Remembering a refugee who founded a center for those forced to flee like him

FILE -- Bernard Fils-Aim??, a left-leaning activist and a corporate cellphone tycoon, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Nov. 22, 2000. Fils-Aime, who saw the founding of Haiti's first cellular network as a way of raising the voices of ordinary citizens, died at the University of Miami Hospital on Aug. 8, 2020. He was 67. (Angel Franco/The New York Times)

Bernard Fils-Aimé dedicated his life to helping other Haitians.”Being Haitian defines my identity and self-confidence,” Fils-Aimé, an activist and entrepreneur, told Florida State Rep. Dotie Joseph in a Q&A on Facebook in May. “We fought for and won our freedom; and our culture has a depth and beauty of which any knowledgeable person could only admire and be in awe.”When Fils-Aimé moved to Florida as a refugee in the late 1970s, he co-founded the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami — and quickly became a leader in the Haitian American community. He offered legal services, and helped others who fled Haiti navigate life in the US.In 1995, after he eventually moved back to his home country, he took his efforts to help his community a step further by launched Haiti’s first cellular network Communication Cellulaire d’Haiti or ComCEL, now Violà.

Last month, Fils-Aimé died at age 67 from coronavirus, leaving his friends, family and community mourning the loss of a pillar to the Haitian American community.”My dad spent his life trying to improve the world,” his son Karl Fils-Aimé told CNN. “He was proud of his community and culture. He saw the best in people.”

Remembering his legacy

Fils-Aimé was born on May 24, 1953, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to Uranie Gabriel, a teacher, and Camile Fils-Aimé. His father, Camile, died around the time of Bernard’s birth, according to his son Karl Fils-Aimé.Fils-Aimé as a young organizer in New York. CNN has obscured portions of this image to protect people's identities.

Fils-Aimé as a young organizer in New York. CNN has obscured portions of this image to protect people’s identities.

At the age of 13, he and his mother fled Haiti due to opposing views of President Francois Duvalier, known as “Papa Doc.” Duvalier was notorious for punishing anyone who vocally opposed him.

A few years after arriving to New York, Fils-Aimé attended Columbia University where he became an activist. During his first two years there, he participated in many student protests and met his wife, Marise Piverger, while organizing an event.

Fils-Aimé standing with his three children, Karl, Gerard and Erica.

Fils-Aimé standing with his three children, Karl, Gerard and Erica.

They moved to Miami, Florida in the late 1970s and later married. The couple had three children Karl, Gerard and Erica.While in South Florida, he wanted to focus his work on Haitian refugees and created the Haitian Refugee Center to support migrants that had fled Haiti. He later finished college and earned a Masters degree in education at Florida International University before working at Miami-Dade college in the early 1990s.

Fils-Aimé in his office at Miami-Dade College.

Fils-Aimé in his office at Miami-Dade College.

“I participated in developing educational programs designed to give young men and women from disadvantaged backgrounds access to higher education in South Florida as assistant dean of students at Miami-Dade College” said Fils-Aimé to Florida Rep. Dotie Joseph in May.

Karl Fils-Aimé said his father’s passion for education was instilled in him at a young age.

“His mother, my grandmother, was a school teacher and so, you know, he was always instilled with some foundational values that really defined what he did for the rest of his life,” Karl Fils-Aimé told CNN, “and those values were around the value of education.

“In 1995, Fils-Aimé moved back to Haiti to help launch the country’s first cellular network, Communication Cellulaire d’Haiti, or ComCEL, according to Karl Fils-Aimé.

Then, after retiring in 2010, Fils-Aimé focused on philanthropy. He served as chairman of the board of Haitian Education & Leadership Program or HELP, which provide access to higher education to student from disadvantaged areas in Haiti.

“He was an amazing man, he touched a lot of people’s lives,” Karl Fils-Aimé said.

‘He was my best friend’

In July, Fils-Aimé tested positive for Covid-19, after experiencing a cough and fever, his son said.

“At first, he was at home, things were okay,” Karl Fils-Aimé said. But a few days later, his father’s symptoms became worse.

Fils-Aimé entered the hospital after having trouble breathing. Initially, the hospital treatment seemed to be working and he was stable. The day before he was expected to return home, things took a turn for the worst, his son said.

Bernard Fils-Aimé died at the University of Miami Hospital on August 8. He is survived by his wife of 41 years, Marise, their three children Gerard, Erica and Karl and his five grandchildren.

“He was a huge presence in my life, he was my best friend,” Karl Fils-Aimé said.He remembers his father as someone who always had a smile on his face, and tried to make everyone feel important in a special way.

Fils-Aimé smiling with his wife, Marise.

Fils-Aimé smiling with his wife, Marise.”He was taken from us too soon,” Karl Fils-Aimé said.


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