Wilson’s homeland of Haiti, which he fled for his life from nearly 20 years ago, leaving his parents, his brothers and sisters, is today in ruins. As of this morning, he has not been able to contact his family. He does not know what their fates are, but hopes, that as they live in the countryside, far from the shocking destruction we’ve all seen from Port au Prince, that they’ve been spared the worst of it.
But before this rapidly unfolding tragedy thrust Haiti into the center of the world’s attention, its people have languished in grave poverty and amidst political turmoil that has gone almost totally unnoticed by major media outlets. I, certainly, knew almost nothing about Haiti before I met Wilson three years ago, as he worked with my mother in a convalescent center in Northern California. Over the next year, from 2007 to early 2009, over many interviews and traded slips of paper, Wilson patiently revealed his story – his Haiti, the invisible Haiti, and his harrowing flee from the military coup in 1991, and his 17 year struggle to become a US citizen, including a visit by Homeland Security.
For the last year, his story has remained with Wilson, with his family, and I.
When I called him this morning, to send my thoughts and prayers to his family, we agreed that today is time that we needed to publish his story, to give people a picture beyond the impossible to comprehend flashes of destruction, that may feel more like the aftermath of a Michael Bay action adventure flick than reality. What follows is a memoir, rather than investigative reporting. I attempted, through our interviews and by reviewing manuscripts together, to capture as closely as possible Wilson’s perspective. Thus, what follows is one man’s story, told from his eyes, rather than that of all of the Haitian people. But through his story, we hope that you gain a greater human understanding of the Haitian people that are struggling to survive, and to make better lives for themselves and their families – both in Haiti, and here.
A Long Walk: Wilson’s Journey to Citizenship
Wilson, an aide in a nursing home in a particularly affluent area of Marin, is told that he has visitors in the main office. The word comes over the loud speaker from the front desk. He is in the middle of his usual rounds with a physical therapist, in which you could often find him striding attentively alongside painfully thin residents struggling to inch forward, hanging onto walkers with white knuckles. He is the steady anchor for their unsteady gait. When he enters the cramped main office, he sees his boss sitting at his desk, and two unfamiliar men, both dressed in plumber’s outfits. Wilson thinks they are workmen, coming around to fix a problem.
The problem, however, is him.
“We are federal agents,” they respond, dark glasses hiding their eyes, as in the movies. “We’ve been looking for you.”
“I’m easy to find,” he responds. “I work here every day.”
“You need to come with us.”
They will not answer. He will either go voluntarily, or they will need to cuff him right there in his boss’ office, and be walked in these cuffs past patients that he works with every day. Wilson asks if he can call his lawyer.
“No, not now,” they say. “You must come with us.”
“What am I being charged with?”
“We can’t say. Come with us.”
He agrees to go, and walks out of the office with the federal agents trailing him, residents resting in wheelchairs in the front lobby, as they normally do. As soon as he walks outside of the front gate and into the parking lot, the federal agents cuff Wilson, and put him into the back of a private, unmarked car.
Wilson is a real man. A beanstalk, tall and lanky, wearing weathered skin, and a steady smile, he stands in contrast to the pale white residents, hunched with age. He is very dark, throwing into focus his white, toothy smile. While I had only met Wilson a few times, seeing him with my mother, a physical therapist at the convalescent home, each time he greets me with these pearly, jubilant teeth, as if we are old friends.
The only hint of his reality, as an almost middle-aged man, is in the slight wrinkles around his mouth and eyes, carved into his face. These are wrinkles one can only earn from experience. These wrinkles tell a story, one he feels he cannot share, as a result of his limited English, which is a thick, musical Caribbean Creole.
From my mother, I’ve been handed a few details, broad-strokes: He escaped from Haiti in 1991, under duress. He has lived in the US for 17 years, and makes his home in San Rafael now. He works two jobs. He has a wife and two daughters.
He wants to tell his story, he tells me, as we sit in the courtyard of the convalescent home, the residents eating lunch in the cafeteria. He wants to share his experiences, his midnight flee from the Tonton Macoute men who would have come in the night to kill him, his run-in with the Homeland Security only months before. He wants to share his struggle to become an American citizen with the world, and more directly, with his daughters, who have only known the United States, who were born here, who were raised here, who have never been to Haiti, nor seen it, outside of images.
He wants to tell his life story, to help us understand his struggles, but he insists that he can’t write. I ask him to still write some of his thoughts for me to get a clearer picture of his experiences. I assure him, a few times, that I’ll be able to understand. Many weeks later, on a visit to the nursing home, I receive a few scraps of paper, pulled out from a notebook. This begins our year-long dialogue. In a handwritten note, with unsteady cursive, he struggles to tell this story, in that same Creole. I can hear his accent:
“I am not sure what to do about my life. Every day I have differing idea of what I wanted to do. But my situation is very difficult. I have a sick wife to take care with two girls. I work six days every week to see if I can make enough money to pay rent and provide food for my family. I can tell you working six days a week is not fun. Even then I have three days fourteen hours to make enough money in my paycheck to pay the bill. Some time people asked me how I am doing. I said I am very well thank you. But my problem is very big.”
Fearing for his life, Wilson escaped his homeland of Haiti on February 26, 1991, a day he recalls vividly in a video interview with his lawyer, who has helped him for 16 years through the arduous process of becoming a United States citizen (On that day, when Wilson was taken by federal agents from work, he wanted to call his lawyer – who was not available to comment on this article). In this video, he sits with his same broad smile to the world, in his home in San Rafael. The home looks almost stereotypically suburban: comfortable, clean, nice chairs, a television, and various pictures of his smiling family prominently placed in the living room. Two off camera voices ask him about his experiences coming to the United States. As he tells this story, he is very even-keel, calm. As we talk in the courtyard of the same story, he has the same calm.
The story he tells, though, is anything but.
Wilson, at the age of 26, had to leave his family, his 4 brothers and 3 sisters to avoid being captured by the Tonton Macoute men, who had just taken over Haiti in a violent coup, deposing the democratically elected government. That night, he left his family, who he was close to, and his home, a small countryside town called Lareche, with a population 600 to 700 people. The country is beautiful, as Wilson describes it, especially the many kinds of trees – mango and avocado lushly blanket the humid Caribbean land. A paradise on earth.
Despite the beauty, the countryside was afflicted by profound poverty. Wilson recalls this poverty in concrete, personal terms: waking up in the dark to walk many hours to the only government school, which was overcrowded, with few teachers; as a young child, sleeping in the same bed as his older brother, Jodany, because they didn’t have enough money to pay for individual beds; the roof leaking in the rain, the family up all night from the dripping. Most of all, he remembers the clearing of the beautiful trees; without electricity, the people of the country would cut down these trees for firewood, to barbeque food. Others cut the trees down to pay for the less crowded –and closer – private schools.
“I am thinking about people life in Haiti that make me cry deep inside your heart. Especially in the countryside nothing at all. No school, no hospital, no help for the poor people.”
On that night, he left not only this poverty, but his family, who he cared deeply for. He left his brothers and sisters, who he was close to. He would not see his little sisters grow up. He would leave his parents, who he greatly admired, and who he didn’t know if he would ever see again.
In his letters to me, Wilson casts his parents as heroic figures, sacrificing their own desires and needs for the greater good of the family. In a letter he wrote to me last year, Wilson recalled his father, Brinvil, who he had not seen since he left on February 26th. “He is a wonderful man,” Wilson writes. “He is a very hard working man.” Brinvil, was a farmer, who “never had a vacation,” and was “always thinking about his children.” Sometimes, Wilson recalls, it was a struggle for his father to provide. A hurricane, once, “came and swept everything away.” He, like all the farmers, received no help from the government. “Haiti is not like the USA,” he explains. In the US, when a hurricane comes, the government provides help; in Haiti, however, after the hurricane, “you [do] not see anybody from the government.” But Brinvil never complained, Wilson emphasizes – he just did what he had to do for his family, as he wrote in a note to me, on that yellow paper:
“I like you to think about raising seven children in Haiti how hard it is. My dad never complained about working too hard. He did whatever he need to do for his children. It doesn’t matter raining season, hot day and cool day go to work in the farm from eight o’clock to four pm next plus he need to bring food for dinner.”
He relates one childhood memory to demonstrate his father’s selfless commitment, despite the deep poverty of the Haitian countryside. He remembers as a child he had a stomach pain, one severe enough to send them to the hospital. “Where I am from in the countryside there is no hospital,” and as a result, Wilson needed to be taken on a long journey to the nearest hospital. Brinvil put Wilson behind his neck, “between his two shoulder to go see the doctor.” Carrying Wilson across his back, “My dad had to walk from six o’clock in the morning nine pm to get to the hospital and sleep there until the next day to see the doctor.” Medical help did not come immediately. “If you’re lucky they see you, but If not you have to wait for the next third day again.”
Wilson also admires his mother, Elivoine, who raised a large family under such duress. “I remember my mother told me how difficult it was taking care of seven children and three miscarriages in the countryside in Haiti.” Elivoine, a Christian who didn’t want to take birth control pills, was pregnant ten times without significant aide of modern medicine. “She said in each pregnancy if she saw doctor two times that all. She told me she has lot of trouble by her first child. I asked what kind the trouble she has. She said she having cramp for two days before she have the baby. Could you imagine no medicine for her?” After the fourth child, she tried to stop, “but three more child came plus three miscarriages.” And, Wilson adds, “I have to tell you in the countryside people not even known diapers. The rich people used diapers.”
When he wrote to me last year, Wilson had seen neither parent since he left 16 years before. He worried about his fathers’ health, and prayed to God he stays healthy.
Wilson and Jodany heard the news while playing soccer, which they did every afternoon before dinner. They were not surprised by the news, but were not exactly expecting it, either. At that moment, they knew that they would have to leave, and they might never see their family again.
Sonel, Wilson’s younger brother, came onto the field, and told his brothers that the Tonton Macoute men visited the home, asking for them. The men were dressed in military khakis, arriving with no smiles. This was not a friendly visit. Their mother had said that they were not around, and after the men had left, she sent Sonel to tell them that they had to go, and they couldn’t come back – because the Tonton Mocoute might be waiting for them.
“We know what’s going to happen if they catch us. When they take you, you’re gone forever. Especially in the countryside, you don’t know where they’re going to take you”
Wilson and Jodany were fugitives now, clad in soccer clothes, because of their association with the president Aristide, who had recently been elected, and was now kidnapped and overthrown. They had gotten very involved in the election process, because they had heard the Aristide would be good to the poor people, especially those who lived in the country, in places like Lareche.
In countryside, just as the schools and the hospitals were far away, so was the polling. The polling places were very long walks, as if one was walking many miles Wilson explains, opening his long arms wide to illustrate. Many could not undertake this long walk, and as a result, the countryside was essentially disenfranchised from the political process. “Before, if you are from country, you are nothing.”
Aristide, according to Wilson, promised to help change this – and Wilson, Jodany, and other members of the community all wanted to be a part of giving the countryside a voice. They took a long walk to a nearby city, Pestel, and collected materials to set up voting in the countryside, which had never happened before. Wilson and Jodany worked all day, without pay, to register the country people to vote, a job that Wilson is still proud of.
But when the Tonton Macoute took power, Wilson and his brother were now enemies of the state. They heard over the radio (they had no TV), that anyone associated with Aristide would be executed, or should leave. They heard of the violence in the city. But they didn’t think that Tonton Mocoute would come for them, because the government never appeared to care about the countryside. Why would they care now?
Standing in the soccer field, Wilson and Jodany knew that Tonton Macoute did care, and that they would have to leave – now.
Sonel ran back to the house, and brought them some clothes in bags. They went to a friend’s house for the night, knowing that they could not return home, for fear that the Tonton Macoute would be sitting in wait, ready to take them away. It was “very scary,” Wilson says with his typical calmness.
His parents came to the friends’ house that night for a sorrowful goodbye, the last time they thought they would ever see each other. Wilson and Jodany had never left Haiti before, and had lived most of their lives around the countryside (except for a two year stint, in which Wilson went to college – he had to come back without finishing, because his family could not afford to continue sending him). It was a very sad evening, to not only leave the only country he had ever known, the only life he had ever known, but the family and parents he loved so deeply, to go into the unknown, Wilson says. Wilson’s mother, before they left, said she had faith in God to protect them, and would pray for their safety. “God knows everything,” Elivoine said, “He will watch the way for you.”
As hard as it was, everyone knew that the only way Wilson and Jodany could survive was to escape from Haiti – and the way out of Haiti was the coast. Jodany had a girlfriend, Benita, who lived on the coast in the town of Caymitte. The problem, however, was how to get there without getting caught in the process. They knew the Tonton Macoute men were in town, and perhaps lurking throughout the countryside, and that they would have to leave Lareche without being seen.
The next morning, they began their escape, in the midst of a Farmer’s Market, much like the one in San Rafael, near Wilson’s home today. They used the crowds of people looking at food and wares as a cover to slip out of Lareche unseen. They then made their way to Pestel on the dirt paths, sweating not from the heat, but from fear of being seen. Finally, from Pestel, they took a small book to Caymitte, to stay with Benita. Benita had a cousin, Samuel, who was also planning to escape. They had already secured a boat to leave from Caymitte, and were ready to leave. “We didn’t know where we are going – whatever happens, happens. We don’t care, we just have to go somewhere.”
Even though they had escaped Haiti, Wilson, Jodany and Benita were still not safe. They were packed onto an old boat with many other refugees, with no real way to navigate, floating in the middle of rough waters in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, in between Haiti and Cuba. The waters were incredibly rough – just thinking about it, Wilson says, makes him shake. The little boat was a toy on the huge waves, the waves peering high down upon them.
“We thought we were going down.”
A lot of people were sick from the jostling, including Jodany, who was throwing up. It was a long night for the escaping Haitians.
At about 12 noon, 16 hours after they left Caymitte, the boat was picked up by the American Coast Guard. In his letter, in person, and in the video interview with his lawyer, Wilson expresses great thanks for getting picked up. In the video, he says “thank God they get us, or we die.” Wilson was very happy to see the Coast Guard, “especially for my brother because he has been throwing-up since he got in the little boat. I thought my brother will pass out.” One of the smaller boats took the Haitians to a larger boat. The Coast Guard said that they were there to help them. “We know we safe,” Wilson says, “we don’t see the big ocean.”
According to Wilson, the Coast Guard told them that they had to now throw out all of their belongings. They were not allowed to bring anything onto the boat, other than the clothes on their backs.
They stayed on the boat for a few days, waiting for the next step. His brother stopped throwing up, and was feeling better. They gave them military rations – beans, rice, ham – which was hard to eat, Wilson claims, because they had never eaten such food before.
The next stop: Guantanamo Bay.
They disembarked to a refugee camp in Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay, in which they stayed in camps consisting of rows of tents. The tumult of the sea, the frightening nighttime escape from Lareche, from his family, all gave way to an uneasy calm – the calm after the storm. Wilson was at Guantanamo for some weeks, in a tent with Jodany and Benita, just waiting, everyday thinking “what’s going to happen?”
One day, the waiting broke: their camp was called to meet with immigration.
The immigration officers split up Wilson and Jodany, who interviewed separately. The officer asked Wilson a series of questions, wanting to know why he left his homeland. In response, Wilson pulled out his electoral card, one of the only things left in his possession, and immediately, the session ended.
“You are going to the US,” Wilson says, quoting the official.
On March 11, Wilson was in the United States, though this was only the start of yet another journey, one 17 years long.
Wilson found himself living in the Bay Area, with Vitalium, another Haitian refugee, and many others (Jodany would end up in Las Vegas). He not only needed to support himself, but send money back to his large family in Haiti, still struggling amidst poverty and the new regime. Later, he would also be supporting a wife and two children.
When he first arrived from Miami, Wilson tried to go back to college, to continue what he started in Haiti. For a short while, Wilson recalls, he was living in San Francisco on Bryant Street, attending City College, where the friendly teachers were challenging him, and trying to help him find resources. But just as quickly, as a result of finances, they had to move to Oakland, and without a car or money, Wilson couldn’t get back to City College. And he says he couldn’t find equivalent support from the community colleges in Oakland, so he had to put his education on hold, to survive.
In another letter to me, Wilson vividly recalls one of his first jobs in the United States, a year after his arrival. He worked at McDonald’s, on the corner of 98th Avenue in Oakland, in the midst of an impoverished community, again. Wilson, however, was just happy to have work. “I was so happy after two week training,” he writes. “And the third week I started working by myself. Everything went fine in the first week.” His first day of the fourth week, though, the manager asked him to go home, for what felt like no apparent reason. The manager said he would call him in two days, but he did not. Still unsure about why he was sent home, and why the manager was so elusive, Wilson comes to meet his manager, who then accusing him of something Wilson couldn’t understand.
Wilson recalls the conversation, which took place nearly 15 years ago:
“Do you know why I sent you home?” The manager asks.
“I don’t know,” Wilson responds.
“A co-worker said you touched his body.”
“What does this mean?”
“You don’t know what it means?”
“When someone says you touch his body that means gay.”
Wilson was still unclear about what the nature of the accusation was, the one which is apparently costing him his job. “At that time I didn’t know what gay means.” He calls a friend, who explains the definition.
“I don’t think I can work in this place,” Wilson tells the manager.
“Why do you say that?”
“First, you send me home. You told me nothing. Second somebody accusing me for something I didn’t do.”
Wilson then resigned his first and much needed job, which he claims the manager wasn’t happy about.
Wilson received his final check, and walked out. As he’s on his way home, a man on a bicycle comes up very fast beside him and yells “Give me your wallet!” Wilson refuses, standing in front of a fire department for protection. The man eventually biked off.
“I was very lucky,” he says in earnestness. “I could have been killed.”
Wilson then found a job working for the mobile home company, cleaning out the massive RVs when travelers returned from their vacations. While he worked very hard for minimum wage, the job appeared stable, and he made enough money to get by. He was happy with the job.
This was not to last.
When business dried up in the winter, when no one wanted to take the mobile homes out in the rain and snow, he and all the other new hires were handed a letter from the company, thanking them for their service, and letting them go – in two weeks time.
“I wish I can keep you, sorry good luck”
Wilson thanked his manager for the good job, but inside, found himself very worried about how he would get by, which has been a persistent concern, to this day:
“But I was sad because I didn’t know where I am going to find…the job. At that time I wasn’t speaking good English. I didn’t have car, don’t know how to drive. I want you to think if it was you in that position. How you will feel. I kept saying what I am going to do to pay my rent.”
Wilson then found work in the steaming-hot laundry room in an Oakland hotel, pressing and folding laundry for hotel guests from 5am to 10pm, for about $5.15 an hour, which he would use not only to support himself, but his family in Haiti, and his new wife and child. While the pay was low, not working was not an option.
A few weeks into the job, the manager handed him papers on insurance, at which point, he immediately realized that this job would not, in fact, work out, and that even working all day, he could not make ends meet.
“I was thinking how I am going to pay for insurance. I only make 5.15. Immediately my mind started thinking what I am going to do to find something better.”
While he continued to fold and press laundry, he heard about the Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) program from a friend, which would eventually become his primary – and much loved – livelihood. This program, he thought, could pull him out of this service jobs, which were highly unstable, and could not provide enough income to support his immediate and extended family.
The six-week CNA course cost $1400, a considerable amount of money, given the limitations of his income. To afford just the cost of the program, at $5.15 an hour (with no taxes taken out) it would take Wilson 271 hours of work to earn the money, or about 6 weeks of full-time work (40 hours). Not only would this program cost him money, but time to study – which with over-time work, would made time a valuable commodity. While he wasn’t sure about the job, he felt he needed to pursue this opportunity, to change his circumstance, so he could better support his loved ones.
“I got to try it,” he said to himself.
And once again, Wilson finds himself venturing into new waters.
Wilson successfully completed the program, requiring trips down to Daly City, and passed the state test to become a nursing assistant, requiring a trip up to Santa Rosa. After the large investment of time and money, he was ready for a more stable career.
But three weeks after taking the test, Wilson receives a letter from the state that claimed the school’s license had expired, and as a result, the test he took was invalid. He would have to take yet another, different test, in Sacramento this time, to become a nursing assistant. While he was nervous, Wilson studied hard, and was able to pass the test, now finally ready to begin his 12-year career as a CNA.
His first job as a CNA was in Marin, in 1996. He performed full-service care for elderly patients: he washed, fed, and put his patients to bed, which often required heavy lifting. During those first days, he said, a person would die in almost every shift, and he would be responsible for helping to clean the body.
Wilson said that his experience working with his elderly patients has been transformative. When he was young, he thought he would be strong forever. Now, he sees his fate, and knows that he is doing something not only to survive and to support his family, but something important for people who had spent their lives contributing to society – doctors, lawyers, and teachers. Wilson believes that these are important people CNAs are taking care of, people who deserve to be taken care of, and “we are proud of what we do for them.”
“I enjoy helping people,” Wilson continues, his calm face lighting up in his toothy grin. “For me, it’s a good thing. Like I read in the Bible the other day, when you are young, you can do everything on your own. When you are old, you need help. What you give is what you get…I’m sure people will be good to you”
Beyond spiritual satisfaction, the job is stable, and he now had a profession he is proud of and one that is transportable. But even with the satisfaction and stability, Wilson still faces a struggle.
At his CNA first job he got paid only slightly more than his laundry job, and as a result, he worked an additional job at another facility, amounting to about 16 hours a day. This way of life seemed necessary to Wilson, but was not sustainable. Many other CNAs, he claims, work an additional job to survive as he did.
One day, he found himself asleep at an intersection, so exhausted from his workday. After this experience, he finally fully quit his first job, and moved to another facility where he has been a CNA for the last 10 years, to the facility where I met him. He works less hours now, and gets paid more than he did when he started. He also has started assisting physical therapists (like my mother), helping the elderly patients to walk.
Interviewing Wilson over the last year, I have seen him in this capacity, gently strolling with his patients, as they move incrementally forward, in walkers, or with canes. In the long bright hall, he stands by their sides, holding their hands, providing stability, paying careful, studied attention to their strained movements. He is frequently smiling, and you would have no sense of his struggle beneath his calm strength.
Sometimes, Wilson works outside of the nursing home – extra consulting for a few bucks. He is never called to his boss’s office, but thought that such an opportunity might present itself that Thursday, January 2007, at about 2:30 in the afternoon. Instead, he found himself facing two imposing members of Homeland Security, dressed in plumber-like outfits.
They had dropped by his apartment, asking his wife where Wilson was. She said he was at work, like he always is at this time.
They stood up from their seats, and said that they had been looking for him. He told them that he was easy to find – that he was at work, that this information was on file at the INS. He wanted to know what they wanted. They wouldn’t tell him, Wilson says, but did tell him that if he didn’t come with them immediately, they would be forced to handcuff him on the spot. Wilson, in each of our interviews and in his letters, emphasized the significance of the handcuffs in his arrest. While he recognizes that handcuffing is more common here, in Haiti, he claims, handcuffing is a very disrespectful act.
“I can tell you, in my country, I would not let people see me, if you put handcuffs, very disrespectful for the family, here it’s no problem, still something for me.”
And while he claims they said they would not handcuff him, they did just that as soon as he walked out of the front gate, into the parking lot. Wilson, handcuffed in the back of the private car, was transported to the INS in San Francisco. He kept asking questions, to try to figure out what why he was being suddenly taken from his job. He told them that he had passed his citizenship test, and was following all legal procedures. According to him, they continued to say that they had nothing to tell him, and that when he arrived in San Francisco, he would know.
For Wilson, as embarrassing as the handcuffs were, the worst part came in San Francisco. He says they took him to the jail on top of the INS, put chains on his feet, and made him change into county oranges. When Wilson told me this, his usual calm begins to break into anger.
“I looked like I killed somebody. I looked like a criminal”
They took a mug-shot of Wilson, and then shuffled him to fingerprinting. When an officer was placing his fingers against the machine, he claims he overheard the officer say: “This guy should be a citizen the next day, what’s going on?”
Still he is told nothing, as he waited in a holding cell, with other men also dressed in county oranges. He was able to use a phone to call out collect – he called his attorney, and a bad connection prevented him from communicating with her. So he called his sister-in-law, who he instructed to get in touch with her.
That night, they moved him from the holding cell into a van with some of the others, and they drove north for hours, to Yuba City. “I actually wasn’t scared, because in my mind I didn’t do anything. I was angry what they were doing to me.”
When he arrived, they placed him in another cell, where he waited yet again, standing for hours. He is then called out, and told he is going back to SF. But first, they need to change him.
Wilson reaches the apex of his anger here, a rare sight. In a year of interviewing, I have never seen him express his frustration and anger so vividly.
He claimed he was strip-searched in front of an officer. “Why do I have to do it?” He asked. “I don’t have nothing.” The officer insisted, and despite Wilson’s anger he consented, because he was afraid of being beaten, like he had seen happen on TV.
Back at the SF INS in the morning, Wilson claims that an officer tried to “set him up.” The plain-clothes officer asked him, according to Wilson: “Do you want to bail out, or go back to your country?”
“I don’t understand. I need to talk to my lawyer. I don’t have to answer.”
Wilson claims the officer then said: “No, you can say yes or no,” and then gave him a paper to sign. Wilson refused to sign any papers until his lawyer was present. The officer read the paper to him, and he could see that it was not incriminating, but rather a form related to his lawyer. “I can see it is not against me.”
Shortly thereafter, the same officer shows up, folds up his papers and says: “Good luck”
Wilson replies: “Why do you tell me ‘good luck?’”
Then, the officer informs him that his lawyer is there to see him.
She comes in crying, telling Wilson that he is going home. “I was so happy when I see [her],” Wilson says. He characterizes her as his “guardian angel”, his lawyer for the last 16 years, who has always been available, and supportive.
He waits for his family to show up with a change of clothes. As he leaves, he hears again, from an officer: “Good luck”
The other prisoners said: “Why do they tell you ‘good luck?’”
Just as he enters his car, he looks to his wallet: his Greencard is missing. He goes back into INS asking for it; they will send it back to him. The INS was going to hold onto it.
“My life is walking,” Wilson says, laughing, at our final interview, a beautifully sunny afternoon in the courtyard of the nursing home, where we talked for the first time, a year prior.
Many of the central moments of his life involved walking: walking miles to school, walking miles with his father to the hospital, walking miles to vote, walking out of Lareche, on his way to America.
This was another long walk which he will never forget.
A month after he returned from his arrest by the INS, he got off the BART train at Montgomery station, in the center of San Francisco, on a cold spring day. While he had lived in SF, he didn’t know this area well. He asked where he could find his final destination. “That’s a long way,” the main said, pointing all the way a long hill. “You’ll have to go all the way to the top.” Afraid to get off at the wrong stop again, Wilson set about walking again up the large hill. He sweated hard, like he did on the trail out of Lareche: but this time it was not from nerves, but from the hard, long walk up the long, steep hill.
“It was a long walk for me to for me to get to that place, but I get there on time.”
He walked into the citizenship ceremony, still sweating. He didn’t have his Greencard to show the attendants in front, because the INS was still holding it, but was able to show a letter certifying that he would become a citizen that day.
Shortly after Wilson returned from the INS, his lawyer provided the INS with two options, according to him: get sued, or give Wilson his citizenship right away. “They took the easy choice,” Wilson says. And while he recalls no official apology for the mistake, he was certain to be a citizen within weeks from his arrest.
He entered the large arena, with thousands of others, from 90 countries. He fondly remembers the speaker saying “hello” in all 90 languages. A local news anchor (also an immigrant) gave an encouraging speech to the new citizens, as did President Bush, over a television screen.
They said now they could throw away the Greencard – that they were full citizens, and would no longer have to deal with immigration.
He received his certificate, proving he was now a United States citizen, and with thousands of others, walked out of the hall, and back down the hill.
“It’s like I’m nowhere,” Wilson says, laughing again, the wind starting to pick up a bit in the courtyard, as our afternoon together comes to a close.
The Port-Au-Prince airport felt like another country, not like home. Wilson had never been to the airport when he lived in Haiti. They never left the country, and didn’t go to Port-Au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, frequently.
17 years after he left, Wilson now returned to his country to visit his family, and to bring them money and gifts from the US. And of course, the airline lost his luggage (only to return hours later).
Standing in Haitian immigration, a US passport in hand, Wilson is asked what address he will be visiting. He doesn’t want to give it to them. He is pulled out of line, and asked again by an officer to give the address he will be visiting. He finally provides them an address, though “not the one I’m going to.”
While the Tonton Macoute men are no longer in power, Wilson feels that he is not totally out of danger. According to him, kidnappers take people for money. He is nervous that they could take him, as an American who they think has money.
Wilson stills see the poverty in his country – young boys assailed him while leaving the airport, wanting to help him carry his bags for money. But what he sees has changed the most: cell-phones. Apparently, everyone in Haiti has cell-phones now, according to Wilson, spending what little money they have to make calls.
He has also forgotten some parts of his former life. Waiting to report his lost bags, he stands in a huge room with tons of people, and only a single attendant. He is waiting for an hour, sweating, and finally asks the attendant why they don’t have more people helping.
“You don’t know where you are? You are in Haiti,” the attendant replied.
Wilson planned this two-week trip not only to see his family, but to gift a shipment of goods to them, in a container with clothes and other goods. Wilson and his friends had a mix-up, though, as one of the friends who was supposed to pick it up – and pay the reminder of the holding fee – didn’t, leaving a month of storage fees, on top of the original shipping fee.
Wilson had to spend all his money that was to go to his family in Lareche – his uncles, aunts – on these fees. As a result, he could not return to Lareche, his hometown, because to show up with no money would be very embarrassing. “I cannot give them nothing,” Wilson says.
He was able to see his immediate family, however, who now live in a nearby town of Cayes (where Wilson had gone to college), in a house that Wilson and his brother helped to buy. He drives to the house in a car they shipped from Las Vegas, to give to his parents as well, as a means for them to get around.
His mom comes through the gate first, and the usually stoic Wilson bursts out crying.
“We were hugging and crying, oh crying and happy. Happy crying.”
As they are crying, his mother said that she thought that she would never see Wilson again.
They went inside to see Wilson’s father, Brinvil, who is now 74, and very tired, according to Wilson. He has now retired, and has other people help to run his farm.
Wilson, well over 6 feet tall, knelt to the floor and placed his head in his father’s lap, and begins to cry: “I was crying a lot.”
“He kept tapping my shoulder, I see you , If I die I have no regret, because you here.”
He saw his sisters – all now grown up, with their own families. And he saw Sonel, his younger brother who ran up to him on the soccer field, 17 years before, who has now grown up, and has a family of his own.
And after two weeks with his family, he must leave again, to return back to America, back to his own family. Again, everyone cried, not knowing when they would see each other again, or if they would.
This time, Wilson leaves back through the airport, about the same time of year he had left the first time, in that shaky boat to anywhere. The weather is bad again. As they prepare to descend into Miami, where he came to America the first time, the fog bank is too heavy to see through.
So the plane circles around and around, waiting for an opening to land.