Over the past two weeks, Wall Street has been coping with a financial catastrophe. Thousands of New Yorkers have lost their jobs and those who haven’t are worried about the economic fallout. But since August, the city’s Haitian community has been worrying about a disaster of a different kind. Haiti has been hit by three hurricanes and a tropical storm in a span of three weeks. That has left Haitians in New York doing all they can to help relatives back home as many of them struggle to make ends meet in a worsening economy.
Pierre Zamor hails from Jacmel. His family tells him the crops are ruined. “The banana plants and the food are gone,” he says. Zamor lost his construction job six months ago, and now tries to make enough money to survive in New York and send money home by picking up odd jobs. At a popular coffee shop on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn he sat with fellow Haitian construction workers talking about the problems facing Haiti. “I send food,” Zamor says, “but it’s not enough. It’s hard for me too.” Without a steady job, he says, he’s just getting by. “One day you have, one day you don’t.”
City Councilor Mathieu Eugene, who helped organize a food and clothing drive for victims of the hurricanes, acknowledges that Haitians in New York have been hard hit by the faltering economy. “Haitians want to realize the American Dream. They want to have a house,” but he said, “a lot, a lot of Haitian homeowners are going into foreclosure.”
Nonetheless he has received many calls from constituents asking how they can help. Eugene says Haitians have responded spontaneously. “We are blessed and fortunate to be in the United States; in Haiti,” he says, “they have nothing.” The recent storms have left 800,000 people homeless and killed approximately 800.
At the best of times, Haitians depend on the generosity of relatives overseas who sent back $1.65 billion in 2006, according to a study commissioned by the Inter-American Development Bank. That’s equivalent to 35 percent of the country’s gross national product. The study’s author, Sergio Bendixen, found that Haitians as a group send money back at a higher rate than any other nationality. These transfers are a lifeline for millions in Haiti where the U.N. estimates most people earn less than $1 a day, and where earlier this year, riots brought on by food shortages forced the resignation of Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis.
Over $1 billion of those annual remittances come from Haitians in the U.S. In Brooklyn, many Haitians who want to send food and money back come to the corner of Lloyd Street and Church Avenue in the heart of Flatbush’s Haitian district. There, three money transfer stores vie for their business. On a recent weekday, a steady stream of people made their way on foot and by car to line up at the counters of CAM, Unitransfer and Soca Transfer to send help to loved ones in need. As the day progressed, the lines grew as people came from their jobs.
Yolette (who wouldn’t give her last name), walked out of Unitransfer with her two daughters, holding a receipt for the rice and $150 in cash she had sent to Haiti. Yolette said that she and the other customers had just been talking about their fears that too often, donations sent to Haiti are stolen by crooked officials. Sending money and supplies through money transfer stores, she said, was one way to avoid that. Yolette was taking no chances, she had arranged for a friend, a police officer in the capital, Port-au-Prince, to pick up the food and money and deliver it to people in Gonaives. The town of 300,000, which experienced the worst of the flooding, has been devastated.
Those donations were in addition to the drive she and her sister are organizing at their church, Saint Jerome. There, congregants are filling dromes, or barrels, with small packets of rice, oil and toiletries to be shipped to Haiti.
People who work at the money transfer stores say donations have increased since the hurricanes started battering Haiti in August, despite the declining economic fortunes of many Haitians in the city. William Regis is the manager of Soca Transfer, which sits directly across the street from Unitransfer. “They are getting calls from family. People are sending more,” Regis says. “Every week they compromise themselves. Instead of sending once a month, they are sending two or three times a month, even if it’s just a little more.” But many Haitians express a gnawing anxiety that as hard as they are trying, it’s not enough.
Jean Claude Denis’ office sits directly above Unitransfer. As a tax preparer and financial planner, Denis is well aware of the tough times many of his Haitian clients are facing. He too has been hit to by the mortgage crisis. “I invested in a property in Georgia,” he says, “it’s been empty for four months.” Denis, who has friends in Gonaives that he hasn’t heard from in weeks, says, “If I was doing better, I’d give more. If I had the money, I’d collect supplies and bring them myself.”
Although he has been in the United States for 30 years, Denis is among the many Haitians whose deep ties to home and desire to help haven’t faded with time. For a couple of years, Denis and a partner, Pierre-Joseph Cadet, have been helping raise funds for Korebel, a community service organization in Bel-Air, a slum in Port-au-Prince. But Cadet says hard economic times in New York have forced Korebel to cut back on its programs. “We used to feed hundreds of kids and seniors; we had to stop feeding the seniors. We bought land to build a medical center, but we don’t have enough money to build it.”
Cadet, who works in construction, says business has been down since last Christmas. But he says he can’t let that reduce how much he sends home, even with two children in college. “I cut my budget,” he says, “I spend less here, so I can send as much as I can. They need it more than I do.”