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Remembering Bernard Fils-Aimé, Haitian Activist And Entrepreneur Who Died Of COVID-19

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

COVID-19 has now killed at least 167,000 Americans. Bernard Fils-Aime was a Haitian American activist who lived in Miami Beach, Fla. He co-founded the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami and was also an international entrepreneur. He died of COVID-19 on August 9. His son Karl Fils-Aime joins us now from Miami to discuss his life and his legacy.

Thank you so much for joining us.

KARL FILS-AIME: Thank you, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How is your family doing? And I'm very sorry for your loss.

FILS-AIME: You know, his loss feels pretty sudden and unexpected. So, you know, I have to be honest. It's been tough to deal with, but we're managing. And we're getting through it together as a family.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your father was a pillar of South Florida's Haitian community. Can you tell us about his activism there?

FILS-AIME: Sure. My father came to the States when he was 13 with his mother under persecution from the Duvalier regime. As a young man, he found he'd landed in a pretty xenophobic and maybe even racist environment, particularly against Haitians. As he moved on into adulthood, he developed a passion for activism around circumstances facing Haitians, both here in the States and back home under this brutal dictatorship. And early on, he realized that, you know, the forefront of that battle was going to be in Miami. And so he moved down to Miami with my mom, and they started their family.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he started a refugee center.

FILS-AIME: Yep, which was organized around getting rights for Haitians that were landing, many of them illegally, on the shores of South Florida.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me a little bit about what kind of person your father was.

FILS-AIME: My dad was incredibly warm. He was a really, really charming and charismatic guy, very humble. And he enjoyed a good glass of wine. A funny story I like to tell about, you know, his humbleness and how he was able to have a joke about himself - I was maybe 5 years old. I was a hotshot student coming home with, you know, a nice report card that you had to get signed by your parents. And at this time, I was learning how to write. And I had seen him sign documents before. And to a 5-year-old, it was just like, this guy doesn't know how to write.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

FILS-AIME: You know, I'm learning the proper way to write right now. You know, it came time to have one of my parents sign it, and he went to sign it. And I was like, no, no. It's OK. I'll have Mom sign it. He's like, what, you think your immigrant father doesn't know how to read and write English? What's the problem? And I'll tell you what - he's told me that joke and reminded me of that moment for the rest of my life. It turned into kind of a life moral. One, first of all, never doubt my father.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

FILS-AIME: But secondly, you know, you don't judge people by these exterior perceptions.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's a beautiful memory. Karl, how did your father pass? You mentioned that it was sudden. What happened exactly?

FILS-AIME: He had been sick with COVID at home. He hadn't had incredibly serious symptoms. But, you know, he had this cough that wouldn't go away. We had an oximeter, and at some point, it gave him a low reading. So my mom rushed him to the hospital, at which point - you know, at first, the treatment was going well, and he was supposed to come home. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, things took a turn for the worse. And over a period of about four or five days, it - he continued to get worse and didn't get better. And he passed (crying).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm so sorry. Karl, being the son of a man like your father, I'm wondering how you're planning on continuing that legacy of fighting for the Haitian community in the United States.

FILS-AIME: My father was an activist. He was an entrepreneur. He's been a mentor to many people. And late in his life, he was chairman of a nonprofit organization that funded talented, young, indigent Haitian people to go to college. The most fitting way that I can continue to honor his legacy is to push that mission forward and grow it so that Haiti is a country that's led by an educated class of its own people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Karl Fils-Aime in Miami. His father, Bernard Fils-Aime, recently died from COVID-19.

Thank you very much.

FILS-AIME: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.