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Sophonie

Why the world doesn't know about Sophonie ...

By Christine Evans, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer ... Sunday, April 23, 2000

She is so small, just 6, like Elian. When she smiles, perhaps at a bowl of strawberry ice cream, you see she is missing two front teeth. In kindergarten, at Lake Park Elementary, she is just beginning to read. Her teachers are so proud, because when the school year began, she couldn't speak a word in English. She loves pink. On Sundays, she puts on a frilly dress and goes to church.

Just like Elian, she came from a tiny island country, a place so riven by politics and poverty that people risk everything to flee. Just like Elian,

Now, like Elian, she is here but not here. She has no legal standing in the United States. No residency papers. No health insurance. No plain and

She got her picture in the paper once, after U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings filed a bill on her behalf, but the story did not make the front page. That place, especially now, is reserved for Elian Gonzalez, the little boy from Cuba, not for Sophonie Telcy, who came from Haiti.

Ti gason, the boy -- that is what the people in Sophonie's world call Elian, who was rescued at sea Thanksgiving Day and turned instantly into a cause celebre, from the moment he touched land until Saturday morning, when federal agents whisked him away. The people in Sophonie's world hear about Elian on the TV. They hear about Sophonie, too, but only when the radio broadcasts in Creole. Then, yes, people talk, rat-a-tat-tat, quick Creole gossip: What about Sophonie? What will happen to her? The little girl from Haiti?

"Ohhh, I do not know," Henry Smith said last week as he settled into the plump white sofa in his new Lake Park home, a place big enough for his three children, his wife, Jeanine, and now Sophonie.

He is not Sophonie's dad. Nobody is sure where her father is. Smith is her caretaker, the man who said yes when her mother, Sana Romelus, came to his door one Sunday morning a year ago holding Sophonie's hand.

"Will you take Sophonie for me?" she said. She was ill and had to return to Haiti, where she would last just a short time, he later learned, before dying. And so, Henry Smith said yes. He would take Sophonie.

Smith tells this story patiently, in the careful English he has acquired since his arrival here from Haiti in 1994, and he will tell it again and again to anybody who will listen.

"I think about that so much," he says, brow crinkling as if he might weep. Over in the corner, on a maroon love seat, Sophonie practices writing her name in a recipe book that is supposed to be for cooking.

"Why do the Cuban people have more favor than the Haiti people?" the man who cares for her says. "Because people are people. If Cuban people are allowed to stay, then Haitian people should be, too. Every day you see Elian on the TV. I think it is good for the little boy, because everybody likes him and wants to help him. But I say: Here is Sophonie, a little girl from Haiti. She is here now. And she does not have a mother, just as Elian does not have his. I think surely somebody is going to help her now.

Don't you think?" But he seems more worried than convinced.

Sophonie Telcy -- motherless, adrift, in the eyes of the law an illegal alien -- is not Elian Gonzalez, and everybody knows it.

She is just Sophonie. She sings in the children's choir at church. She has a blue Cookie Monster. She wants to be a doctor someday.

"They had an hour-and-a-half about Sophonie last night on the Haitian radio," Henry Smith says hopefully. But he knows it is not the same. "How do I get her on CNN?"

It is hard to find a speck of resentment about Elian in the Haitian neighborhoods that dot South Florida. Ti gason, the boy -- God help him, everybody says.

But what, they ask, about Sophonie?

Why all this attention for a Cuban boy and not a Haitian girl? Why is it easier for Cubans to settle here? Is it fair that the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 grants them special status? If you are Cuban and here in the U.S. for a year and a day, and if you have seen the people at the immigration office, you are virtually guaranteed permanent residency. Not so for Haitians. If you are Haitian, you are virtually guaranteed to be sent home.

"Is it fair?" This is the talk over plates of fish and rice, over dominoes, over fence lines and cash registers at the grocery stores.

On April 4, Congressman Hastings, D-Miramar, put the feelings down on paper when he filed a House bill "for the relief of Sophonie Telcy."

He modeled it, precisely and purposefully, after one of the bills filed on Elian's behalf. It is only a few paragraphs long. It asks that Sophonie Telcy be granted permanent residency in the U.S.

In the accompanying news release, Hastings spoke plainly about the "patently disparate treatment of refugees from different countries."

And then he zipped about, talking up Sophonie's case on every talk show that would have him.

"In my view," his voice boomed from his car phone between appearances last week, "Sophonie Telcy is in a worse position than Elian Gonzalez.

"She doesn't have a mother. She doesn't have a father who wants to receive her. She doesn't have relatives here who want to care for her. It's an incredible situation.

"And here is Elian, who has a father who wants him back in Cuba, and relatives who want him here. So who is worse off? You answer. It's not rocket science."

So here is Hastings, who represents some 40,000 Haitians in his district.

And here is Sophonie, who last week in school drew a picture of a robot with pink and orange hair, oblivious to her symbolic role in U.S. immigration affairs. Everybody knows how Elian got to be famous. But how did Sophonie get to be almost-famous?

As is so often the case in Haitian immigrant matters, the Creole airwaves were involved. Somebody from Hastings' office spoke with Daniella Henry, executive director of the Haitian American Community Council in Delray Beach. She went on a Creole radio station, WHSR-AM, to inquire for the congressman whether anybody knew of a young Haitian child orphaned or abandoned in the U.S. without the proper residency documents.

About 60 seconds went by. "Then my office filled with calls," Henry says. So did the congressman's. One call came from Henry Smith, who just happened to be listening to the radio when Daniella Henry came on with her plea to find a Haitian Elian.

Henry and Jeanine Smith have not been in this country so long themselves. The taste of struggle is still in their mouths. Six years ago, they were aboard a refugee boat from Haiti that was intercepted by the Coast Guard. They were rerouted to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they told their story of political persecution -- Henry Smith had supported ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and was now in danger -- and won asylum. They moved to South Florida, built a life, had children, found jobs. Now, Henry works in construction, and Jeanine cleans hotel rooms. On her days off, she tutors Sophonie and her two older daughters, Roubnide, nearly 5, and Loudia, just 4, in their schoolwork. Jeanine was a teacher back in Haiti -- and you do not forget your profession just because you hold a washrag in the U.S.

This was the Smith family history, so when Henry Smith heard the radio, he remembered Haiti and he remembered his voyage and he remembered his promise to Sophonie's mother. He called Hastings' office.

"I have Sophonie. Can you help her?"

The congressman sent an aide to Lake Park. He took down the story: How Sophonie's mom brought her young daughter illegally to the U.S. in the late 1990s. How her mother had a terrible pain in her stomach but no medical insurance. How she decided to return to Haiti last spring to see a doctor, but first asked Henry, an old friend from church in Port-au-Prince, to take care of Sophonie. How Sana Romelus died in Haiti, and when Henry Smith heard, he sent for her death certificate.

Soon after Alcee Hastings heard this story, he introduced the name Sophonie Telcy to the American public via House Resolution 4179, which was referred to the Committee on Judiciary in the 106th Congress, 2nd Session.

And Sophonie got her picture in the paper. She looked beautiful with two little braids that stuck straight up. At Lake Park Elementary, all the teachers said, "Oh, my, we had no idea. And then they wondered: "How many other Sophonies do we have here?"

Some things Henry and Jeanine Smith want for Sophonie they cannot have. Health insurance, for instance. And a Social Security number, so they can sign her up for the after-school program at the Bright Futures child development center down the street. Roubnide and Loudia go there, and some day the baby, Cyndia, might, too. But they have Social Security numbers. They are citizens.

"We would love to have Sophonie here," says Wanda Doby, who owns Bright Futures. "It's just a matter of the papers. It seems it always happens like this. When the Haitians come over, we have a problem getting them here legally. And with Cubans, it's a whole different story."

Last spring, after Sophonie's mother dropped her at Henry Smith's door, Sophonie seemed sad for a long time. For perhaps three months, she cried. Then she made friends with Roubnide and Loudia, and she grew attached to Henry, whom she sometimes calls Dad, and to Jeanine, who is like a mother to her now, in the way Elian's cousin Marisleysis became mother to him. Now, most days, she seems happy, as she puts on her Minnie Mouse sneakers and straightens her hair for school.

One thing, though.

The bill to grant her residency doesn't stand much of a chance. Few private bills do. And up in Washington, Sophonie is not exactly a name on everybody's lips.

Still, Henry Smith is alight with hope.

"People say if Elian gets citizenship in this country, then maybe my Sophonie is going to have it, too. What do you think? Will it be all right for her?

"I think so, yes. I really do."

christine_evans@pbpost.com

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