Asylum's the Goal

Mitch Gelman
Date Published: 

Port of Spain, Trinidad - The star goaltender on the Haitian National Soccer Team, who was refused entry into the United States along with his teammates last week, said yesterday that he will seek refugee status in Trinidad.

"I don't have any life in Haiti," the soft-spoken Jacques Roger Thomany said yesterday morning at the guest house where the team is staying in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad. "Everything there is bad for me, politically and economically."

The other 15 members of the team stranded in Port-of-Spain continued to try to get plane tickets back to Haiti. They have decided to return and face whatever repercussions the government intends for them after their failed attempt to flee to the U.S.

Haitian government officials have indicated through intermediaries that the players will not be harmed when they return, but refugee-rights leaders in Trinidad remain sceptical.

Thomany, 22, was hailed in Haiti when he stopped a penalty kick against the Dominican Republic last month. His save allowed the team to qualify for the Shell Carribean Cup, the regional tournament that brought them to Trinidad.

It was clear on Sunday afternoon that Thomany was resisting pressure by his teammates to return to Haiti with them. He stayed behind at the guest house when the rest of the team went to Queen Anne's Oval to watch the tournament finals that afternoon.

A Haitian radio reporter who came to cover the tournament, is also expected to stay in Trinidad, said Asad Mohammed, head of the Haitian Action Support Team, a refugee aid group.

Last Thursday, the team went to the U.S. Embassy as a group. When five of the players told embassy vice-counsels they wanted to stay in the United States permanently, their visa requests were refused.

"They said they had relatives in the United States and were concerned about the political problems in Haiti," said a ranking embassy official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They asked if they could have political asylum and were told they could only apply for
asylum in Haiti."

One player interviewed at the embassy said his brother had been killed by a government hit squad. "If we go back they will only find our corpses," he reportedly said. Another player told a reporter: "We are not going back to Port-au-Prince. We are soccer players, but they treat us like animals."

But when their visas were refused the players spoke in a more conciliatory manner. "We are special people in Haiti. We are stars. We never intended not to return," said one of the same players. During the past five days, the players, all in their early or mid-20s, passed time playing cards and watching television. They waited for a former coach of the team, who now lives in Miami, to raise enough money to send them back. Yesterday, the former coach, Ernst Jean-Baptiste, brought them egg sandwiches and money to get shaves. He said he did not know when they would be able to afford a flight back to Port-au-Prince.

Jean-Baptiste said the Haitian government does not want to help and that the international soccer community is embarrassed by the team because it has brought politics into the sport. Meanwhile, he said the Haitian expatriate community in the United States, which was ready to support the players as defectors, has since lost interest.

Molly Gordy contributed to this story.