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Our local Haitians remembered

January 23, 2010
By NATHAN BROWN, Enterprise Staff Writer

SARANAC LAKE - On Jan. 12, a 7.0 earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, Haiti, followed by at least 51 sizable aftershocks measured at as much as 5.9 on the Richter scale. Nobody knows the death toll yet, but it is widely estimated to be around 200,000. People throughout the world, including here in the Tri-Lakes area, have responded with donations to humanitarian aid organizations.

There was also an effort by some in this community to help a group of Haitians almost 30 years ago, but the circumstances were quite different - that was a group of about 160 Haitians who were incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution at Ray Brook while their immigration status was being determined.

According to Enterprise reports at the time, the first 40, all men, arrived in Ray Brook on July 19, 1981. At the time, officials said they would be staying here for about three weeks, until the government decided what to do with them. They were housed separately from the convicts.

Article Photos

This Enterprise photo from August 1982 shows Ysmaille Castor, one of the refugees, waving to the remaining Haitians just before ducking into a car taking him to an Albany-bound plane. He was reunited with family in Miami later that day.


Mass emigration

The first ruler of independent Haiti, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, proclaimed himself emperor in 1804 and was murdered two years later. His despotism and the violent transfer of power set a precedent many of his successors would follow. Dr. Francois Duvalier, or "Papa Doc," ruled the country from 1957 until his death in 1971. His security forces, which the people called the "tontons macoutes" after a Voodoo bogeyman that kidnaps children at night, intimated, kidnapped and killed his opponents.

When he died, his 19-year-old son Jean-Claude Duvalier took power.

Natural disasters and increasing population were stretching Haiti's always meager food supply, and tourism was declining. According to court papers filed in a 1982 case to free the refugees, migration of undocumented Haitians to south Florida began in December 1972, and 35,000 of them lived there by 1981.

President Jimmy Carter's policy was to release and resettle them after a health screening. However, this put an increasing strain on south Florida communities, particularly after the Mariel boat lift in 1980, in which 125,000 Cubans came to the country, including a large number of criminals and mental patients whom Cuban President Fidel Castro wanted to get rid of. President Ronald Reagan convened a task force to study the matter in March 1981 and, sometime between May 20 and July 31 of that year, initiated a policy of detaining new arrivals.


In Ray Brook

By July 1981, Florida's Krome detention facility had become severely overcrowded, and the federal government began to transfer some of the Haitians elsewhere. By Christmas, there were 161 Haitian men in Ray Brook.

The majority of them had been sailors or fishermen back in Haiti, according to Charles A. Thomas of Lake Placid, who taught English to the Haitians for 11 months. Most of them couldn't read. He recounted the story of one of them, a carpenter named Petit, who was told to build two homes for tontons macoutes members for free, under an implied threat of harm to him if he didn't. Instead, Petit built a boat and fled.

Petit and his small group were fired upon as they left Port-au-Prince. They headed for Cuba, expecting to be welcomed. When they got there, some Cubans fed them salty food, then demanded payment for water. They continued on to Florida and arrived on July 4 as the fireworks were going off. They presented themselves to immigration officials and were locked up, first at Krome, then brought to Ray Brook.

"They didn't realize they were going to be incarcerated until they saw the prison," Thomas said.

In September 1981, parishioners at St. Bernard's Church in Saranac Lake donated 40 sweaters to the men, and Catholic Family Charities had retained lawyers to work on their cases.

The Rev. John Yonkovig, who was pastor of St. Bernard's at the time, said many of the men were "very forlorn and kind of downtrodden," according to an Enterprise article at the time. "Although they are beginning to adjust to the conditions at Ray Brook, most are depressed by the sense of isolation from the family and friends."

The Oct. 22, 1981 Enterprise said that Mary Dicks, a former nun who taught sixth- and seventh-grade math at the Saranac Lake middle school and had encountered many Haitian refugees years before in her missionary work in the Bahamas, was making frequent visits to the prison with a group of other volunteers and teaching the Haitians English. She was speaking to local women's clubs about the Haitians' plight, and she and her group of volunteers were conducting a letter-writing campaign to U.S. Attorney General William French Smith.

Dicks said she thought the Haitians were being treated worse than other refugee groups and that their illiteracy was why they couldn't advocate for themselves as effectively as the Cuban refugees.

Thomas contacted Dicks after he heard about the volunteer group. He had a taught a number of Haitian exchange students at Rockland Community College, north of New York City, and spoke Haitian Creole, the French-based language with heavy African influence that is the native tongue of almost everyone in Haiti.

"She welcomed me as a volunteer," Thomas said.

On Dec. 24, 1981, the Enterprise ran an article about a Christmas celebration at the prison. Catholic Charities had donated stockings full of snacks, toiletries and small personal items, and some of the volunteers visited the prison for a Christmas Mass and to socialize and sing carols with them. The corrections officers also scheduled games and other events.

By now, it had snowed - the first time most of the Haitians had seen snow - and some of the older men had stopped making the 300-yard walk to the cafeteria due to the cold. The others brought them food.

E.J. Conzola, the reporter who wrote the story for the Enterprise, recalled in an e-mail Tuesday that most of the Haitians were poor and uneducated, but "some of them were educated and had had decent (byHaitian standards) jobs. These latter were more political refugees than economic refugees, fleeing the extremely brutal Duvalier regime."

Conzola said they seemed somewhere between depressed and resigned, and hadn't really known what they were getting into when they came here.

"He had come to the U.S. hoping to find a job and raise enough money to bring his family here," Conzola wrote of one of the refugees he interviewed in 1981. "Instead, he has found himself incarcerated in an environment as foreign to him as the moon."

Conzola said Tuesday he heard rumors of at least one hunger strike and a couple of suicide attempts, but prison officials denied these at the time.

Conzola described their dorms as "among the scariest places I have ever been - dark, crowded with men who had seen a lot of violence (it showed in their faces) and were unhappy with their current living situation. I was never allowed to go into the dorm area alone, so my limited conversations with the men in there were not terribly enlightening. Whethermy companion (at least one guard) was for my protection or tohelp control what information I got, I was never certain; but suspect it might have been a combination of both."

Thomas praised the two guards with whom he worked, Herschell Robinson and Robert Feener, saying they were "extraordinary in the aid they gave to (the Haitians)."

Hendrick Desulme, who was held in Ray Brook and visited the area again a year after leaving to see the people who had helped him while he was incarcerated, told the Enterprise at the time he had been treated well.

"No, the prison people had to be good - if they did anything wrong they knew they'd have to deal with Mary Dicks."



Lawyers for the 2,100 Haitians interned nationwide filed suit to have them released until their immigration status could be determined and wanted them granted political asylum. The government's case was that the refugees were fleeing poverty, not a brutal dictatorship.

Rudolph Giuliani, who was associate attorney general at the time and the third-ranking official of the U.S. Justice Department, argued in court that "repression in Haiti 'simply does not exist now' and that refugees had nothing to fear from the government of Jean-Claude Duvalier," according to a wire report at the time. Giuliani said he had visited Haiti, and Duvalier had assured him Haitians returning home would not be persecuted.

Not everyone agreed with this. According to a November 1981 article in Time magazine, "Others believe that many of the refugees are indeed entitled to political asylum, and cite evidence of those returned being beaten and tortured in Haitian prisons. As Father Gerard Jean-Juste, a Haitian exile leader, puts it, 'There's a song being sung in Haiti now: 'The teeth of the sharks are sweeter than Duvalier's hell."

Desulme was one Haitian detainee in Ray Brook who had opposed Duvalier's government. He had to live like a fugitive and fled to Jamaica after the tonton macoute shot him in 1974. When he returned to Haiti in 1981, he was immediately thrown in jail. He was freed because his father had some influence, but on condition he leave the country.

The case in the U.S. dragged on, and the Enterprise ran a letter to Dicks from one of the refugees on June 15, 1982, with the headline, "Losing sight of Haitians' plight." The letter writer said his first and only son was very sick and in the hospital.

"Sister Mary I have many problems now, I have eleven months here in the prison, I can't to take more I want to go back to Haiti now, I know when I arrive in Haiti the tontons macoutes will kill me I don't care for that," the letter reads. "Because I don't like my life now, I am a men lost."

Three days later, federal Miami district Judge Eugene P. Spellman ruled the incarceration policy was unlawful based on a legal technicality and that the detainees must be paroled pending hearings on their status. By mid-July, a release process had been set, and an official with the United States Catholic Conference said many people in the Saranac Lake area had expressed an interest in sponsoring refugees' release.

Thomas remembers a steak dinner held for the Haitians at the prison after they learned they would be getting sponsors. When Dicks arrived, Thomas went to fetch some Haitians who were playing soccer and bring them inside.

"Zami! Zami! Arret, arret! Ala bas," Thomas said, calling them inside.

One of the guards asked Thomas's wife what this meant.

"Over the wall! Over the wall!"

The first three - Ysmaille Castor, Gerard Joseph and Jean-Robert Calixte - left Ray Brook on Aug. 20, 1982 as their countrymen sang and cheered from behind the barbed wire. U.S. Catholic Conference officials took them to the Adirondack airport in Lake Clear to catch a flight to Albany. They were reunited with their families in Miami later that day.

Thomas and Castor stayed in contact for years afterward. Thomas said Castor usually called him on his birthday and once came to visit Thomas in Lake Placid. Castor stayed in the U.S., living in Washington, D.C. and then Maryland and working for IBM for a time.

"I want you to be assured that your guidance is still motivating me," Castor wrote in a Jan. 1, 1994 letter to Thomas, continuing to say that he was studying Spanish and French, had gotten into bodybuilding and planned to enter the Mr. D.C. contest.

Castor also wrote about a planned trip to Haiti with his new wife, LaVonda, who was three months pregnant with their first child at the time.

"Unfortunately, the circumstances in the country prevented us (from going)," Castor wrote. They went to the Bahamas instead and had a good time, but "I was still very disappointed that I could not show my wife my homeland. Things are so confusing right now in Haiti. Unfortunately, there seems to be no end in sight."


Contact Nathan Brown at (518) 891-2600 ext. 26 or



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