Local immigrants hope poor, hungry families get help


   Hunger haunts more than half of Haiti’s residents.


   The crime that goes along with living in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest

 nation is on the rise.


   Even the current government was elected under such dubious circumstances that

 foreign aid to the nation – which shares an island with the Dominican Republic –

 was frozen for two years.


   Life in Haiti has become so difficult that many former residents of the

 country said they could understand why more than 225 Haitians last month risked

 their lives to come here on a wooden boat.


   Last month, 19 who didn’t make it to shore after the boat ran aground just

 off Miami were repatriated.


   “The economy is nonexistent, inflation is extremely high, there are no jobs.

 There’s no hope. It’s like a living hell,” said Bert Jean-Louis, a Spring Valley

 resident who moved from Haiti about 25 years ago. “Just imagine, they get to a

 point where they’d rather die than stay there. They use makeshift boats, trying

 to make it over here in shark-infested waters. That says a lot.”


   Last month’s attempt to enter the United States was just one of many such

 tries made each year.


   “Things are very tough down there,” said Renold Julien, executive director of

 Konbit Neg Lakay, a Spring Valley-based center that helps Haitians and other



   While Haiti has historically suffered from a poor economy and other problems,

 many said life there had become even more difficult in the last few years.

 International aid was frozen after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his

 Lavalas Family Party was returned to office in 2000. Many international monitors

 said the vote was plagued with irregularities.


   The Organization of American States reinstituted foreign aid to Haiti in

 September, though no funds have yet been released to the nation.


   Some residents have spoken of being intimidated by members of the government

 for speaking out against the nation’s leaders.


   Poverty and unemployment are rampant. The majority of Haiti’s 7 million

 people – about 80 percent – live in poverty, according to The World Factbook

 2002 compiled by the Central Intelligence Agency. The average life expectancy in

 Haiti is 51 for women and 48 for men, according to the CIA.


   More than two-thirds of Haiti’s population is unemployed or survives on odd



   Those who do have jobs work long hours, with little time left for leisure,

 said Daniela Ducasse, a Pomona resident who moved here from Haiti in 1986 and

 has traveled back many times.


   “The people wake up at 5 a.m. and get out there, whether they have a job or

 not, just to get out there and find work,” Ducasse said. “They work 14 hours a

 day just to make ends meet.”


   Joseph Revers of White Plains moved from Haiti in 1986. His father still

 lives there and Revers said the Haitian middle class was all but nonexistent.

 Some people, he said, are wealthy – such as those who own businesses – but the

 great majority are very poor.


   “The majority of people just would like to find a job. They’d like to find an

 income,” Revers said. “Most people are out of jobs.”


   A U.S. Embassy poll last year found a large majority of Haitians would prefer

 to live in the United States.


   “It’s a small country and it’s not a rich country,” said Marie Solange

 Francois, a Spring Valley resident who moved from Haiti in 1970. “The majority

 of people in Haiti don’t have money. There’s no job for them.”


   There have been attempts to help. Last month, U.S. Rep. Benjamin Gilman,

 R-Greenville, introduced the Haitian Economic Recovery Opportunity Act. The

 proposal, which is at the moment before the House Committee on Ways and Means,

 would allow certain clothing from Haiti imported directly into the United States

 to be duty-free.


   Gilman said he introduced the legislation in the hopes that it would help

 stimulate Haiti’s economy. The congressman pointed out that the apparel industry

 employed tens of thousands of people and the earnings from those jobs helped

 support tens of thousands of others.


   While some applauded such attempts to stimulate the Haitian economy, others

 said any chance of improving the quality of life in the country would be to get

 money directly to the people rather than the government.


   “That will help the industry, but that’s a large industry. All the money that

 goes to Haiti goes to the government and the government is corrupt,” Jean-Louis

 said. “It has to go to the people. The people are dying of hunger.”


   Many Haitians living abroad try to directly help family members who remain

 behind, Julien said. He pointed to several money transfer shops that had opened

 in Spring Valley.


   “People go in order to send money back home,” he said. “The Haitian diaspora

 is the one that keeps that country going. The people who are out of Haiti are

 the ones that support it.”


   Francois said she sent money to friends and distant relatives still living in

 Haiti when she could. She praised residents there, saying their lives weren’t

 easy, but they survived as best as they could.


   “I feel for Haitians; they’re really strong because it’s hard for most of

 them,” Francois said. “It’s a beautiful country, they just are really in need of

 financial support.”


   One thing that would help, said many Haitians living here, would be to give

 Haitians similar refugee considerations that those defecting from Cuba received.


   Before last December, Haitian immigrants applying for asylum were released

 into the community while their petitions were processed. That policy was changed

 because the U.S. government feared many Haitians would attempt to come here.


   Those who made it to shore when their boat ran aground last month remain in

 detention awaiting asylum hearings.


   “Cubans that come here are treated like heroes,” Jean-Louis said. “They get

 the royal treatment. It’s not fair.”


   Revers said he didn’t know whether there was a disparity in the treatment

 received by Cubans and Haitians. However, he said leaving a home country must be

 very difficult for anyone.


   “It’s not an easy decision, I would say,” Revers said. “When people do make

 those kinds of decisions, it’s got to be because of something really difficult.”


   The Associated Press contributed information to this report.