Grateful Haitians see Sao Paulo as 'promised land'

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Brazil's Sao Paulo, a megacity shaped by successive waves of foreign immigration, is opening its doors to grateful Haitians fleeing the economic blight of their earthquake-ravaged nation.

There is no official figure for the number of Haitians living in this metropolitan area of 20 million people, but at least 4,000 are known to have reached northern Brazil since a January 2010 quake devastated their nation.

In interviews with AFP, a dozen elated Haitians granted residence visas following long odysseys through South America were fulsome in their praise of the Brazilian government and described Sao Paulo as 'the promised land'.

"They have done so much for us while other countries like Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, even the United States, turned their backs on us," said Luckner Doucette, who arrived recently after eight months in the north.

Doucette, 31, who left his 27-year-old wife in the northern city of Manaus, says he gets no help from the authorities and does not want it.

"They have done enough for us. I speak Portuguese, I am staying with friends and I am pretty confident I will soon find a job in the construction business," he told AFP.

Brazil has become the choice destination for Haitian immigrants lured by a massive infrastructure and construction boom linked to the country's hosting of the 2014 football World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Haitians know that Sao Paulo is Brazil's economic capital and believe that jobs can easily be found here, Doucette said.

For the newcomers, the first stop in Sao Paulo is often the Casa do Migrante (House of Immigrants), a shelter run by missionaries in the working-class Glicerio neighborhood.

The local Catholic parish assisted Italian immigrants in the 1940s, later migrants from around Brazil, and now exiles from around the world.

Carla Aparecida Silva Aguilar, a social worker who manages the Casa do Migrante, said the shelter currently has 43 Haitians out of 112 foreigners from 20 nations.

A cloister-like compound located near the Liberdade Japanese district, the shelter provides accommodation, food, psychological help, Portuguese classes and help with employment and health matters.

'Other countries turned their backs on us'
Residents do not get any money and every morning after breakfast, they have to leave the facility to look for work and can return only after 4:30 pm.

There's no limit to how long they can stay. "It's on a case by case basis. Some stay two weeks and others several months," according to Silva Aguilar.

Last month, the shelter temporarily suspended visits by reporters after the O Globo daily in a headline described the influx of Haitians as an "invasion."

Suzanne Legrady, spokeswoman for the Scalabrini Our Lady of Peace Mission which oversees the Casa do Migrante, insists that Haitians do not take jobs away from Brazilians.

"There is a shortage of workers in Sao Paulo, particularly in construction and domestic work," she explained. These are menial jobs that Brazilians often shun.

The O Globo article followed Brasilia's decision last month to restrict the entry of Haitians while granting humanitarian visas to the 4,000 already known to be in the country.

After the story was published, the Casa do Migrante was flooded with emails from local companies and private individuals offering them jobs as laborers or domestic workers, said Silva Aguilar.

Many Haitian residents of the shelter are well-educated, fluent in French, Spanish or English and were considered middle-class at home.

They said they fled their homeland, using their own savings or money provided by their families, because of the lack of opportunities.

Micheline Charlton, a 32-year-old Haitian woman, arrived here in late December after a tortuous journey through Bolivia and Peru that first brought her to the northwestern Brazilian border town of Tabatinga last June.

She has yet to find a job, stressing she won't accept domestic work because "I had maids in Haiti."

"I am looking for office work but I don't speak Portuguese and generally it is harder for us women to find jobs," she told AFP.

Charlton, who left behind her husband and three children, says she is not discouraged. "I love this country, I want to stay here and bring my family," she said.

In addition to the 4,000 Haitians being granted humanitarian residence visas, there are more than 1,100 others legally residing in Brazil, according to the justice ministry.

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