SÃO PAULO, Brazil – January will always hold a special place in the hearts of Josias Mirvil, 33, and Genica Thelemaque, 32.
For this Haitian couple, the first month of the year represents a turnaround in their lives.
In January 2010, they saw Gonaïves, the Haitian city where they lived, get rocked by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake.
Two years later, Mirvil and Thelemaque restarted their lives – hundreds of miles from their native country.
On Jan. 16, the couple arrived in the Brazilian coastal city of Navegantes, in the southern state of Santa Catarina, with guaranteed employment and housing.
Mirvil and Thelemaque are among the 17 Haitians hired by Santa Catarina builder and developer Inbrasul.
Mirvil is a carpenter who learned the trade while working for a humanitarian aid organization. Thelemaque cooks and cleans the 10-room house the company rents to new employees.
Alexandre Dias, a partner at Inbrasul and its executive director, learned about the situation the Haitians in his country were facing through media reports. Without knowing whether he would find immigrants qualified to work in construction, he traveled to Brasileia, in Northern Acre state.
The city of Brasileia, about 237 kilometers (147 miles) from the state capital of Rio Branco, has become a temporary home to a large contingent of illegal Haitian immigrants.
Dias arrived in Brasileia intent on hiring 10 workers. But after hearing the Haitians’ heartbreaking stories, he hired 17.
“They’re people who already have construction experience but who need training from our company,” Dias says. “The processes used in Haiti are very different from the ones we use here.”
Since electricity is a luxury item in Haiti, many of the tools are manual, as it’s normal for carpenters to uses manual saws instead of the much more powerful and efficient electrical ones, Dias says.
Special visa for Haitians
Mirvil and Thelemaque initially arrived illegally in Peru after residing for a short time in Ecuador. But without a Brazilian work visa and lacking the qualifications to apply for student visas, the couple hired a coyote – a person whom illegal immigrants pay to smuggle them into a country – who got them into Brazil.
On Jan. 12, the Brazilian government introduced a special work visa – issued for humanitarian reasons – to curb illegal migration and facilitate legal immigration by Haitians. It is the first of its kind in the country’s history.
With this new visa, Haitians no longer need proof of employment to immigrate to Brazil.
All that’s required to obtain the visa, which is issued only by the Brazilian Embassy in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, are a few basic documents, including one signifying a clean criminal record. The National Immigration Council (CNIg), which created the visa, said only 1,200 could be issued annually.
“That figure is an estimate of the demand,” said Paulo Sérgio de Almeida, CNIg’s president. “We took into account the number of visas issued by the Brazilian embassy in Port-au-Prince and the average number of Haitians arriving per month since the January 2010 earthquake.”
If demand grows, CNIg will discuss increasing the annual number of visas.
Since the introduction of the visa, the government has cracked down on illegal immigrants, deporting those who enter the country through the states of Acre and Amazonas, which serve as a gateway into Brazil.
On the day Mirvil and Thelemaque started working legally in Brazil, about 100 Haitians were prevented from entering the country illegally.
No more coyotes
Almeida says the main goal of President Dilma Rousseff’s administration for the new visa is to impede the work of coyotes.
Not only do the middlemen charge high prices to bring Haitians to what is promised to be a land of opportunities, they also expose the immigrants to dangerous and degrading situations.
That was the case for Mirvil and Thelemaque. Their journey from Gonaïves to Navegantes was long. In April 2010, Mirvil left Haiti, home to little employment and about 500,000 homeless.
Mirvil moved to Ecuador, where he worked for 15 months, saving his income for his wife’s expenses so they could be together.
But the work in Ecuador wasn’t steady. He also was surprised by stories he heard of opportunities in Brazil, a country that held a soft spot in his heart.
Since 2004, Brazilians have led the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH).
“Brazil brought help to Haiti,” Mirvil said. “Brazilians have good hearts. They’re tolerant: black, brown and white are all equal here.”
Once they were both in Ecuador, the couple decided to try life in Brazil. Mirvil and Thelemaque paid a coyote and crossed into Iñapari, the Peruvian city that shares a border with Bolivia and the Brazilian state of Acre.
Once in the small town of Assis, Brazil, on the Brazilian side of the border, they made their way to Brasileia, where they spent three months waiting for their Brazilian Taxpayer Identification numbers (CPF), which enabled them to be employed legally.
“A lot of Haitians come to Brasileia because it’s the regional city with the most services,” such as acquiring a CPF and working papers, says Nilson Mourão, the state director of Justice and Human Rights in Acre.
The Acre government estimates it has already spent about R$1.5 million (US$850,000) for the housing, feeding and caring of Haitian immigrants.
Given Brazil’s gross domestic product (GDP) – R$3.67 trillion (US$2.08 trillion) in 2010 – the amount is negligible, but not for the state of Acre.
The state has the second lowest GDP (R$7.4 billion, US$4.19 billion) among all 26 Brazilian states and the Federal District. And 7.8% of the population lives in extreme poverty.
The city of Tabatinga, in the neighboring state of Amazonas, has also served as a destination for many Haitians illegally entering Brazil.
Saul Nunes, the mayor of the small Amazonas municipality, said during an interview with TV Globo’s “Jornal Nacional” evening news program: “In Tabatinga, 20% of the population lives below the poverty line. So, if I have to prioritize, I’m going to give priority to the local people of Tabatinga.”
Government distributes tons of food
In addition to creating the new visa, the Brazilian government has announced several measures to help the 4,000 Haitians who have already immigrated to Brazil in the past two years.
One of them was the distribution of 13 tons of food, which was deposited in a National Supply Company (CONAB) warehouse in Porto Velho, the capital of the state of Rondônia and 580 kilometers (360 miles) from Brasileia.
On Jan. 19, the Ministry of Health transferred R$1.5 million (US$850,000) to Acre that will go toward funding the Haitian immigrants’ vaccinations and medical treatment.
“The fact that the state is poor doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pursue humanitarian action,” Mourão says “[The Haitians] can’t arrive and not be treated with a modicum of dignity.”
In an article published on the website of the Missão Paz Organization, which brings together a number of social initiatives, Helion Póvoa Neto criticized the use of the word “invaders” by a national newspaper in reference to the Haitians.
Póvoa Neto, who serves as the coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Center for Immigration Studies at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, wrote: “The use of the term ‘invaders’, when applied to immigrants, denotes hostility and contributes to fostering xenophobia and should therefore be avoided.”
Inbrasul Dias said there is no reason to be hostile toward the Haitians, as there are enough jobs available for Brazilians and Haitians in several sectors and states, most notably in the construction industry in the southern and southeastern states.
“I had a ‘Help Wanted’ sign up in front of the business for six months,” Dias says.
Among the 52 employees working on Inbrasul projects, 99% weren’t born in Santa Catarina. The majority migrated from the neighboring states of Paraná and Rio Grande do Sul.
“The region has always been characterized by the fishing and shipping industries,” Dias says. “In our business [construction], there’s a lack of manpower. Since we opened the company, four years ago, we’ve been working with teams that are smaller than the projects required.”
To attract and retain skilled workers from other states, the company realized it should offer housing assistance.
“We don’t have the wherewithal to offer a house to every family. In the case of the Haitians, they were already sharing houses,” Dias says.
The company offered a 10-room house for the 17 Haitians it hired.
The integration of the Brazilian workers with their new colleagues has been smooth, Dias says.
“At 8:30 am, the workers on the job stop for a coffee break,” Dias says. “We told the Haitians to bring fruit or a sandwich as a snack for the break. But they didn’t understand. When we showed up, the other employees were sharing their coffee and bread with their new colleagues.”
New life begins
Thelemaque and Mirvil had their first day at work on Jan. 18.
They make R$737 (US$417) monthly, the starting pay for helpers in the region and slightly higher than the national minimum wage of R$622 (US$352).
Mirvil still doesn’t know how much life will cost in his new home in Santa Catarina, and he doesn’t know whether he and his wife will be able to save any money each month.
But he’s happy to be living in Brazil.
Mirvil and Thelemaque dream of bringing their children – ages 5, 9 and 11 – who are living with their maternal grandmother and an uncle in Haiti, to Brazil.
But Mirvil doesn’t know when the family will be united.
His new life is only beginning.
Coming Jan. 27: Infosurhoy.com will publish an exclusive interview with Paulo Sérgio de Almeida, the president of the National Immigration Council (CNIg), who discusses Brazil’s special visa it issues to Haitian immigrants.