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Haitians in Flight: A TV Script

Produced, written and narrated by Claude Adams
Co-producer and cameraman: Reed Lindsay
Aired: September 28, 2008, on Our World with Brian Stewart

Stanley Desmoulins should be a model for Haiti’s future. He’s young, politically active, an electronics engineer who speaks three languages.

Stanley lives in a nice apartment overlooking Port au Prince, and drives a late-model SUV. He earns $1000 US a month. By Haitian standards, he’s part of the country’s elite.

But Stanley, 29, is unhappy. He’s applied for a visa to live and work in Canada. As soon as it’s approved, he will leave.

He’ll be joining Haiti’s Brain Drain, a phenomenon that makes a poor country even poorer.

CLIP (Stanley) “When I look to the future, it’s important for me to go outside to try to have more knowledge and to make some money and after come back to help the country. If I work hard I will have a future in Canada.”

Stories like Stanley’s are repeated many times, every day—an exodus of an entire educated generation to countries like Canada and the United States.

(Jean V.Geneus, Minister of Haitians Living Abroad) “It is a hemorrhaging, a bleeding we cannot stop.”

(Patrick Elie, adviser to Haitian President) “I am seeing a drain, a massive drain.”

(Wilson Laleau, university vice-rector) “It’s a catastrophe for the country, it’s a waste of resources”

We call it economic immigration. In Creole, the term is “li chape”—someone who escapes, who breaks out, as if from prison.

Haitians have been escaping since the Duvalier dictatorship in the 1950s and 60s, —escaping from violence, from political instability, but mostly from a crushing poverty that never seems to end, despite billions in foreign aid.

More than two million people have fled, mostly to the United States. But in recent years, the cream of the crop—the best doctors, teachers, engineers and other professionals—have come to Canada.

You see them lining up every weekday morning, documents and bank statements in hand, in front of the Canadian Embassy on Rue Delmas.

(ADAMS): Canada makes no apologies for the fact that it welcomes the best and the brightest of Haitian immigrants. The free movement of people, it says, is one of the hallmarks of a democratic system. That may be true, but there’s a terrible contradiction at play here: because the brain drain is helping to turn Haiti into a beggar state, even while Canada pours in millions of dollars to put the country on its feet.

Patrick Elie is an adviser to Haitian President Rene Preval. He likes Canada. He spent several years here as a political exile.

But Elie is furious at the Canadian government for what he calls an intentional policy to extract the best Haitians—especially in recent years.

“We have more Haitian doctors in North America than we have in Haiti and the vast majority of them studied here in Haiti, were fed by their family, went through the school system and that did not cost the US or Canada a penny.”

Cabinet Minister Jean Geneus also points an accusing finger at Canada.

(Geneus): “For the past 8 years I can tell you that the Canadian government has attracted thousands of Haitians . . . the best ones, doctors, engineers. What’s wrong with that? The state of Haiti spent millions of dollars to form these people and now they all gone. And what do we receive in return?"

What Haiti receives in return is foreign aid. Lots of it. Canada sends more money to Haiti than to any other country in the world except Afghanistan. The Harper government has pledged half a billion dollars up to the year 2011.

That seems awful generous. But how much of that money actually gets to the poor who really need it?

Consultant Jean-Sebastien Roy has worked 25 years in development projects, including a number of Canadian ones.

(Roy) “My opinion is that about 10% of any budget of a developmental program actually reaches what we call the ground, the field . . . “

This makes people like Patrick Elie wonder how humanitarian donors like Canada and the US really are.

“Every time this country is in turmoil people leave, every kind of people leave, but then the US and Canada throw back those that do not fit their need, but accept and entice those that fit their needs.”

(SU from English classes)

Learning English is a priority for any young professional in Haiti—the first step to leaving. At the Haitian-American Institute in downtown Port-au-Prince, hundreds come out every Saturday morning to learn what they need to know to integrate into North American society.

“Which city has the highest population?”

Emile Dorismond is 23. He wants to study medicine or music overseas— he’ll do almost anything to escape.

Emile “The real problem is Haiti . . . that’s my opinion. You can see that when you go somewhere in Haiti . . . that’s really really ugly, a lot of garbage in the street, insecurity, gunshots everywhere . . . “

Many of the young people we talked to mention violence. In reality, Haiti is less violent today than two years ago, thanks to the efforts of 9000 UN peacekeepers. Nevertheless, these Haitians have lived almost their entire lives amid political and social chaos. A sense of insecurity has become part of the fabric of their lives. And they want to be free of it.

Director Philippe Mantas says 80% or more of these students will leave Haiti at the first opportunity.

My question: “Does it not concern you that most of these people will be lost to the country?

Answer: “In a sense it would concern me, but the problem is that there are no facilities here for them to have an opportunity to reach their potential. So you might even say they were lost anyway.”

Many of the students we talked to were torn between self-interest, and concern for their country’s future.

David Jonathan: “It’s important to sacrifice, I think it’s difficult but we must sacrifice just to start, to try to develop it. I know it’s difficult, but we must do it. Q. Would you be willing? Answer: I would like to try, I don’t know if I can resist, but I would like to try .”

Gary Narcisse: “In Haiti, our nation, our people don’t respect us. When you go overseas you study and make some experience and come back, they have more respect for you. Q. So you want to get more respect? Answer: “Exactly.”

Herve Denis, Haitian Canadian Chamber of Commerce: “You have to put that in perspective. Those people, they are young, they have nothing to do, they have no money, so what they have to do? And when they look at TV they see something that looks like paradise for them. Put yourself in those situations, in their shoes.”

Stanley Desmoulins takes little comfort in his own relative affluence. His car may be comfortable, but the roads are dreadful—there’s no money in the treasury to even fix potholes.

SU Radio newscast

When he turns on his radio on his way to work, the news is almost always bleak.

And the cost of living is going through the roof: Gasoline approaching $7 a gallon. Stanley worries endlessly about making ends meet.

Stanley“What will happen if I lose my job, if my wife loses her job? And in the future I will have to have my own car, my own house. With the money that I have I cannot build a house or buy a house. I think that if I have more knowledge, if I have a Masters (degree) I could find a better job and I could earn more money. And this could help me build a better future.”

(demonstrators shouting “a bas MINUSTAH”)
It’s a vicious circle. Just as Haiti seemed to be on the road to political stability, a food crisis erupted earlier this year over the rising price of rice.

This kind of violence accelerates the brain drain, which brings more poverty, which in turns causes more people to leave.

Haiti’s extreme poverty also leaves it highly vulnerable to natural disasters, like the recent hurricanes that killed hundreds of people in flooding.

STANDUP (Adams): There ARE some ideas for reversing the brain drain. A few years ago, for example, the Cuban government took hundreds of young Haitians, trained them in medicine and agronomy, and sent them home. That program has worked pretty well.

Dr. Michel Maxene spent 7 years studying medicine in Cuba. Today, he sees patients in a bare-bones office that doesn’t even have proper hinges on the door.

He earns about $300 US a month, but he says he has no plans to leave Haiti.

CLIP Maxene (translation from Spanish) “It’s true, we could be more comfortable in another country. But we have to think of our people. I think it’s a huge crime to leave these people, to stop helping them in order go to another land, in spite of all our difficulties.”

Dr. Maxene embodies what’s missing in Haiti: a sense of civic responsibility.

Of course, it’s hard to have much faith in an economy notorious for its sweatshop labor. The country has many factories like this one. There’s not much scope here for ambitious and educated young professionals.

Planners say that what Haiti needs is a lot more large-scale development, financed perhaps by Haitians living in Canada and the US. And at the same time, Canada could open vocational schools in Haiti. That way these people now taking English courses might be encouraged to train for the kinds of jobs this development would produce.

Because Stanley Desmoulins would love to find a reason to stay at home. On his morning drive to work, I asked him what he will miss most about Haiti when he leaves.

 Stanley: “I will miss the people, the smell of the land. When it is raining, our land has a special odor.”

It’s an odor, and a way of life that he’ll likely never find in Canada. Like tens of thousands of other Haitians who are the Brain Drain, Stanley only wishes he had a choice.