First Person

Willing workers, few jobs

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Oxfam America’s Coco McCabe is one of several Boston-based colleagues in Haiti to help with the relief effort. Here’s her latest update, dated January 26.

“In Haiti, it’s about hustling.”

That’s Wilgens Jean-Baptiste’s summary of the job scene in the western hemisphere’s poorest nation: a constant scramble to do whatever you can to put food on the table for your family.

For Jean-Baptiste on Tuesday, that meant leaving his street-side camp at Rue Tirmasse and making his way to the Petionville Club, where tens of thousands of other homeless Port-au-Prince residents are now living in a sea of makeshift huts since the quake destroyed their houses. Jean-Baptiste’s mother and two sisters are still buried in the rubble of their family home.

 “I came to look for a job,” he said in English. “They told me they were looking for translators.”

 But the competition was stiff. On a wall at the top of the club’s nine-hole golf course sat four other interpreters. Swatches of bright pink tape, scribbled with their names, stuck to their shirts. Branded for all to see, they were attaching themselves to visiting aid workers who might be struggling with French or Creole, the two languages spoken here.

 “Here in Haiti, you can graduate from college. You come home. You sit down because there is no possible job,” said Jean-Baptiste.

 That’s the predicament Maxo Exilien has faced since finishing university with a degree in accounting in 2008.

 “I’m 27 and I’ve never worked,” he said. “I try to find jobs, but I don’t.”

He was waiting, like many other people on Tuesday, near the bathing stalls and latrines Oxfam is constructing along the perimeter of the camp. In a cash-for-work initiative, Oxfam hired 160 people to help construct the pit toilets and clean up the camp, putting sorely needed money into the pockets of men and women struggling to meet the many needs of their families.

Armed with rakes and brooms, the clean-up crews began to tackle two weeks’ worth of trash and excrement piled around the camp. Other workers, with pick axes, shovels, and hammers, continued building the latrines and shower stalls. And everywhere, zipping between the crews, rolled pink wheelbarrows, loaded with sandy dirt or refuse.

A committee made of camp residents selected most of the laborers—men and women—who earned 200 gourdes a day (about $5) for their efforts, and another 50 gourdes to buy themselves lunch. But an endless stream of other men stopped by seeking work.

“I’m an electrician. I speak English,” pleaded one.

“Man, I’ve got to work,” said another, a grave look on his face. He came by twice to make his case.

One pulled out his ID card to show me his name, and a swarm of other men pressed into a tight circle waving their cards too—hoping I had a job, any job, to offer.

I had none.

And that’s where the crazy frustration of an emergency response comes in: Despite challenges, aid groups can generally meet people’s basic requirements for food, water, and shelter. But what they can’t do on short notice—at least not in great volume—is provide the steady work so many crave so they can meet their own needs.

That comes later. Helping people build or recover livelihoods is a longer, slower process. And it’s where Maxo Exilien may find the silver lining of this disaster.

 “I wish that Haiti will change,” he said. “If Haiti changes, I can find a job. I want good things for my country.”

 Save lives now by donating to Oxfam’s Haiti Earthquake Response Fund.

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