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, 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, said 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 said.
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 soccer 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 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.
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 4:30pm.
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, said 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 said, menial jobs Brazilians 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 known to be in the country.
After the story was published, the Casa do Migrante was flooded with e-mails from local companies and private individuals offering them jobs as laborers or domestic workers, Silva Aguilar said.
Many Haitian residents of the shelter are well-educated, fluent in French, Spanish or English and were 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.