I had first met J.D. two years after the 2010 earthquake – he had been my assigned interpreter when I worked in Port-au-Prince as a physician volunteer. He never spoke of the event that that killed hundreds of thousands and left a million people homeless including his family. I was immediately struck by how his clothes were immaculate despite still living in a tent (where did he wash and how did he iron them I wondered). What impressed me more though was the quiet genius of the gaunt young man who studied chess strategy in his free time. While I managed my email inbox or surfed the web during breaks, he would pull out a photocopied textbook from his backpack and read intently. He was fluent in Kreyol, French, English, and was even teaching himself Spanish. One day he had casually mentioned to me that he dreamed of being a physician, and I in turn pretended to not hear him. In reality, my heart sank and I was speechless. I could envision no situation in which he could return to school and continue on to university and medical studies while simultaneously being responsible for his two young daughters.
Long before the earthquake, fate had cursed J.D. when he was forced to drop out of school in 9th grade because his father could not afford school fees and needed him to contribute to the household. Unsurprisingly, opportunities had been limited since then due to his lack of formal education. When the Haitian capital was flattened on January 12, 2010 he was already struggling financially, having to live apart from his wife and two daughters who had moved in with his in-laws. Miraculously no one was hurt. The more time that elapsed since the disaster, as not-for-profits no longer required many interpreters, the more infrequent work became. Sadly, I learned quickly in Port-au-Prince and in rural areas alike that many Haitians shared in his misery. Talented multilingual Haitians would consistently approach us and implore us to hire them as their interpreters, drivers or “fixers.”
While jobs are being created in Haiti (eg. TOMS shoes has opened a new factory) they are a small fraction of what is required to address the raging 70% unemployment rate that is estimated in the country. Even though so called free trade zones with clothing factories have sprouted up in select locations, families often cannot uproot themselves and move from what little social support or security they may have. Additionally, debate continues as to whether such jobs are anything more than sweat shops where workers cannot earn a livable wage.
Speaking to Haitians it becomes clear that although charity, support from not-for-profits, and the work of well meaning volunteers are all imperative in protecting endangered people, what Haiti really need is jobs. Haitians are ready, able and eager to work and desire a sustainable means to support their loved ones. Haitian President Martelly has attempted to lure foreign investment by stating that Haiti is “open for business,” and Bill Clinton, a staunch advocate for Haiti said he envisions it “building back better.” There are mantras – and then there is the reality four years after the tragedy faced by many everyday Haitians who have again somehow been left out and left behind. It remains to be seen if Haiti can truly capitalize on its proximity to the US, a “cheap” labor force, and an untapped tourism industry hinging on the same magnificent Caribbean coastline that its neighbors have exploited. What is certain though is the tremendous stress faced by ordinary people like J.D. who are left to navigate with uncertainty, negotiate constant challenges, and overcome daily hurdles unimaginable to those of us living elsewhere.
Varun Verma, St Marc Haiti 3/2014