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Every man for himself

View-inside-the-Haitan-ShelterBy Luiza Andrade      There’s a common saying in Haiti that reads “Chak kou kou klere pou jew.” Literally, it means that each firefly can only light the path for himself. It’s a saying that represents part of the living dynamics you’ll encounter if you enter the Haitian shelter here, in Brasiléia, and I’ll tell you why.

In the past two years, entrepreneurs and company representatives from all over the Country have been coming down to the Haitian shelter to select Haitian workers to fill in job positions that have long been suffering from the Brazilians’ unwillingness to stay in what they consider to be low-paid jobs.

Around five thousand Haitians have already entered the country illegally and gotten Humanitarian Visa through this city alone. Here, after a journey that can last from 8 to 20 days, they literally sit and wait for companies to come and take them away from the shelter and into a new life.

Often without any money and generally dissatisfied with the conditions of the new shelter – a warehouse with a couple bathrooms and an artificially created well, that now houses around 500 Haitians sleeping either on old and worn out mattresses or on paper cartons folded into improvised beds – the Haitians in Brasiléia have been coming up with creative ways of making some quick cash or getting ahead. They know the competition is fierce and, so it seems, they have been teaching their new-coming friends and family to play by the shelter rules, even though it sometimes conflicts with Brazilian laws and regulations.

Thus, after gathering endless notes on my informants’ behaviors at the shelter, I have come up with an improvised “Quick guide of common strategies to survive the shelter (and make a few bucks)” guidebook, created from examples of their own experiences:


(Please note that the guidebook was created as a way of reflecting and elaborating on the strategies of my informants, not to be taken seriously as actual guidelines for survival – although for them, getting out of the shelter is a most serious concern)

1 – If someone leaves the shelter, get their mattress. You can try to sell it to newcomers.

2 – Anyone who is not a Haitian can be seen as a possible influence on the decisions of the companies. E.g.: the people who make the food; the neighbors; Luiza, the anthropology student who is often seen talking to Damião; Damião himself, the governmental agent; The American researcher who lives in Rio Branco and likes to help out; the girls at the bakery nearby, the youngsters who sometimes sell popsicles inside the shelter; anyone who comes in to make a donation; the church minister, who sometimes visits and is also often seen talking to the governmental agent.

3 – Learn to be sneaky. The strategy of swiftly placing your Identification Card (CPF) on the pockets or personal bags of the company’s staff has been known to work before. Sometimes they think they are the ones who misplaced them, and end up inviting you for an interview. It has worked, but only as far as the interview goes; not in getting the job itself.

4 – Pretend to be someone else. This strategy is specifically useful when the line of selectees is boarding the bus to leave the shelter. It almost worked once. However, they decided to check the ID cards with the people on the list, and the person had to get off the bus.

5 – Pay the price. Adding 15 dollars to “Le diligent”‘s pockets – the chief of the Haitian shelter – to be appointed as good workers to the company staff works sometimes, but fails with companies who feel uneasy at the ‘smell’ of corruption.

6 – Try lying. Making up previous professional experiences during interviews has often been tried, but fails most times.

7 – Take two plates of food from the government. You can try selling one to those who were not present when the meals were distributed. It worked a couple times, usually leaving a general feeling of hatred amongst them throughout the whole afternoon.


8 – Resell stuff. Overpriced beer and other beverages are sold to other Haitians in the shelter on a daily basis as a source of income.

9 – Make money out of newcomers. Many charge 5 dollars to register the newcomers’ entrance at the shelter. It only works if you are good friends with “Le dirigent”. Most Haitians arrive without any money though, making it difficult to profit from their lack of information.

10 – Use your skills. Job skills in doing laundry by hand and in the cosmetic industry such as hairstyling, shaving and nail modeling, can be put to use in exchange for some bucks inside the shelter. Haitians like to keep clean and look good.

Of course, not all Haitians go by the guidebook. Some even get annoyed by these strategies, which often generate all sorts of conflicts in the shelter.

Another common saying in Haiti reads “Kou pou kou Bondye ri”. The translation of it would be “God applauds reciprocity”, but in a negative sense, meaning there will always be payback, as in “An eye for an eye”. By the sound of it, it seems the Haitians would be constantly fighting in the shelter, hassling one another in an everlasting wave of conflicts.

Luckily, however, there is also a third one that goes “Nou gen memwa kout”. This one, literally “We have short memory”, represents the dynamics of the day after, when conflicts are left aside, and strategies are brought back into the game, with no serious harm done.


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