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Champion of Haitian Refugees

Patricia Sullivan

A man who dedicated his life to helping the dirt-poor refugees from Haiti when no one else was paying attention has died in Miami. Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, who ran the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami and who laid down before trucks to insist on civil rights when the U.S. government locked the refugees up, died last night after a stroke. He was just 62. (Here's the Post version of his obit.)

The Haitian exodus is one of the great undertold stories of American history. It came just before the Cuban Mariel boatlift, and while that unexpected immigration garnered major world coverage, the plight of the very poor Haitians was overlooked.

In the very early 1980s, I was a reporter in South Florida, living in Pompano Beach where many Haitian refugees settled as they tried to escape the brutal regime of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. They literally washed up on the beaches as their rickety boats fell apart in the surf; many drowned and others ended up in the hospital.

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Using my high-school French, I interviewed one such farmer, who had lost his wife and son when the boat's captain threw them overboard as the boat began to sink. In the midst of the interview, the man in the next bed began rapidly scolding the interviewee in Creole, too fast and too foreign a tongue for me to understand. That man was the ship's captain and he had understood enough of the interview to object; his main complaint was that the interviewee revealed the charge for passage was $2,000.

No one spoke up for these people, except for Rev. Jean-Juste. He offered material support, agitated for political action and sued for fair treatment. The Miami Herald reported that he once said, ``The taste of freedom for somebody else is a great victory for me.'' He had an impact and if some called him St. Maverick, it was the price he paid for a lifetime of trying to force humane treatment in a heartless world.

By Patricia Sullivan |  May 28, 2009; 11:55 AM ET  | Category:  Patricia Sullivan
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