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.

Mona Michel, an ex-president of the board and sister of former Haitian prime minister Smarck Michel, says she, too, has withdrawn her participation. "I think the center should change gears," she remarks. "I told them, 'You need new blood, you need to open up the center to the young blood.' I was active for twelve years, and the new generation didn't take over."

Most Haitians are reluctant to criticize Guy Victor directly, and he takes this as a sign of their approval. "They have asked me to run for office," he claims, "and I would win, because I would get the Haitian vote, and because I work well with the Cuban community. But I'm not interested in becoming a politician because that would make me part of the system." Besides, he says, running the center is already like being mayor of Little Haiti.

"The Haitian community cares a lot for the center," he emphasizes. "If today there is a Little Haiti, it is because of the Haitian Refugee Center [which fought for the right of these people to live here]. We run into problems like any other agency, but we will never shut down, because we have the support of the community."

The support of donors, however, is less certain. The Ford Foundation has yet to approve funding for this year, though it has indicated it is willing to give approximately $60,000 if the center demonstrates an effort to work with the organizational specialists it sent to Miami. This past December the Florida Bar decided not to continue its generous funding after supporting the organization for more than ten years. "Basically we felt like the Haitian Refugee Center was operating beyond its means," says Paul Doyle, who oversees the Bar's Legal Assistance to the Poor grant program. "We were afraid of periodic shutdown." The center had also failed to provide the Bar with two years' worth of financial audits, he adds.

Victor downplays the Bar's drastic decision, insisting that it involved a trivial disagreement over production of an "official" audit. He also maintains that the board was fully informed of the financial problems from the beginning. "These people are giving you misinformation," he protests, despite the fact that several board members say otherwise.

He notes that the center has recently been providing the community with information about social security benefits and food stamps, and that he intends to open the center to a representative from the IRS to answer questions about income tax returns.

Meanwhile, it is unclear how much legal work is being accomplished. Victor says the center is handling everything from parole requests to asylum applications. Since Steven Forester left, Victor claims to have recruited three lawyers to handle cases on a pro-bono basis, in addition to hiring one new staff attorney. When contacted by a reporter, though, one of the lawyers, William Sanchez, said he had agreed to serve on a restructuring committee but was not performing any legal work.

Formed in January at the request of the Ford Foundation, which initially dubbed it a "crisis committee," the restructuring committee consists of three outsiders: Sanchez, an immigration attorney who once worked at the center, Joe Taggart, a Haitian businessman, and Vincent Carrodeguas, an accountant. "I think the first step is redefining the mission of the center, the second is making sure financial controls are in place, and the third is making sure legal representation is effective," Sanchez says by way of explaining how the center can get back on its feet.

Tim Siegel, who reviewed the organization last spring at the behest of the Ford Foundation, says he is finally seeing signs of improvement, citing the center's intentions to upgrade its financial management system, to computerize its records, and to train the board of directors about its duties and responsibilities. "I think they are making progress," he asserts. "It's hard and slow and everyone wishes it were quicker."

After learning of the two asylum hearings that were missed in January, Sanchez immediately contacted Gerry Ramos, the new staff attorney, and worked out a system of placing all new cases on a master calendar to prevent mishaps. At his suggestion, the center will also obtain a printout from the INS of all pending cases.

"A lot of the problems the center is facing are reflective of what is happening now in the Haitian community," Sanchez observes. "It's about the issue of stabilization." As Haitians in Haiti rethink their possibilities, so Haitians in Miami are adjusting to a new reality, he continues. And the Haitian Refugee Center must find a way of surviving without using a refugee crisis as a crutch. Perhaps the center should change its name to the Haitian Rights Center, Sanchez muses. "People have to realize," he says, "that without the Haitian Refugee Center, there is no focal point for the Haitian community.

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