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Starting Over Rough Landing Haitian Family Of 11 Struggles To Create A New Home After Being Granted Refugee Status In The U.S.

It’s never been 15 degrees in Haiti.

That accounts for the shivering around the house of Aristilde Fatilien, a Haitian refugee living with his wife and nine children in east Spokane.

The Fatilien family is having other problems than adjusting to temperatures lower than the drinking age.

Their English is very rough; they have no car and no driver’s licenses; no one in the family has a job yet; and their money is running out.

The U.S. State Department whisked the family out of Haiti last month and granted them refugee status because of Fatilien’s political and religious activism.

“From what I understand, he was a kind of leader over there, of a group like the Young Republicans,” said Bob Schneiter, pastor of Friends Church in Hayden Lake, which has sort of adopted the Fatilien family.

But Friends Church is having trouble helping the Fatiliens from so far away.

So the church is looking for people in Spokane to help with English classes, driving lessons and the constant education about American life.

“They are a wonderful family,” Schneiter said. “They just need some help getting accustomed to life here.”

Aristilde Fatilien, 31, was an elementary school teacher and a leader in a Baptist Church in Gonaives, a city of about 20,000 people 100 miles north of Port au Prince.

His activism got him in trouble with the attaches - goons who work for whoever is in power in Haiti.

Fatilien was in hiding for much of the last two years and even with democracy supposedly returning to his country, his life is still in danger.

World Relief, a 52-year-old evangelical organization that helps refugees, agreed to find a place for the Fatiliens and another Haitian family - a husband and wife and their baby. Swamped with refugees from other countries, they settled the families in Spokane.

Most refugees who come to Spokane are from Southeast Asia or the former Soviet Union and quickly fit into established communities here.

Spokane’s two Haitian families only have each other.

“The family’s needs are being taken care of,” said John Tusant of World Relief. “But maybe not to the degree that refugees from other countries are. It has just taken longer.”

The Fatiliens arrived around Thanksgiving, wearing short-sleeve rayon shirts and sandals, with $2,000 to get settled. They have about $500 left.

Schneiter’s church volunteered to help partially because his daughter is a missionary in Haiti.

Friends Church found furniture, food and bicycles for Fatilien and the children. They found warm clothes - boots, jackets, gloves and socks to wear under sandals.

“Our membership has been very generous,” Schneiter said. “The thing we can’t do is be here every day for them.

“It was scary for them the first few days,” Schneiter said. “They didn’t know about their neighborhood and they just stayed huddled in the house. … They need someone to help them get comfortable.”

The children say they aren’t worried about starting school, but Fatilien worries “they won’t see people like them.”

He also worries that they will have trouble learning the new language. The English words they know now are repeated with the heavy accent of the French-Creole spoken in Haiti.

Four of the children - twins 17 and 18 years old - are Rachelle Fatilien’s from a previous marriage.

The other kids are 4, 6, 8, 10 and 14. They will start school in January.

Aristilde Fatilien taught math and government in Haiti, but he realizes that in Spokane, he will not be able to take a professional job.

“I haven’t a choice,” he said. The two oldest boys, Prenel and Hermase, will also look for work as soon as they improve their English.

English as a Second Language classes are full in Spokane, so the Fatiliens are learning as much English as they can from a few books.

Other times, they pack around a small television and watch “Sesame Street” to bone up on the language.

“When somebody arrives, the first thing they must do is look at the culture of the country,” Fatilien said carefully. “That is most difficult.”

The family lives in a threebedroom house, about 1,000 square feet. Fatilien said, “My house in Haiti is smaller.”

People in Spokane seem friendly, Fatilien said. “When you pass somebody, they say ‘Hello.”’

Fatilien said he may return to Haiti in a year or two. But he wants to establish residency in Spokane so that he can return if his life is threatened again.

Back in Haiti, it’s the rainy season, 78 degrees and humid. In Spokane, the family has already seen its first snow and temperatures they couldn’t even imagine back home.

“Cold” was the first English word they learned. Still, Fatilien said he can imagine himself staying.

“Spokane is very interesting,” he said. “I would live here.”

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