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
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.