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Globalization

Music turns around Haitian deportee's life

A teenage criminal is deported from the US to his country of birth, Haiti, a country he no longer knew. He faces the music, and it changes his life.

James Vergneaux walks down a rutted, dirt street towards a darkened Port au Prince office. The electricity at the aid organization where he works goes out at night, but he still has a job to do - providing cultural programs for youth living in a tent city.

Haiti has been badly damaged by a series of coups, hurricanes and the devastating 2010 earthquake, which killed an estimated 316,000 people. Dozens of people died when Hurricane Sandy slammed into the country in late October. Haiti has also been hurt by a punitive US regulation that deports criminals back to their country of birth.

As a youth, Vergneaux was caught up in the US government's controversial policy of deporting teenage criminals, even if they lived most of their lives in the US.

Vergneaux and his mother had moved to New York City from Haiti when he was 12 years old. In high school he was arrested twice for selling crack cocaine at the age of 17.

Facing a possible trial, he was told by the public defender "to plead guilty because if I took my case to court, I would serve two to three years in prison," he said.

Unexpected outcome

The public defender never asked about his immigration status, according to Vergneaux.

He pleaded guilty, but after serving a four-month jail term, he wasn't released. Despite having permanent residency, he was held by immigration services and slated for deportation.

Vergneaux said his relatives were unfamiliar with the US justice system and didn't know how to help. "A lot of this is money issues," he said. "If you get an immigration lawyer, they're not going to transfer you to other federal immigration places. But my family didn't have the money."

A boy plays soccer in front of an abandoned light aircraft at a refugee camp in Port-au-Prince (Photo: Orlando Barria

Vergneaux was sent to a country he left at 12

He was transferred from New York to an immigration detention facility in Louisiana, where it was even more difficult to find an immigration lawyer, he said.

"Once you leave Manhattan for Louisiana, you're deported already, you're just not in your home country yet. From Louisiana, you're not coming back."

Vergneaux appealed his deportation but lost the case.

"One night they came to my cell. It was like: 'Pack up. Get ready. You're going home.' That was it."

He was forced to leave his relatives and go to a country he hardly knew.

Old, new home

He stayed with distant cousins and an uncle who lived in an impoverished, Port au Prince neighborhood. They lived in a two-room shack.

"If you needed water to shower," said Vergneaux, "you had to carry it from a couple of kilometers away."

He soon discovered that deportees faced suspicion from fellow Haitians.

Haitians walk through mud after rains from Hurricane Sandy flooded their tent encampment in Port-au-Prince (Photo: Swoan Parker)

Haiti was still recovering from Hurricane Isaac in August, when Hurricane Sandy hit in November

Daniel Laurent, in-country director of Konbit Mizik records and a former US resident, said local people assumed the deportees were hardened criminals.

"A lot of them weren't able to adjust because of the stigma," said Laurent. "People wouldn't hire them. Anything that went wrong in the neighborhood, they would be the first target. Street justice here is famous."

Despite the difficulties, Vergneaux's life gradually improved. He had long been interested in music and eventually developed a singing career using the stage name "Rebel Lyonn." He sings reggae and a modern version of Haitian roots music.

He also writes socially conscious lyrics, which he said is a result of his experiences as a deportee.

"I have to use it [my talent] wisely towards something good," said Vergneaux. "My message is about universality, unifying as a human race. It's about saving this earth."

As Haitians try to pick up the pieces from Hurricane Sandy, which flooded Port au Prince, Vergneaux tries hard to remain optimistic.

"I take careful care with my lyrics to make sure they are therapeutic to people, to make sure that when people hear those lyrics, they can feel a sense of hope."

While he continues to work a day job helping youth, he hopes to succeed as a vocalist, telling the stories of Haiti, a country he now calls home.

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