Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
July 8, 2004

To Haiti, With Love;
Money sent home from workers here helps families and an economy survive.

Rita Euzebe

PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti -- Rita Euzebe anxiously waited behind the metal security gate of her house Monday afternoon, scanning the street littered with rubbish and rusty cars.

The man with the money was overdue.

Earlier that day, 1,700 miles to the north, Euzebe's daughter Maryse Jean-Pierre walked into a shop in West Philadelphia's vibrant Haitian community and handed $220 over to a clerk to be wired home.

As storm clouds darkened the sky over this broken-down Caribbean capital, the courier finally arrived at Euzebe's door. He pulled out a roll of dollars from his pocket and counted out eleven $20 bills.

For Euzebe, the tiny stack of bills is a godsend in a country with a chronically pitiful economy. For economists, this transaction is part of a vast multibillion-dollar international financial flow that keeps people alive and sustains Third World economies through the exporting of cheap labor.

"Our family is large, and this is a difficult time in Port-au-Prince," said Euzebe, 65. "We need to buy rice and cooking oil, and the propane for the stove is finished. Some of our family in the countryside are suffering, and I will send some of this money to them."

The first $20 bill from Philadelphia began circulating through Haiti's economy the next morning. Euzebe sent her brother, Erold, to a crowded store in the neighborhood to bring home 55 pounds of rice and a gallon of corn oil.

Immigrants and migrant workers send more than $100 billion a year to their home countries, and the total is growing fast, experts say. In Latin America and the Caribbean, where $38 billion in remittances originate mostly from the United States, the money sent home amounts to four times official development aid, according to the U.S. State Department.

The man from the money remittance agency counts the cash for Rita Euzebe.

"I don't think you can underestimate the impact those remittances have on Haiti," said Anne H. Hastings, director general of Fonkoze, a nonprofit agency that provides banking services for the poor. "Literally, people are being kept alive with this money."

Haiti, a nation of eight million people frequently cited as the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, is considered the world's most dependent nation on remittances. Haiti receives about $900 million a year from expatriates sending money home - a quarter of the nation's GDP.

There are approximately 6,000 immigrants from Haiti living in the Philadelphia area, mostly in West Philadelphia and Olney. Northern New Jersey is tied with Massachusetts in having the third-largest concentration of Haitian immigrants, behind Florida and New York.

'Very visible'

Immigrants from around the world have sent money back to their families for generations. But in recent years, migration has increased and the ability to monitor the financial flows has improved.

"These flows are now very visible and recognized by central banks," said Pedro de Vasconcelos, the remittance coordinator of the Inter-American Development Bank's Multilateral Investment Fund in Washington.

Big countries such as Mexico and India receive the largest flows of cash from workers - about $10 billion a year. But remittances have a greater impact on smaller, more impoverished countries such as Haiti. Support from migrant laborers is responsible for more than 10 percent of the gross domestic product of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Jamaica, according to the International Monetary Fund.

'Dig deep to help'

Haiti is truly one of the world's basket cases, with practically a subsistence economy. Overpopulated and depleted of natural resources, its central government in disarray, Haiti exports little other than its labor. Its trade deficit is $700 million, which means that much of the money sent home to Haiti goes right back to the United States to pay for the nation's imports.

"It's poor people sending money to poor people," said de Vasconcelos. "Without remittances, some countries would fall apart. Haiti, you can bet on that."

Remittances often help ease nations through economic emergencies. After Haiti's government fell in February amid a rebel uprising, cash transfers increased dramatically. When Argentina's economy collapsed in 2001, Argentine expatriates came to the rescue.

"In times of crisis, people really dig deep to help back home," said Kevin O'Neil, a researcher for the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.

In Port-au-Prince, nearly every block contains an office of a money-transfer agent, underscoring the central role remittances play in the economy. So many customers have American greenbacks that many grocery stores accept foreign currency as readily as Haitian money.

Most Haitians accept the heartbreaking reality that their loved ones must go away to find work. "There are no jobs here and few social institutions that provide for Haitians," said Rita Euzebe, the Port-au-Prince woman whose daughter lives in Philadelphia. "This is sad, but you can't do anything."

In the last decade, three of Euzebe's five children have migrated to Philadelphia. Maryse Jean-Pierre, at 38 the eldest daughter, left Haiti in 1994 as a political refugee - the family are supporters of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted in a military coup in the early 1990s.

Jean-Pierre's story is the classic immigrant's tale of hard work and sacrifice. Barely able to speak English when she arrived, she first worked as a nanny for Haitian women while she studied English and computers at Community College of Philadelphia. Within a year after her arrival, she began sending money back to her family.

Later she found a job as a caseworker for several social-service agencies, including the Haitian Community Center. She and the center's director, Frantz Latour, now have two young children and live in a two-story rowhouse in Upper Darby. Jean-Pierre's younger sister and a brother, who are students, also share the home.

"Every Haitian in America has someone to send money to in Haiti," said Jean-Pierre. "If you don't have a family, you have a close friend who needs help."

Jean-Pierre said she tried to send money every month, typically about $200 each time. The money comes from her $350 weekly salary.

She also tries to visit Haiti every year or so, each time cramming her luggage with gifts of hams, diapers and clothing. When times are very difficult in Haiti, she fills a 55-gallon cardboard drum with canned food, bags of rice and clothing, and sends it by a Miami shipper directly to her family in Port-au-Prince.

On Monday morning, while most of her family was still asleep, Jean-Pierre dressed in a matching shirt and pants and made her way to the Caribbean Island Shop on 63d Street in West Philadelphia - about a five-minute drive from her house. The cramped one-room shop sells Haitian music and provides tax-preparation and immigration services.

Mario Aleus, a Haitian native who co-owns the shop, is an agent for the Vigo Remittance Corp., one of the licensed companies that specializes in cross-border transfers.

Aleus charges her $18 to send the money to Haiti. Jean-Pierre is sardonic about handing over the cash.

"You see, it's like flushing money away," she said. "You're sending, and sending and sending, nonstop. You're just not getting anything back."

Five hours later (2:40 p.m. in Port-au-Prince), the courier working for the transfer agent in Port-au-Prince scaled the stone steps outside Euzebe's home in the neighborhood of Carre Four-Feuille.

Euzebe's rented six-room flat is a testament to the benefits of remittances. By Haitian standards, she leads a middle-class life. Euzebe has a stereo, a television and a refrigerator - though there is no electrical power during the day. She has a wind-up radio for when there is no power.

"We bought these things with the money Maryse sent us," said Euzebe.

She tries not to spend all the money at once. Some is parceled out to relatives according to Maryse's instructions. A little is hidden away for emergencies.

For Euzebe, the most profitable investment she made was decades ago, when her children were young. In a nation with no Social Security system and few pensions, children are expected to support their family.

"It costs a lot to educate a child in Haiti," Euzebe said. "You have to work very hard. When I helped them with their education, I considered it like putting money into a savings account. My children are my bank account."  

Inquirer staff writer Susan Snyder contributed to this article. home page   
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