Diaspora

Haitian family members risked their lives to make it to Oakland. They ended up homeless – San Francisco Chronicle

Haitian refugee Diatha Bell rubs her pregnant belly in a temporary apartment she shares with her two daughters in Oakland. Bell is eight months pregnant with her fourth child. Her son and husband are in Mexico and aren’t being allowed to join the rest of the family.
Sisters Mara (left), 9, and Guelandia,11, watch television in their temporary apartment in Oakland. During their treacherous hike across the 60-mile Darien Gap, Mara was nearly swept away by a fast river while Guelandia says she counted dozens of dead bodies along the way.
Guelandia, 11, looks out the window as she rides the bus in Oakland with her sister and mother. Originally from Haiti, the family was living for the past five years in Chile when they heard over the summer that they would have a better chance of finding work in the United States.
Diatha Bell rides the bus on the way to a pregnancy check-up at Highland Hospital in Oakland. While grateful for the medical care she’s receiving, she doesn’t know if it will come with a bill she cannot afford.
Diatha Bell, who speaks Creole, struggles with the language barrier as she checks in at Highland Hospital in Oakland.
Sisters Mara (left), 9, and Guelandia (right), 11, wait for their mother in the waiting room at Highland Hospital in Oakland. The girls are eager to resume their schooling in their new city. The last time they were in a classroom was before the pandemic.
Diatha Bell, puts her arm around daughter Mara, 9, as they make their way to Bell’s pregnancy check-up at Highland Hospital in Oakland. Even though California is seen as a sanctuary state, asylum seekers like Bell and her daughters are ineligible for many state assistance programs.
At eight months pregnant, sleeping on the floor of a tiny Oakland apartment was just too hard on Diatha Bell.
The recently arrived Haitian immigrant and her two daughters had endured much since August, when they bid goodbye to the rest of their family and their home in Chile — days without food, falls on rough terrain and a near drowning while walking between Colombia and Panama as they headed for the Texas border. Now, Bell had all kinds of pains. And she feared what sleeping on the floor meant for the health of her unborn child.
“We decided to leave (the apartment) because there was nothing for us there,” Bell said in Creole, translated by Laure Bottinelli of Partners in Health, a Boston health care nonprofit.
But Bell and her daughters, ages 9 and 11, had nowhere to go. Beyond the people in the apartment, they didn’t know a soul in this new city, and their money ran out a long time ago.
Recently arrived immigrants who end up homeless and penniless are often invisible.
Diatha Bell and daughters Guelandia (left), 11, and Mara, 9, walk from the bus to Highland Hospital in Oakland for a doctor’s appointment to check on her pregnancy. Doctors have told Bell she faces a high-risk pregnancy, which Bell suspects is partially because of the falls she took while walking from Columbia to Panama on the way to the Texas border.
While Oakland has more than half of Alameda County’s homeless population, the official count does not indicate how many are immigrants. The data is simply not collected, said Katie Haverly of EveryOne Home, the organization that oversees Alameda County’s homeless count.
Yet Bell’s predicament is not uncommon, said Aron Oqubamichael of community organization Black Alliance for Just Immigration. “Just last week I received a message about a (homeless) Haitain family in Oakland,” Oqubamichael said. “They have problems with everything — housing, food and education.”
If the homeless safety net is already frayed, it is in tatters for those who have recently crossed the border and are undocumented or seeking asylum. They don’t qualify for Section 8 housing grants, CalFresh or any cash assistance. Families like Bell’s, who risk their lives to make it to one of the richest countries in the world, find themselves in a new humanitarian crisis.
As she prepared to leave the crowded Oakland apartment, Bell called a volunteer at a local food pantry and explained her situation. It was a long shot, but maybe he could help her.
The family’s life changed one day in 2016 when eight men burst into their home in Haiti, held them at gunpoint and took every cent Bell had made selling oranges.
Fearing they would become regular targets of this local gang, Bell and her husband left for Chile, a country Haitians could enter without visas. But without a work visa, they struggled to provide for their family. Then, over the summer, after life in Haiti became more untenable because of the assassination of the president, natural disasters and increased gang violence, rumors spread that Haitians could find work in the United States. Many headed to the southern U.S. border.
The family had only enough money for Bell and her daughters to make the costly trip north from Chile. The plan was for Bell’s husband and son to follow once they’d saved some more. So, in early August, Bell left Santiago with her two girls.
The journey from Chile took six weeks, crossing through 10 countries mostly by bus. But once their caravan dropped them off at the notorious Darien Gap, a 60-mile stretch of untamed rain forest separating North and South America, that’s when the real peril began. Bell’s 11-year-old daughter, Guelandia, recounted the difficulties of navigating thick jungles and muddy hillsides by foot.
“There was mud, it rained, and the path was … tiny,” she said in Spanish.
Guelandia said they had to walk along the edge of precipitous cliffs, cross gushing rivers and guard against gangs who preyed on migrants like them. Her pregnant mother fell many times. Guelandia often felt like crying but didn’t.
“We had to be strong to make it through,” she said.
Diatha Bell, a refugee from Haiti, stands with her daughters, 11-year-old Guelandia (left) and 9-year-old Mara, outside their temporary apartment in Oakland. Bell and her daughters began a harrowing journey from their home in Chile in August, traveling six weeks and risking their lives to end up in a city where they face imminent homelessness.
Somewhere before Panama, Bell’s 9-year-old daughter, Mara, and another child in the group were swept away in a harsh river current. Mara had learned to swim in Chile and was able to cling to a rock until the migrants could form a human chain and rescue her. The other child drowned, Bell said.
When the family reached the Texas border in mid-September, it joined an unfolding crisis. About 15,000 other migrants had arrived at the same point, to Del Rio, Texas, where armed agents kept them pinned in a makeshift camp just past the river that separates the U.S. from Mexico.
“There were many, many Haitians,” Bell recalled. “The place (was) packed.”
She and her daughters found a spot under the Del Rio bridge, where Bell said they stayed for one week without food or water. After days of complaining that her belly hurt, Bell said she and her daughters were finally permitted into Texas on Sept. 23. She said authorities handed her a notice to report to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office within 60 days and put her family on a bus that dropped them at a taxi stand in Del Rio. From there the family was on its own.
Without commenting on this case, a Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said most asylum seekers who arrive at the border are detained until an asylum officer can adjudicate their claims.
Before getting on the bus, Bell called the one contact she had in the U.S. — the uncle of a cousin in Oakland. He paid for the family to fly to the Bay Area from Texas, and it was his floor that Bell and her daughters ended up sleeping on.
Weeks passed until Bell was able to see a doctor. Finally, in October, doctors at Oakland’s Highland Hospital determined she had a high-risk pregnancy, she said, and told her to come back every few days for monitoring. While grateful for the medical care, she was unsure if she would soon get a big bill. Next, Bell went in search of housing.
She found her way to the Emeryville Citizens Assistance Program, where volunteer Mary Maultsby-Jeffrey conducted an intake interview. Maultsby-Jeffrey tried to connect the family with resources by calling Alameda County Social Services, local community organizations, even the county’s 211 hotline, but kept coming up short.
“I thought it would be a lot easier,” Maultsby-Jeffrey said, adding that “211 was not helpful at all.”
It’s a problem that Oqubamichael of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration knows well. “Whenever an asylum seeker comes to our office, we have to tell them … there is no means to support asylum seekers, no programs,” he said.
Finding housing for this population is next to impossible, he added.
“It is not easy to rent a house because every landlord asks (migrants) for meaningful income to support them to pay the rent,” Oqubamichael said. “They are left in limbo.”
While Bell and her family might qualify for federal resettlement assistance, so far no one has been able to help her figure out how to access these services. Meanwhile, her husband and 4-year-old son, who began the journey a few weeks later, made it to Mexico but haven’t been allowed to cross into California. So Bell and her daughters are navigating their to-do list solo.
In addition to securing stable housing and enrolling the girls in school, Bell is hoping to find an attorney before her first immigration court date in February. With government resources so far inaccessible, she’s had to depend on the kindness of strangers to keep her and the girls from sleeping in a park.
The food pantry volunteer quickly pooled some money from his friends and booked an Airbnb in Oakland for the family for nine nights. He also helped them set up a GoFundMe that has raised almost $10,000 — money that Bell is hoping she can stretch to cover rent, living costs and any medical bills in one of the nation’s least affordable regions.
Mara and Guelandia are eager to start school, and the Oakland Unified School District has programs directed at youth without stable addresses and those who are here seeking asylum. The last time the girls were in a classroom was before the pandemic. Yet Bell isn’t worried. Her daughters are smart, she said, and after all they have been through, public school will be a breeze.
San Francisco Chronicle reporter Kevin Fagan contributed to this report.
 
Deepa Fernandes is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: deepa.fern@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @deepafern
Deepa Fernandes covers immigration and immigrant communities for The San Francisco Chronicle. She comes to The Chronicle from an award-winning career in broadcast journalism, reporting from around the world for NPR, the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Fernandes was named Radio Reporter of the Year for 2017, 2018 and 2019 by the LA Press Club, and among the many awards she has won is an LA area Emmy while reporting with KCET in Los Angeles. She has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter: @deepafern

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