Viviane Charlestin remembers wearing a red dress when her family drove to West Palm Beach on a hot day in 2003.
Her mother, Ruthe, said they were visiting Viviane’s father before he left for a vacation. Viviane and her siblings waited in a gray, dark room with prison-like windows.
Her older sister came out of another room crying and wouldn’t tell Viviane why.
It wasn’t until Viviane was 11 years old when she found out her father, Villiance, was being held in jail that day, before being deported to Haiti.
“I didn’t even realize he was in jail. All I knew as a kid (was) dad wasn’t there,” 20-year-old UF English major Viviane said. “I figured he was at work because that was the situation most of the time.”
When Viviane and Ruthe heard about the U.S. government separating families who are crossing the border illegally to seek asylum in the U.S., Viviane said her mother cried the entire day.
“I hope that people just learn how difficult (immigration) is and the effect that it has on family,” Viviane said. “It’s affecting the kids the most. And it’s really sad because their parents came here for them, and now you’re taking them away.”
Before Villiance was deported, the Charlestin family moved to Fort Pierce after their house in Orlando was foreclosed. Six kids shared the two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment, and Viviane’s parents slept on the living room floor.
Villiance picked oranges in the morning and ran a car mechanic business in the evening. Viviane remembers her father being strong, proud and hardworking.
When Viviane was 4, her father’s friend needed help moving a car overseas. In the process, the two were questioned about their documentation. Villiance’s visa had expired, and he was jailed.
Villiance told Viviane his first days back in Haiti were filled with tears, and he felt like he was losing time.
Viviane’s mother did not go to school while growing up in Haiti, but she had to find a job that would provide for her children.
As the family’s sole provider, Ruthe worked for a housekeeping company before it was shut down and got a job at McDonald’s. She hated it but knew someone had to pay the bills.
After two years, the family eventually moved into a duplex-style home through Section 8 housing. Ruthe, who then worked at Publix, paid $300 a month there but still couldn’t afford the rent.
“We didn’t see it as like ‘oh, government housing is bad. You’re on welfare,’” Viviane said. “We saw it as, ‘We get a house, like, a big house. Two bathrooms!’”
Ruthe received about $500 each month in food stamps, but the family still went hungry some nights. Ruthe pawned her wedding ring for food money and sold a necklace her son bought her for Mother’s Day to pay for the light bill.
Their neighborhood on 23rd Street was unsafe. Frequent gang violence forced Viviane and her siblings to stay inside after school.
Ruthe studied English at night school and reviewed a CD and booklet every day before becoming a U.S. citizen in 2012. During this time, the family moved back to Orlando with no plan.
They spent a couple nights sleeping in a 14-foot U-Haul truck before moving in with a family friend who was already housing five kids of her own.
Ruthe got a well-paying housekeeping job, but the Charlestins went homeless again in 2013 until Viviane found an apartment for the family near Oak Ridge, Florida.
Viviane attended Oak Ridge High School before convincing her mom to move into low-income housing in Gainesville to be closer to her sisters, who were attending UF.
Through it all, the family preserved their culture by cooking Haitian food, going to a Haitian Baptist church, speaking Creole and celebrating Haitian holidays. The family remained in contact with Villiance, but phone calls to Haiti were laborious at the time.
Viviane said she did not start to embrace her culture until later in her life due to negative Haitian-American stereotypes like being dirty, a drug dealer or practicing Voodoo. Her mother had many people tell her to speak English when speaking Creole.
On June 19, the Charlestins flew to Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, and Viviane saw her father for the first time in 15 years.
Villiance met his family wearing an orange, short-sleeved button-up shirt with jeans and black boots. He had buzzed-cut gray hair and wrinkles. Viviane did not recognize him at all.
“I felt like our conversations were just dry and fake,” Viviane said. “He knew nothing about me. He missed every graduation, he missed every birthday. Not because it was his fault, but just in general.”
Villiance was unemployed, and the only person sending him food or money was Ruthe.
“The job he wants to do is be a mechanic, and that’s what he’s good at,” Viviane said. “That’s what he learned.”
But many people do not own cars in Haiti, nixing the need for mechanics.
Sometimes, Villiance is homeless. Other times, he lives with family. Ruthe payed about 1,000 gourdes for a rental house for their visit, where Villiance would be able to live for the rest of the year.
While visiting Haiti, Viviane and her family only had electricity every other day for an hour. They cooked using a small charcoal stove and didn’t eat at night because there were no lights. Water came in plastic bags, and ice-filled coolers were used to keep things cold.
“It’s really crazy to see how even (about) 10 years after the earthquake, it’s gotten worse,” Viviane said.
They visited initially to get a waiver from Haiti’s U.S. Embassy for Villiance to come home. However, the embassy in Haiti told them to go to America to get the waiver. But they had been told in America to go to Haiti to get the waiver.
The family started Villiance’s case in 2008, but it was canceled because his phone was often stolen, making communication with his case workers difficult. Viviane said everyone except Ruthe gave up on bringing him back long ago.
“We’re just going to have to move on with it and just accept the fact that he can’t stay here anymore,” Viviane said. “And it’s a really sad realization, but at the same time, it’s almost like we’re numb to it.”
The family started the expensive process of filing for Villiance’s visa again when they returned to the U.S. on June 29.
“For one application paper it’s $300, another is $250, and it’s just money that my mom doesn’t have,” Viviane said.
Viviane said she would like to volunteer to help other first-generation Americans and their families. She thinks Americans should treat immigrants better.
“They’re not stealing your jobs,” she said. “They’re taking the jobs that you don’t want.”
Not enough people understand how difficult the immigration process is, Viviane said. People try their hardest, but sometimes they still can’t get in.
“Of course, people are going to sneak in because they want a better life,” Viviane said. “It’s because they want to come here for their children, even it means in five days they get deported, but their kids are safe. They’re willing to take that risk.”
Viviane’s oldest sister is now getting her doctorate at the University of Notre Dame. Her other sister plans to become a teacher.
Viviane wants to work in the film industry to change the perception of Haitian culture in the media.
“I really just want to put Haiti on the map and hopefully make it successful enough that I can give my mom everything and more…” she said, “and hopefully even write her story.”
Villiance and Viviane Charlestin in June 2018. “It doesn’t matter if a person’s gay, straight, immigrant, black, white,” Viviane said. “They’re a human being.”