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Life in Brazil Isn't the Paradise Haitian Immigrants Think It Will Be

Many Haitians dream of finding economic prosperity in Brazil, with the majority wanting to settle in São Paulo, a sprawling industrial center that's been absorbing migrants since the late 19th century. But for most of the newcomers, the journey there...

by Simon Benoit-Guyod
Mar 11 2014, 4:05pm

Pastor Charles preaching in his small Santa Felicidade church. Photos by Vinicius Ferreira

I looked on as Pastor Charles Antiochus, a Haitian chaplain, got ready for his Sunday sermon. His small Evangelical church is located in the heart of Santa Felicidade, a neighborhood in Curitiba, the capital of southeast Brazil's Paraná state. The area used to be home to Paraná's Italian community but has now been dubbed "Little Haiti," thanks to the approximately 500 Haitians living there, most of whom moved after the devastating 2010 earthquake in their home country.

Many Haitians dream of finding economic prosperity in Brazil, with the majority wanting to settle in São Paulo, a sprawling industrial center that's been absorbing migrants since the late 19th century. But for most of the newcomers, the journey there is rife with difficulties.

Just like hundreds of thousands of migrants before him, 22-year-old Amos D. left Haiti for Curitiba at the end of last year. "I went through a lot," Amos told me. His journey, which started in the northern Haitian city of Gonaïves and ended in Paraná, was extremely perilous. It's a route frequented by Haitian migrants who don't want to go through the tedious—but beneficial—process of applying for a humanitarian visa to Brazil and, instead, pay around $3,000 to be transported to the south of the country without legal authorization.

A balcony in Santa Felicidade, Curitiba’s “Little Haiti”

Amos first traveled to the Dominican Republic, before flying to Ecuador with a friend after a short stop in Panama. When he arrived in Quito, the Ecuadorian capital, he stayed with one of the trafficker's contacts before heading to Peru. This is where those taking this route face the greatest danger. The young Haitian told me that he spent several days holed up in a minivan with 11 other migrants.

"In Peru, Haitian migrants often have to hide in banana fields," Pastor Charles told me in front of his church. I was also told that smugglers bribe the Peruvian police, who will often rob Haitian migrants to make the deal worth their while. "Sometimes they take our money, our watches, and even our shoes," said another Haitian, who wanted to stay anonymous.

Most Haitian migrants seem to have the same goal: to arrive safely in Brazil, at Brasiléia (in the northern state of Acre) or Tabatinga (in the state of Amazonas), where they will be given a CPF (a taxpayer identification number) and a work permit that will allow them to settle in the country.  

A Haitian immigrant buying a bus ticket

The country's beautiful beaches and economic expansion are good fuel for fantasy, but life in Brazil rarely works out as the Haitian migrants picture it. For a start, the world's seventh largest economic power doesn't provide immigrants much financial security: "There are strong economic prejudices against immigrants,” explained Nadia Floriani, a lawyer and volunteer with the Latin America House in Curitiba, which provides free legal assistance to newcomers. "They're a cheap workforce."

As in other countries with large immigrant populations, this cheap workforce is frequently abused. Lucaindy, 27, worked for five months as a construction worker. “My boss, who was really keen on Brazilian cachaça [the local alcoholic drink], didn’t like Haitian workers at all," he said. And when his boss heard that Lucaindy wanted to quit, he immediately stopped paying him. Being mostly vulnerable and relatively uninformed, Haitians are easy targets; even when they work legally, their wages are too low to give them any viable financial security.

Jean, a Haitian immigrant, at the boarding school where he lives

Haitians sometimes find jobs in construction, but wages never exceed 1,000 Brazilian reals (about $430) a month. This isn't a lot, considering the costs of living have skyrocketed in the past decade.

"Wages in Brazil are extremely low,” explained Guiveny A., a Haitian who arrived in Brazil six months ago. "It’s very difficult to find a house," added Henrico Y., a mechanic who used to live in Port-au-Prince. The expensive rents and the immigrants' administrative problems make their situation even more difficult. As a result, most end up settling in the outskirts of Curitiba. Some houses host more than a dozen Haitians, who share every expense and a very restricted living space.

Members of the immigrant community also struggles to send money to relatives who've stayed in Haiti; the exchange rate isn't in their favor, because the value of the Brazilian real has stagnated and remains low compared to the US dollar. Jean, who lives in a boarding school owned by his boss, asked his family to send him money, as his waiter salary won't afford him a new home for his wife and daughter.

Benjamin M., 21, also decided to leave Curitiba to join his compatriots in Santa Felicidade. He moved to Brazil two years ago and works as a security officer. Interested in technology, Benjamin wants to open a cyber cafe and has already started buying computers.

"These wages are killing us," he told me in perfect Portuguese. But thanks to the financial support of relatives living in the United States, he can live a slightly freer life than other Haitians settled in Brazil.

Back at the church, Pastor Charles began his sermon. "Brazil, Brazil… this country has opened its doors to us," he said to the four Haitians quietly sitting in front of him. Carrying on, in a sermon mixing Creole, French, and Portuguese, he encouraged his congregation to stay hopeful that the country that welcomed them would eventually allow them to thrive.