Haitian deportees start over in country they don’t recognize

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Hundreds of Haitians are scrambling to find jobs, food and housing after being deported from the U.S. to a country that is now more violent, impoverished and politically unstable than when they left almost a decade ago.

The only certainty in their new lives is a hot plate of rice and meat served at the airport before the deportees, some of them with young children, venture into the streets of Port-au-Prince and beyond as they seek shelter or await help from relatives.

Some have neither.

Claile Bazile, 35, said she doesn’t know where she and her 2-year-old son will stay once they leave the hotel room that officials temporarily set aside for some deportees. The 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck southern Haiti last month and killed more than 2,200 people also destroyed her family’s home.

“They’re out on the street,” she said of her mother, five sisters and brother.

Like thousands of other Haitians, Bazile said she left Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake because she couldn’t find a job and didn't want to be a burden to her family. Many of them traveled to Chile, where they found work that dried up amid the pandemic, prompting them to travel to Mexico in hopes of settling in the U.S.

Among them was Joseph Derilus, 33, who worked cleaning the beach for a seaside hotel near Port-au-Prince before concerns over his financial situation and worsening violence led him to find a construction job in Chile, where he lived for four years before heading to the U.S.-Mexico border. Now, he’s back in Haiti with his wife and a son who’s nearly 2 years old.

“I don’t have money. Everything is very complicated,” he said. “There’s no security in Haiti. There’s nothing.”

Haiti has long grappled with political unrest, but its problems have only worsened in recent years. Gangs control roughly a third of the Caribbean nation's capital of Port-au-Prince, where some traffic circles are littered with burned tires and other materials piled up to be used as barricades. Overcrowded, colorful buses known as tap-taps kick up dust into air already clogged with columns of dense, black smoke that rise from communities where some warehouses and police stations have been looted.

Garbage is rarely picked up, so street vendors usually burn it themselves at all hours. Dozens of children walk around barefoot, some naked, asking for food and water around the entrances of certain neighborhoods that gangs recently razed. Women often are forced to walk long distances with heavy buckets on their heads since potable water is a scarcity in much of Haiti.

Even in the more upscale parts of the capital, including Petionville, one hour of heavy rain will push garbage and rocks into the street, forcing people to stay home as rivers of dirty water flow over broken pavement.

Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who was appointed to the position just weeks after President Jovenel Moïse was killed July 7 at his private home, has pledged to help the deportees as other government officials warn that Haiti is not prepared to handle them.

The country of more than 11 million people is struggling with a spike in gang-related violence, a soaring inflation rate, dwindling job opportunities and deepening political instability. About 60% of people earn less than $2 a day, and officials worry the new migrants' needs will go unmet as they vie with other Haitians to survive.

“Our families are looking for life because their home does not offer them life,” said Haitian economist Etzer Emile. “We as citizens have a duty to work together to build a home.”

More than 320 migrants were deported to Haiti on Sunday, and another 145 arrived early Monday afternoon, according to Haiti’s Office of National Migration. Additional flights with hundreds more migrants are expected this week.

The prime minister said in a statement late Sunday he is doing everything possible to ensure political stability and strengthen the country’s economy to help improve living conditions for all Haitians, including those being expelled from the U.S.

“Despite the economic difficulties, we have decided to provide support to our brothers and sisters who will be repatriated so that they can restart their activities,” he said, without elaborating.

Henry said he has instructed local authorities and officials at embassies and consulates to investigate the deportations and assess the situation “in order to propose a quick solution to this nightmare while supporting those concerned.”

“While denouncing this inhuman situation by providing our moral support to our compatriots, we strive to cooperate with human rights organizations working on the case of these migrants,” he said.

Some migrants said they plan to leave Haiti as soon as possible to find jobs elsewhere, but they worry about how they’ll earn money to finance that plan. Others say they will take some time to settle in Haiti and see if they can find a job before making any decisions.

Rollphson Saintelous, 27, said chronic unemployment led him to leave Haiti in May 2016 after finishing his first year at the university, where he planned to study business administration.

“The country really didn’t offer me anything,” he said.

He left for Chile and found work as a ball boy on the tennis courts of a private university. But it was a job that required late hours and left him with no transportation options to return home at night, so he found a construction job and moved up in the field as he learned to become a carpenter and electrician. But those jobs also dwindled amid the pandemic, and he left for Mexico only to now find himself back in Haiti wondering how he will provide for his wife and 2-year-old daughter.

“I don’t know how to get a job, but I know that I can do anything,” he said. “I am open to doing anything.”

He will be competing with tens of thousands of other Haitians also seeking jobs, including those being deported this week, many of whom are in a daze as they try to start from scratch in a country they barely recognize.

Emmanuel Guelomme, 27, said he doesn’t know where he, his wife or 6-year-old stepson will live in upcoming weeks. His family lives in the southern coastal city of Leogane, and he’s not sure how he’ll get there or if there’s room given that his parents, sister, a nephew and several cousins share homes. He also wonders how and if they'll be able to celebrate his stepson's birthday next week.

“We’ve just arrived, and we’re not thinking clearly,” said Guelomme, who was studying to become a civil engineer but left Haiti in 2016 because he needed a job to help support himself and his family.

“I thought I could come back to Haiti as a tourist to visit my family, enjoy ourselves and go back to the U.S.," he said. "Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.”

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Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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