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Haitians enjoy freedom in US, but jobs are scarce. Most are 'illegals,' but they hold on, take English classes, seek jobs, and hope to win acceptance eventually

''I think the United States is a good country. But without money, no one can do anything at all. And that's where my problem is.'' Edith Prophete is one of thousands of Haitian immigrants in south Florida who came here by boat during the past several years. She was a baker in Haiti; her father was a lawyer, and the family owned a car.

Here she and two of her children live in a substandard, two-room apartment. She is three months behind in her rent and surviving with the help of food stamps and some sewing she does.

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If she had a car, Ms. Prophete says, maybe she could land a regular job.

Most of the Haitians in this area are better off than they were before coming to the US, but they remain very poor by American standards. Their unemployment rate here is estimated to be in excess of 50 percent. Most are anxious to work, say people who have tried to help the immigrants, and they usually work hard when they find jobs.

If they have not yet achieved prosperity, many are enjoying the other part of the American dream Haitians cherish - freedom.

Haitian community leader Roger Biamby said an immigrant here told him: ''I can stand on the corner and say I don't like the President. Where else can I do that?.''

''They're freer here'' than in Haiti, says Mr. Biamby. (Haiti is an authoritarian nation with a wide domestic spy network.)

Many Haitians now in the US face possible deportation. It depends on what Congress decides to do with what a Haitian-American political activist, the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, calls ''the black boat people of America.''

Edith Prophete recalls the dangerous boat trip she took in making her illegal arrival here in l98l.

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As she sits on the edge of one of the two beds in her tiny apartment, she moves her hands up and down to indicate the motion of the waves during the trip.The mast on the boat broke at sea, and the craft was in danger of sinking, she says. A yacht stopped for them, and all 265 Haitians were crammed on board for a bruising ride to Miami.

After 40 days in an immigration detention camp she was released. She stayed at a friend's house for a time, then lived in several other apartments before moving to her present location.

Her apartment has a small stove, but no refrigerator and no heat. In her tiny living room is a radio, a tape recorder, two plastic-framed pictures of Jesus, a small floor fan, and a yellow, plastic toy truck for her children to play with. Outside, a rooster scratches in a pile of rubbish.

''If I could find something to do, I would consider the US as a paradise on earth,'' she says in her native creole, which is translated by a Haitian community worker. ''I looked for a job all over the place. I went to many agencies. Everything is so hard.'' But she is not sad as she talks. Instead, she laughs and smiles frequently.

Why did Edith Prophete come to the US? She says she and her husband were not getting along: ''I was discouraged by his attitude.'' And after the Haitian government gave her some minor responsibility in her neighborhood, some of the neighbors became ''jealous,'' she says, and began harassing her.

Ms. Prophete says she decided to leave her six children with a brother and come to the US. She would like to get permission to stay in this country, but also be able to visit her children in Haiti.

Since arriving in the US in March 1981, she has had two children. She now lives alone with them.

Jean Wanex Antoine, another Haitian living in legal limbo, left his wife and four children to come here last year. ''Whenever I relax, I think of my wife,'' he says. He misses his family. Here he has worked as a tailor but was laid off recently when the factory cut back production.

A 1982 study of Haitians living in Miami found only 20 percent married. Some 15 percent were unmarried couples.

The study also found signs of Haitians' eagerness to educate their children, something many had little opportunity to do in Haiti. Of Haitian children here between the ages of 6 and 12, more than 98 percent were in school. More than 90 percent of those aged 13 to 18 were in school.

But the study found most Haitians living on a ''pitifully low monthly income.'' Seventy-seven percent were in households with an income of no more than $250 a month.

Most Haitians interviewed for the study said they needed help training for a job, finding a job, learning English, getting transportation to a job, and in obtaining food, shelter, clothing, and health care. Yet fewer than 25 percent were receiving food stamps.

''In the Haitian culture, to be given a handout implies loss of integrity and self-respect,'' says Biamby. Haitians help one another, he says. ''That's how they are able to survive. That's why we haven't seen people out sleeping in the streets.''

Jacqueline Martelly, a Haitian-American, says Haitians help other Haitians ''even if they're not related.''

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