Curious Gulf Coast: Are There Refugees In Southwest Florida?

Jul 18, 2017

An anonymous Curious Gulf Coast inquirer asked: 

"Are there refugees living in southwest Florida? If so, what country did they come from? Why did they have to leave? What is their experience like?" 

In a Naples apartment, the smell of Haitian food is wafting through the air. It's Johnny Dorrine's home. He emigrated from Haiti to the U.S. in 2004. Dorrine graduated from Hodges University last year and now has a full-time job. He lives with his childhood friend from Haiti, who just arrived in the U.S. under dire circumstances. 

"I am Leneil Thermidor and I'm from Haiti," Thermidor said in Haitian Creole. Dorrine translates. "I left Haiti in May 19, 2015." 

Thermidor said there's no justice in Haiti. 

"Persecution comes in many forms," said Thermidor. "A group of gangs wanted to kill me and they killed two of my family - a brother and a sister." 

The 33-year-old, who worked on farms and vineyards in Haiti, said his trouble started with the death of a police officer. Thermidor said someone told told the police a gang member was responsible. The gang thought Thermidor was the snitch and, he said, they wanted retribution. 

So, he fled. 

Thermidor meets the criteria for a refugee under the United Nations definition, which is someone who is forced to flee their country because of war, persecution or violence. 

"And eventually get placed in a host country that does refugee resettlement all over the world, including the U.S," said Yuri Kaplun, the refugee resettlement coordinator for Catholic Charities in North Port.

He was one of about 50 people at a meeting for the Southwest Florida Refugee Task Force back in April.

According to State Department of Children and Families data, more than 3,000 refugees came to southwest Florida during the last fiscal year.

Most are from Haiti and Cuba. But "Right now we're seeing many refugees come from eastern Ukraine," Kaplun said. 

That country's been in a state of war since 2014. 

Kaplun said he was a refugee from the Ukraine in the 1990's after he said the KGB came after his family which mostly consisted of priests. 

Miami immigration attorney Sui Chung said while Thermidor and others might meet the U.N. definition of a refugee, that doesn't mean the U.S. will grant them asylum.

"It's not about danger or harm in the host country, in itself," she said. 

Chung, who's the President of the South Florida chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the U.S. will only grant asylum if the person is a victim of one of five types of persecution - based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a certain social group or political opinion. 

In Naples, Thermidor opens an accordion folder with pictures. 

"This is my brother," he said, pointing to a picture of a man in a white suit lying in a coffin. "He's dead." 

A lady bends over the coffin crying. 

"That's my sister. Is kidnapped." 

Thermidor said his sister was kidnapped and murdered after she hired a private investigator to find out who was coming after the family. 

He said he knows who killed his family. He has pictures of who he suspects. 

"The gangster," he said, holding a picture of a man. 

Thermidor said he suspects the gang killed his friends too. He has several pictures of his slaughtered friends with gunshot wounds and knife wounds, lying in pools of blood. 

"This my friend," said Thermidor, holding a picture of a man lying in blood with his eye dangling from its socket. "He's dead. He got shot in the back of his head and the bullet plucked out his eye." 

He was nearly emotionless when looking at the photos. 

Leneil Thermidor
Credit Quincy J. Walters / WGCU News

"You a man. You gotta be tough," Thermidor said. "You can't let the past bring you down."

From Haiti, Thermidor went to Brazil. From there, he bounced around to different South American countries. Then, he was detained in Mexico.

Thermidor was eventually released and sent to Richmond, Virginia in January for humanitarian parole.

Johnny Dorrine got a voicemail from ICE and saved it. 

"This is officer Davilla calling from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. I'm calling in regards to Leneil Thermidor. He is in our custody, but we need more information," the voicemail said. 

ICE needed more information about where Thermidor would be staying and more information about Dorrine. In a subsequent voicemail, ICE asked Dorrine to buy a bus ticket for Thermidor from Virginia to Florida. 

Dorrine said he was proud to do it. 

"I didn't have much, myself, " he said. "I did what I could. I helped him."

Thermidor said he understands it may be hard to sympathize with refugees and asylum seekers like himself. 

"There's a proverb - it's a saying in our culture that says, 'The rock in the river doesn't know the hardship of the rock in the sun'," he said. 

Thermidor has a court hearing in September to determine whether or not he can be granted asylum. Attorney Sui Chung said the trauma Thermidor experienced and his photographic evidence is not guaranteed to help. She said he must prove to be a victim of one of the five forms of persecution. 

"It's going to require much more than a handful of photos," Chung said. "The burden of demonstrating that is difficult to do and a lot of evidence is required." 

Thermidor hopes he'll be allowed to stay. But for now, he said, he's like a rock in the sun.