One Haitian family tries for the Brazilian dream

Wesley and his family arrived in Brasileia like most of the other Haitians: Tired, hungry, and with no money after being scammed in Peru and Bolivia.


    The Saint-Fluer family is living in a bathroom in a once abandoned hotel in the dusty Amazon border town of Brasileia, Brazil.

    There is dad Wesley, his wife Angeline, and their five-month-old baby, Isaac.

    The bathroom is about the size of a closet. The only natural light or fresh air comes from a few small square openings near the ceiling.

    [Watch the video version of this story here]

    The twin-size mattress is on the floor of the shower, the tiny sink holds some of their personal belongings, like toothpaste and soaps, and a few suitcases with everything else they own are piled on top of each other in one corner.

    There is a faint smell of urine and mould that won’t go away.

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    [The HB Hotel Brasileia, where the Saint-Fluer family live. Photo: Gabriel Elizondo/Al Jazeera]

    But Wesley is a proud man, and trying to stay strong for the family.

    “We are more or less surviving,” Wesley said.

    They are from Haiti, and one of about 1,100 Haitians who entered Brazil without a visa and are now currently living in Brasileia, while they await work documents to be processed.

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    [Wesley, Isaac, and Angeline in Brasileia, Brazil. Photo: Maria Elena Romero/Al Jazeera]

    As we are sitting in the bathroom on the floor, Wesley looks around and tells me in his soft spoken voice: “If people only knew how I used to be.”

    Back in Haiti, Wesley was a successful small businessman, crossing into the Dominican Republic regularly to buy household products to re-sell in his city of Gonaives.

    He shows me dozens of Dominican Republic stamps in his passport, his way of proving he was a proud working man.

    By Haitian standards, he was very middle class. He had a home, business, and his children were well-dressed, going to school, and had enough means to never miss a meal.

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    [Haitians in Brasileia are given three meals a day, courtesy of the state government. Photo: Gabriel Elizondo/Al Jazeera]

    But in 2008 a hurricane roared over land and destroyed all they had in Gonaives.

    So the family picked up and moved to Port-au-Prince to start over, which they did. For Wesley, it was all about providing for his kids. They were rebounding.

    But then January 12, 2010, happened. The earth shook violently and Wesley’s house crumbled like so many others in what was one of the largest disasters in human history.

    Wesley tried in vain to rebuild again, but with the country in ruins there was no hope to restart his business and life, he said.

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    [Damiao Borges, an official from the human rights office in Acre state, is almost single-handedly caring for the Haitians while they wait for work documents in Brasileia. Photo: Gabriel Elizondo/Al Jazeera]

    So they moved to Ecuador a few months ago looking for work, leaving behind two young daughters with elderly parents.

    “Daddy and mommy have to leave to find work, but God willing, we’ll be back soon,” Wesley told them.

    Isaac was born in Ecuador.

    “Brazil was always our emergency plan,” Angeline said.

    Desperate to provide for their children back in Haiti, they crossed into Brazil illegally, knowing once they stepped foot in this country they would not be deported and would be able to get work documents.

    “We came to Brazil because we heard it was a good country and Brazil loves the Haitian people,” Wesley told me. “Also, Brazil has a lot of job opportunities. We can come here to work and have a better life and rebuild what was destroyed by the hurricane and the earthquake. We are just here to restart a new life and to grow again.”

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    [Jacksin Etienne, a Haitian immigrant, holding up his card that allows him to work in Brazil. Photo: Gabriel Elizondo/Al Jazeera]

    Wesley and his family arrived in Brasileia like most of the other Haitians: Tired, hungry, and with no money after being scammed in Peru and Bolivia. Wesley and a group of 30 other Haitians he was travelling with were robbed at gunpoint in Bolivia by men he thinks were from the Bolivian military because they were wearing uniforms.

    Wesley said they were put up against a wall and stripped searched - including the women – and forced to turn over all their money and valuables before being let go.

    “They searched everything, took all the money, even my little radio I had,” Wesley said.

    There are also stories of Haitian women being raped, but none wanted to talk about it.

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    [A young Haitian musician in Brasileia who has dreams of studying music in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Gabriel Elizondo/Al Jazeera]

    So here they are: Now living in the bathroom in the HB Hotel Brasileia, which has a capacity for about 100 people, but on any given day is holding 400 to 700 Haitians, many living 10 to a room.

    They are waiting up to four weeks to have their work documents processed to be able to work.  Until then, all they can do is kill time.

    The state government of Acre is opening up rooms in local hotels or rundown homes for migrants to stay free of charge. The local government is also providing three meals a day, to avoid people going hungry.

    But Acre is a remote state that borders Bolivia and Peru. It has a population of only 732,000 and makes up 0.2 per cent of the Brazilian GDP. The town of Brasileia, with a population of about 21,438, is not equipped with the services or infrastructure to handle mass migration, so the state is stepping in with the resources it can to try to help.

    Last week the Brazilian government, likely fearing a humanitarian emergency in Brasileia, announced that the Haitians currently in the country illegally would be granted work visas, and more than 2000 already have. But from now, the new law stipulates, Haitians arriving in Brazil without a visa would not be allowed in and could be deported. Brazil said they will start issuing 100 visas a month from the embassy in Port-au-Prince.

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    [The number of Haitians in Brasileia has gone from 200-300 back in May when Al Jazeera first visited, to almost 1,200 today. The number of Haitians in Brasileia is likely to diminish with the new laws. Photo: Gabriel Elizondo/Al Jazeera]

    This week Brazilian federal police started tightening patrols along the triple border region of Brazil, Peru and Bolivia to deter illegally crossings.

    Despite the conditions, Wesley says once their work papers are processed he will immediately try to find a job. All the Haitians here say the same thing: “All we want to do is work. We are grateful to Brazil for the opportunity.”

    But Wesley is still worried. His two girls back in Haiti are hungry he said, and his girls never went hungry before. Just thinking about it, hurts, Wesley said.

    Do you regret coming to Brazil?

    No, Wesley says, despite living in a bathroom with his family, he is grateful Brazil is accepting him.

    “We came here because we are looking for something better,” Wesley told me. “We lost everything in Haiti. We were in the streets without anything in our hands. So as an emergency plan we came here to see if tomorrow Brazil can offer us a better future.”

    On my last day in Brasileia, Wesley and Angeline were informed they had an appointment to sign paperwork, meaning the work documents would be ready within 48 hours.

    For the appointment, Wesley took off his baseball cap and put on his best slacks and collared shirt and held Isaac in one arm.  

    Angeline put on a little make-up, and put on her nicest shirt, a well-ironed white T-shirt with a Brazilian flag on front under the words: “Eu Sou Brasileira.”

    I am Brazilian.

    Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel

    Video by Maria Elena Romero



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