Perilous Journey

For more than two decades Miami's Haitian Refugee Center was a beacon of hope and a force for justice. Today its director, Guy Victor, is struggling just to keep it afloat.

Later that morning at a coffee shop near the Miami River, Forester lamented what he describes as the methodical dismantling of the Haitian Refugee Center, an organization to which he devoted himself for years. Since he was dismissed, he has not looked for another job and remains preoccupied by the center's misfortunes.

Forester joined the refugee organization after graduating in 1978 from law school at the University of California at Davis. He was a young man then, tall and gangly, with an intense passion for his work. The center drew all his attention until 1985, when he left to become legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. He returned as supervising attorney in 1992. Roughly two years later a man named Guy Victor became executive director.

According to Victor, Forester was let go because of a lack of funds. But the 44-year-old attorney says he and Victor had been battling for months over Victor's failure to initiate a serious fundraising effort. Since last summer, when the center's financial situation became acute, Forester had been lobbying the board of directors to have Victor replaced.

Instead Forester himself was terminated on October 31. He claims Victor then changed the office locks and refused to speak to him or grant him access to the center's legal files. Forester was forced to reconstruct his overflowing caseload from immigration-court printouts. Although that enabled him to officially withdraw as attorney of record from the center's cases, he has been unable to contact many of his former clients. Scenes like the one in McCormack's courtroom lead him to believe the center has simply dropped some of the cases for which he'd been responsible, abandoning dozens of refugees.

Victor insists there has been a smooth transition between Forester and the attorney hired to replace him, and that the center is exchanging information with Linda Kelly, an attorney who worked under Forester until January 1995. "Steve was not cooperative after he was laid off," Victor says.

While their advocates bicker, Haitian refugees are greeted by an increasing lack of interest from the world at large. The urgency of their asylum claims has been muted by the effectiveness of the September 1994 U.S. intervention in Haiti, which led to last month's presidential election, only the second truly democratic vote in Haitian history. "You could make the argument for all the Haitians that they could just go back," Forester concedes. "But the reality is they have the right to try to get asylum. If you were persecuted in the past, you can win asylum, regardless of what happens in the future. And nobody knows what is going to happen in Haiti. Virtually no one has been disarmed in Haiti, the U.N. and U.S. troops are going to withdraw, and there are still killings going on."

Even if the killings stop, both Forester and Victor say there will be a need for the Haitian Refugee Center. Without the distraction of human rights violations in Haiti, the lawyers could concentrate on protecting the civil rights of Haitian Americans. Asylum cases could be replaced by efforts to combat job and housing discrimination.

Miami's estimated 100,000 Haitians bring myriad problems to the center. Regardless of the organization's ability to assist them, they sit patiently on the metal folding chairs that line the whitewashed walls of the waiting room. "The only place where a Haitian feels safe, where he feels he won't be insulted and he won't be mistreated, is the center," Victor asserts. There are no fussy decorative touches here except for a wooden ballot box, placed prominently in the middle of the room, a reminder that free, democratic elections in Haiti have long been the community's obsession.

In addition to blaming his predecessor for the center's financial difficulties, Guy Victor also faults the American belief that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's return in October 1994 solved Haiti's internal problems. "The perception is that democracy has been established in Haiti so there is no need to provide funding for legal work for Haitians," he says.

But the forces behind the decline of the Haitian Refugee Center are not so simple. Nonprofit organizational specialists, sent here by the Ford Foundation in January to try and help the center get back on its feet, shake their heads in befuddlement at the group's administrative procedures. Financial records are in such disarray that the center's auditors, the accounting firm Kitaif, Goode & Company, have attached disclaimers to recent statements and audits prepared by the firm, pointing out that the figures may not accurately reflect the center's financial status because of its bookkeeping practices. One of the organizational specialists, Clarence Elliot, hypothesized during a recent visit to Miami that the problem lay in culturally distinct approaches to management.

Although Elliot, who happens to be a black American, was trying to be tactful, his observations sting those Haitians who reflexively attribute the center's precarious circumstances to racism. Criticism such as Elliot's is thus interpreted as an unfair judgment that Haitians are incapable of running their own affairs. Tony Jeanthenor, president of the center's board of directors, says he believes that certain people (whom he declines to name) want to undermine the center because it is a black organization. Guy Victor, for his part, initially refused to speak to a white reporter because "white reporters will never write anything positive about our community."

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