Floridians help build Haiti Tec
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- When Roosevelt Louis-Jean first came to work at the water bottling plant, the noise of the pistons and wheels on the machines sounded like a foreign language.
Even though he was educated beyond high school, Louis-Jean felt lucky to be putting caps on the bottles as they came off the conveyor belt. He had a job, a valuable prize in Haiti, where more than half of the men his age are unemployed. As time went by, Louis-Jean picked up a few sounds here and there from the machines, but they still didn't mean much.
Last November, though, the lanky 34-year-old did something that changed his life. He went back to school, he said, to learn the machines' language.
``Now when I look at a machine in a factory, I know what it means, how it works,'' Louis-Jean said. ``After this I'll know who I am, and that I'm not just anybody.''
This fall, Louis-Jean signed up for his second session at Haiti Tec, a trade school built by an alliance between South Floridians and Haitian businessmen. Only in its first year, the school is generating high hopes, and dreams, especially in a country that attracts foreign investment only because of an abundance of cheap labor. Skilled labor has been chronically in short supply.
Haiti Tec is significant because of the interest and commitment
from South Florida, which has one of the largest Haitian communities, and
one of the most politically
active, in the United States. Noteworthy also is the participation of the small, predominantly light-skinned Haitian business elite, which has taken to heart criticism over the years for its hands-off attitude toward the development of their poorer, and black, fellow citizens.
To understand why Louis-Jean is pinning his hopes on Haiti Tec, it is important to understand that few young Haitians who graduate from secondary school can afford a university education. Those who can usually choose medicine or law, the most prestigious professions. They are at one end of the scale. At the other are a great number of young Haitians who are either illiterate or functionally illiterate. In the middle are thousands and thousands like Louis Pierre, with a high school education and no work. Those who find work are the lucky ones. Others, discouraged and desperate, flee their homeland, heading to Miami and New York, where they can find well-paying jobs and build meaningful lives.
This exodus, Haitian businessmen complain, has forced them to look across the border in the Dominican Republic, or in Jamaica, for a good plumber or a good mechanic.
``We had to fill that void if we wanted to rebuild the country,'' said Jean-Edouard Baker, a prominent businessman who, with colleagues, will pay Haiti Tec's operating costs.
In a sense, Haiti Tec's story is about hope, and the people of South Florida -- whites, blacks, Cuban Americans, Christians and Jews -- feature prominently in it. Some raised money for the school, others opened their pockets. Many others gave of their time to train the school's teachers.
The day before the grand opening earlier this month, painters were applying coats of gray, yellow and blue paint to the walls. Activity around the classrooms was frenetic, as students and workers applied finishing touches to tables, chairs, computers.
When the school opened last year, said director Michelle Guillaume, 90 students signed up. Many were interested in anything to do with communications, whether it is computers, telephones, or beepers. Others signed up for plumbing, electrical work, building and construction and refrigeration mechanics.
``Five years ago there were no cellular phones here,'' Guillaume said. ``There are a lot of demands for that now. It's new, so the students all want to do it.
``We value technology here, but we don't keep up. We wait until things break down, so we need people to fix them.''
Guillaume, who studied in Canada and returned to Haiti years ago, said Haiti Tec has tried to do what other technical schools could not do to fill the needs of the market.
``We have worked with the business sector to know what the needs are. We have become partners.''
The sessions last four months, and each costs about 4,500 gourdes,
Haiti's currency, or about $150. Students need three sessions before they
graduate. The school
awards five scholarships for every term, and there are plans for many more. The new school term beginning this month will have 300 students.
``Some are interested in what we're doing, but we don't have money,'' she said. ``We would like to get to a point where half of the students get financial aid. We want to make it easier for them.''
Sem St. Elien, 31, heard about Haiti Tec on the radio. He took
a tap tap, a small, colorful bus that serves as Haiti's main means of transportation
in the cities, to the
school. A social-science teacher and an official with the Haitian Football Association, St. Elien said he wanted to be marketable.
``I want to be able to move with myself, with my hands,'' he said. ``I want to become the business. When you work for somebody else, you can be fired, all kinds of things can happen to you. When you have the skills in your hands, nothing can happen. If I'm strong and my hands can work, I can work. I want to have the training to be marketable. I want to improve my life.''
Yves McKendy Pierre-Louis is already convinced that his life will improve. He's in the construction sequence, learning how to put up walls. He sees the big picture.
``I expect that soon, we'll need hotels, roads, airports,'' he said. ``I'll be needed. All of us here will be needed. That's progress.''