.png
DipsOrg
Deportee and West Palm Beach business owner Jean Duvercy after arriving in Haiti at Christmas.

Because Duvercy came to South Florida before he'd even learned to speak, "I always thought I was born in the United States. I didn’t understand that I was Haitian until I was 10 years old.”

Duvercy didn’t know his father. His mother died when he was 15. He says he didn’t understand he was undocumented until he applied for college and realized he didn’t have a Social Security number.

“That’s when I found out I came in illegally," he said.

"And I was like, 'OK, so what do I do now?' I couldn’t go to college, I was frustrated. So you turn to your friends and your friends get involved in some illegal activities...”

'WE'RE GONNA STICK IT OUT'

When he was 18, Duvercy was convicted for breaking into a house, though he served no prison time. Afterward he tried to legalize his immigration status — but the criminal record was a red flag. He was put in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention and flown to Haiti on December 23.

In Port-au-Prince, Duvercy says he feels as if he’s wearing a scarlet letter.

“People here are honestly afraid of me," he said. "And I’m — I’m not somebody to be afraid of. I’m a gentle giant, honestly.

"My kids are my focal point of my life.”

Duvercy says being separated from his wife and three young children in West Palm Beach is the hardest thing he’s ever had to deal with.

“And I’m fighting to get back to them," he said, "so they don’t feel left out like I felt when I was growing up myself without a father.”

“Oh my God, it’s very hard, it’s very stressful,” said Duvercy's wife, Cle-Shae Rivers Duvercy. "But we're gonna stick it out."

Rivers Duvercy was born in the U.S. She’s working on her husband’s appeal of his deportation — but, she says, until they can secure his return it’s a relief the group DipsOrg is there to help him make it in Haiti.

“The fear of him being homeless, hungry, getting killed," she said. "Without the program he doesn’t have anything.”

HaitianDeporteeChristmas.png
DipsOrg
A Haitian deportee bringing toys to an orphanage in Haiti last Christmas.

One big hope is that the DipsOrg program can secure Haitian passports for the deportees. Next door in the Dominican Republic they’d find more job opportunities and more English speakers.

In the meantime, DipsOrg is trying to raise deportees' job prospects in Haiti — and the felonious image so many Haitians have of them. Last Christmas, Reyes arranged for deportees to dress as Santa Clauses and lead toy drives for Haitian orphanages.

"I was so nervous the orphanage workers were going to be afraid of these guys and not let them in," said Reyes, "but it went really well.

I want to encourage the guys to do more of that kind of community service here to break that ice."

And there are places in Haiti where the employment ice is breaking for them, too.

“Any business that you’re operating in Haiti, a deportee will always be a great asset," said Tarik Muhammad, a Haitian-American born and raised in Miami’s Little Haiti and now an entrepreneur in Haiti.

Muhammad came to his ancestral country four years ago and started a business outsourcing call-center company called Buzz Incc. He discovered deportees from the U.S. — like his brother-in-law — make good employees in Haiti.

They're often bilingual, bicultural "and they have a broad knowledge on what’s going on in the United States, where a majority of our clients are," said Muhammad, who counts Home Depot and Colgate on that list.

"So what they’re able to do is actually help the other Haitian staff we have that’s not from the United States. Let's say it's a real estate client in Miami — they'll know right from the start what terms like 'Southwest' and 'Northwest' and 'Terrace' mean in that context," he said.

Muhammad said the deportees even provide some intangible inspiration for Haitian staff.

"A deportee's life has been completely upended," he points out. "The struggles they're overcoming kind of help show Haitians that the problems in their country aren't the end of the world, either. There's light at the end of the tunnel, that Haiti is a more promising country than the negative image the international media give it."

So far Muhammad has hired more than 20 deportees, men and women. And he’s glad to hear the deportee aid group DipsOrg could be a networking link for hiring more.

Other businesses in Haiti tell WLRN they're considering doing the same. If so, now deportees who arrive in Haiti with no one to sign for them will potentially have not just a place to stay but a chance to start over.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.