There Goes the Neighborhood
In the dimly lighted courtyard of the Bayside Motor Inn on Biscayne Boulevard, newly arrived Haitian refugees cluster in doorways and against walls, speaking softly in Creole. Mona Coicou wanders through the shadows from room to room, looking for her sister, once a judge in Port-au-Prince. "I spoke to her last on November 20, and she told me the military was looking for her," remarks Coicou, who moved to Miami from Haiti ten years ago. "She told me she doesn't know what she can do. But last week one of my sisters in Haiti said she doesn't see my other sister anywhere. So I come here every day since then, looking, looking, looking."
At a pay phone, seventeen-year-old Exilus Losemy laughs, dancing with the telephone to his ear as he hears his father's voice on the other end of the line. It's been four years since they've seen each other, but by 9:00 the next morning, Losemy will be on a plane to Rochester, New York, for the long-awaited reunion.
This intermingling of hope, frustration, and joy has become common at the 45-room Bayside Motor Inn, one of two Biscayne Boulevard motels being used to temporarily lodge Haitian refugees arriving from an overflowing Guantanamo Naval Base. But the newcomers have unwittingly become involved in an upwardly mobile neighborhood's effort to clean up Biscayne Boulevard. "Today, refugees from Haiti who have been persecuted in their homeland and survive a perilous journey at sea are then placed in concentration-camp conditions before being dumped into an area awash in crack, prostitutes, armed robbery, and decadence," declares Jennifer Clark, a resident of the Bayside neighborhood, which runs from 67th Street to 72nd Street between the boulevard and Biscayne Bay. "Is this an appropriate welcome for these poor people?"
Since November 18, more than 1400 Haitians have been flown to the United States to pursue political asylum claims, and all have arrived fi rst in Miami. All the refugees were stopped at sea following the September 30 coup that overthrew Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. And despite last week's U.S. Supreme Court decision allowingthe repatriation of Haitians from Guantanamo, another 2000 or so are expected to arrive within the next few weeks.
The U.S. Justice Department has contracted two relief groups in Miami - the U.S. Catholic Conference and Church World Services - to coordinate the complicated resettlement effort. Relief workers initially try to hook up refugees with relatives in Miami or elsewhere in the United States. But the refugee with no U.S. family members is resettled in a city (other than Miami) where the relief organizations have an office, such as New York, Los Angeles, Portland, Dallas, Chicago, and Kansas City. The cost of the resettlement operation - including airfare from Guantanamo and an initial stipend for living expenses - is about $1000 per person, says Ron Tomalis, spokesman for the Justice Department's community relations service.
Despite the dedication of the largely volunteer relief groups, Clark and several of her neighbors in middle-class Bayside have launched a campaign to move the Haitians to another part of Miami. Their effort, they say, is only the most recent in an ongoing program to clean up Biscayne Boulevard and is motivated by concern for the Haitians. Says Clark, a member of the 206-member Bayside Residents Association: "Someone's going to get hurt out there and it's going to be an I-told-you-so situation." Adds her husband Bret: "The U.S. government is in effect subsidizing the motels. We consider the motels to be the source of the problem." The Bayside activists say the hotels along Biscayne Boulevard are the scene of numerous arrests. All the establishments, they allege, are complicit in a rampant and illicit sex-and-drugs industry. As an alternative, the Clarks have proposed using the naval reserve base in Coconut Grove to lodge incoming Haitians.
While acknowledging that Biscayne Boulevard isn't the most pleasant avenue in town, relief organizers explain that their choice of lodging was governed by cost and by proximity to Little Haiti. (According to Mona Devchand, manager of the Bayside Motor Inn, the relief groups are given a discount from the normal day rate of $40 per room.) To improve services for the refugees, Church World Services recently stopped sending Haitians to the Stardust Motel near 67th Street and began using the twenty-room Budget Inn Motel at 52nd Street. "We are trying to consolidate the effort, since the U.S. Catholic Conference was using the Bayside Motor Inn a block away," explains Michael Pszyk, coordinator for the refugee program of Church World Services. "Also, we were able to get the necessary rooms and they were also able to work with us to get a Haitian cook in there."
Aware of the windfall the relief programs have provided in difficult economic times, the motel operators appear eager to take good care of their clients. "I'm really concentrating on them all since they are most of my business now," says Bayside Motor Inn manager Devchand, a South African Indian who closely monitors all traffic in and out of her building. "We tell them not to get involved with some people out on the streets, and you can see it's quiet here. Also, last week I put chairs out by the swimming pool for them."
For the most part, though, the pool has been an ignored entity as refugees pass quickly through the motels on their way to new homes. Indeed, relief organizers emphasize that the motels are purely functional and that the refugees stay there no longer than three days. "When they come here, not all the families can pick them up the same day, so they have to be put up for a few days," explains Maurice Brandt, a former caseworker for the U.S. Catholic Conference.
Exilus Losemy and other refugees report that during their day-and-a-half in Miami, they were treated well and had no hassles with crime. In fact, they say, the motel rooms - with full-size beds, televisions, good plumbing, and access to a pool - were positively luxurious compared to what they were accustomed to in Haiti. "It's much more comfortable here than it is at home," remarks a joyful Losemy. "In Haiti, there's shooting all the time. Pah! Pah! Pah! It's dangerous, very dangerous. Here I can rest.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.