By Emily Feldman and Damiano Beltrami
Gertha Brice shielded herself from the rain beneath a narrow awning in East Flatbush. Sunday services had just ended at Zelateurs Union Baptist Church and Brice, in a cheerful pink suit, chatted with fellow Haitian-American parishioners about the less cheerful economy. Next door, an empty Western Union money transfer office stood as a testament to their complaints that a bad economy in New York makes for a dire situation in Haiti.
"Now the money's gone," Brice said, prompting nods of agreement. "But of course," she said, "we send home what we can."
Remittances, the money Haitians living abroad manage to send to Haiti, make up a crucial part of the small country's economy. At least 20 percent of their Gross Domestic Product comes from remittances, mostly from Haitians living in the United States, according to statistics from the International Monetary Fund. Remittances to Haiti had been increasing steeply for the past decade but took a dramatic dip this January falling to $69 million from $104 million the previous month.
Despite a slight bump in remittances in February and March, which industry experts attribute to tax-refund season, the World Bank, IMF, Inter-American Development Bank and money transfer offices are all predicting a thinning flow of remittance money into Haiti, resulting from the global economic downturn.
This comes at a bad time for Haiti, still struggling with a multimillion dollar clean-up from last summer's hurricane season, which destroyed over 100,000 homes, spiked inflation and stunted economic growth.
The circumstances following the storms were so dire, they prompted President René Préval to request that former President George W. Bush grant undocumented Haitians in the United States, Temporary Protected Status. This would protect them from immediate deportation back to a country that can't afford the burden of more mouths to feed. Bush rejected the request, though the Obama administration is giving it consideration.
Back in Brooklyn, where just under 15 percent of the estimated 800,000 Haitians in the U.S. live, people are doing what they can to help their families back home, though a struggling economy is making it difficult.
Haitian Consul General Felix Augustin has seen his community take a hit. "I live in Brooklyn myself, and I know of a lot of people that used to work two jobs and now they are have one or they have none at all."
Jean Lazarre, a 54-year-old Brooklyn resident who is the principle breadwinner for his wife and three children here and extended family in Haiti kept his job but still feels the affects of the recession, which he calls "the disease."
"Before the disease, I used to send $150 to $200 home each month. But now we cannot do that. We do not make enough to help them out. But we do as much as we can. Instead of doing nothing, we send $50, $75, $100, because they really need help."
Lazarre has been sending money back to his mother, brother and extended family since leaving Haiti in 1982, but is finding it more difficult after having his hours slashed to four days a week at Steinway and Sons Piano Company, where he has worked as a machine operator for twenty-two years. He says he feels bad about sending less.
"They really depend on us over here," he said. "I know that every time I reduce the money over here, they suffer over there."
Bernard Angel, another Haitian living in Brooklyn finds himself in a similar situation. A 12-hour shift driving his taxicab around Manhattan used to yield $200. Now, he's comes home with just $150 and has slashed remittances to family.
"The other day I sent $60 for three of them. That's $20 each. That's like for one day. After twenty-four hours they'll need more money, because there's no jobs."
According to the World Food Program, more than three-quarters of Haitians live on less than 2 dollars a day, and though food prices have come down since last year when gas prices drove food prices up internationally, hunger remains an alarming problem.
Unitransfer, a popular remittance service used by Haitians, has seen more and more clients in Lazarre and Angel's position and fewer dollars going through their wires.
"The average used to be $160 per transaction," said Jean-Mar Piguion, VP of sales and marketing at Unitransfer, on the phone from Florida headquarters. "Now it's $140 and we expect that number to continue to go down."
Despite the dismal economic forecast and the dismal, gray skies of East Flatbush, Jean Lazarre remained upbeat. "The economy will be strong again," he said with a grin. "And then we can help them the way we used to."
Emily Feldman is a student at CUNY's Graduate School of Journalism with a concentration in Business. She will be interning with NBC local integrated media this summer and she resides in New York.
Damiano Beltrami is a multimedia international reporter who is currently a Fulbright scholar at the City University Graduate School of Journalism. He has previously reported and taken pictures for the Italian financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore from Northern India, Easter Europe and the Baltic region. He has recently received a scholarship from the New York Foreign Press Association.