Ask Marleine Bastien what sparked her life's trajectory, an arc that's encompassed appearances on Oprah and CNN and the designation as Ms. Magazine's 2001 "Woman of the Year," and she'll tell you to rewind the clock nearly 40 years. She'll ask you to blot out the chaos of Miami and instead think of a remote village in central Haiti called Pont-Benoit.
In those hills, Bastien, then just a young girl, would begin her journey to become one of Miami's most important and influential activists. Her father, a rice and mango farmer, taught himself medicine so he could treat ailing locals. And from his example, Bastien says, she learned a commitment to the infirm and needy that's guided her throughout her life.
When she was just 8 years old, Bastien helped malnourished and abandoned children at a hospital in Deschapelles. She even taught some of them to read and write. "I can still see them in my mind's eye," she says. "These children were so weak they couldn't even smile. And I still remember how warm I felt when I got my first smile. I thought, This one is going to make it."
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Three decades ago, when she arrived in Florida, she immediately took up the same work at the Haitian Refugee Center. While boning up on immigration law, she worked as a paralegal to assist incoming Haitians.
Today, Bastien still burns with the same passion for change. "It comes from that upbringing," she says. "It's understanding the importance of giving back and taking care of those who are less fortunate."
But now, as the founder and director of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami (Haitian Women of Miami), a women's rights and empowerment group, she undertakes more complex and daunting challenges. She says she's troubled by the fecklessness of today's politicians, who've failed to pass immigration reform. "And the fight goes on," she sighs. "We are gravely disappointed. Immigrants deserve better from our leaders, and they've let us down."
But Bastien isn't about to give up. "We are soldiers for human rights," she says.