In early 2010 a devastating earthquake changed the history of Haiti. The Caribbean island nation, a former French colony and the first black republic in the world, was razed to the ground. The catastrophe, which hit the capital Port-au-Prince and the entire surrounding region, claimed the lives of over 200,000 people and left approximately 1.5 million Haitians homeless.
Since then, the survivors have had a tough time trying to piece back together their lives in one of the poorest countries on the plant. Swathes of Haitians have been forced to leave their families behind and seek opportunities overseas. Many have found the chance of a new start in Brazil, working on the preparations for the 2014 FIFA World Cup™, with the added bonus of learning skills that will one day help them reconstruct their own country.
Haitians are commonplace on the construction site of the Arena da Baixada stadium, in Curitba, which is being refurbished and enlarged to host World Cup games. A total of 65 employees from the country are working to complete the venue that will hold four matches at the tournament. The majority of them are labourers.
Getting to Brazil was far from easy. As well as the distance, the new residents also faced obstacles to entry into the country. The usual route involves travelling through the Dominican Republic, Panama, Peru and Colombia, before disembarking in Brazil at Tabatinga in the Brazilian State of Amazonas. On the Brazil-Colombia border (Leticia-Tabatinga), the immigrants await the documentation they need to work.
Among the Haitians in Curitiba, one stands out from the rest. Site foreman Arnold Virgil arrived in Brazil at the start of 2011 and has already learned Portuguese. He helps his compatriots not only with work matters, but also with the host of other issues life in a new country throws up. The language barrier is one of the biggest problems for the Haitians, as Creole and French are spoken in Haiti.
“The earthquake devastated everything and our people had to seek shelter elsewhere. We need work to recover what we have lost,” said Virgil, who explains why he opted for the building trade. “We are here to help. We have to learn well so we can rebuild our country.”
Smiles and hard work
Practically all the Haitians working at the stadium are separated from their families, while their social life in the city is largely confined to mingling with one another. Though they must miss home, they manage to go about their daily business with remarkable cheerfulness and dedication - and always with a smile on their faces.
In August this year, during a visit from a delegation of the FIFA World Cup Organising Committee to the Arena da Baixada, two workers were presented with tickets to the World Cup in Curitiba. One of them was a Haitian, Anice Ulysse, and he did not receive the accolade by chance.
“It was my hard work that earned me a ticket to the World Cup," he said. "Everything I do here I do with redoubled effort because the Brazilians have treated me so well.”
Virgil, the “leader” of the Haitians at the Arena da Baixada stadium, explained why dedication to their work is essential for his countrymen. “The Haitian people left the island to seek work, as well as to try and help those they left behind and who are still suffering the consequences of the 2010 earthquake,” said Virgil, on this project from the start and keen to see the finished stadium.
"If we don’t keep working hard we won’t achieve anything. My wish is to stay here to deliver the stadium to the World Cup. And it would be a dream come true to watch Haiti playing in Brazil.”
Although happy in Brazil and touched by the way the locals have taken to them, the Haitians make no secret of the fact they would like to return to their homeland. The twofold ambition of being reunited with their families and putting into practice the building skills they have learned, in order to reconstruct what was devastated by the earthquake, make a return home a shared dream.
And their help will be essential, given that a full three years after the earthquake hit, around 350,000 Haitians are still homeless.