It was around the time that Brazil was beginning construction projects to host the 2014 World Cup four years ago, that a massive earthquake devastated Haiti’s capital. The quake killed over 200,000 people and left few Haitians unaffected in some way. That disaster, coupled with the attraction of a World Cup country and the fact that Brazilians were already familiar to Haitians as UN peacekeepers patrolling their streets, initiated a new route south for migrants trying to escape the difficult situation. That route starts in Haiti passing overland to the Dominican Republic, by plane to Ecuador or Peru, and overland to the Peru-Brazil border where even today there are hundreds of Haitians awaiting visas.
Photographer Bruno Kelly was on an assignment to photograph the dozen or so Haitians working at the Arena Amazonia stadium in Brazil’s Amazonian capital, Manaus, when he met immigrant Milice Norassaint. Milice’s story touched Bruno, and they became friends as Bruno photographed him at work and in his daily life. Bruno asked Milice for his wife’s phone back in Haiti, and Bruno gave it to colleague Marie Arago in Port-au-Prince.
What resulted is a story about a family divided by need, but united through their faith.
By Bruno Kelly
Haitian migrant Milice Norassaint may be 41, but he has the strength of a 20-year-old. His story reflects the saga of many who left Haiti after 2010, when the capital was struck by a devastating earthquake, and began new lives in Brazil’s Amazonian capital, Manaus.
I first met Milice while he was doing his job as a construction worker in the Arena Amazonia soccer stadium, which is being built to host matches for the 2014 World Cup. I knew nothing about his life, but it was soon after that first encounter that I realized there was a lot going on behind his shy look and modest smile, though he rarely spoke. I soon learned how much of a fighter he really is.
Milice lives in a tiny kitchenette, which is hot and damp like a sauna. The kitchen, bathroom and bedroom are divided by a low wall, and all his clothes, which he brought with him from Haiti, hang on a cord stretched over his bed because he doesn’t have a closet.
When I entered, I noticed something on top of a large cardboard box, long and covered by a sheet. I asked him what it was and he told me it was a keyboard. Then he began to explain that he was so lonely when he arrived in Manaus that, through great personal sacrifice, he had managed to buy the instrument.
He uncovered it and gave me a half-hour performance of gospel songs, which he had composed himself. That was when I understood that his main pillar of support, the thing keeping him on track as he tried to achieve his goals, was faith.
Milice parted from his homeland on October 24, 2011, leaving behind his children and his new companion, Jolaine. The previous year, eight months after the Haitian earthquake of January 2010, he had lost his wife, the mother of his children, to mental illness caused by the tragedy.
After three months of difficult travel by truck, plane and boat, he finally reached Manaus on January 22, 2012. In his suitcase he not only carried memories of the nightmare but also hopes of beginning a new life, which one day his family would be able to share.
Today, his routine is completely focused on saving enough money to bring his family to Manaus.
He earns a little more than $500 a month working at the stadium, which he uses to pay rent, food, and telephone bills. He saves a little less than $300 to wire to Haiti to support his family. They use the money to pay for a better private school for the children. Milice says that education is one of the most important ways for his kids to have a better life someday.
At least once every two weeks he calls Jolaine to know how the kids are. In this way, he tries to overcome the distance between himself and his family, whom he hasn’t seen and whose warmth he hasn’t felt for over two years.
On Sundays, Milice acts as one of the organizers of a group of evangelical Haitians who worship in a church, loaned to them by Brazilian pastors. The church is one of the few places where I could see him interacting with others. It was during prayers that I most perceived his sense of sadness, longing, anxiety and uncertainty. He told me that when he was praying, he felt connected to his roots, and that it was at those moments that he finds the strength to continue his quest to bring his family to him one day.
If there are special people in our world, I believe that Milice is one of them. Even with so many problems, he is so calm and always willing to help and comfort other Haitians who come to Manaus. His faith makes him nearly invincible. I really hope he achieves his goal.
I consider myself a better person for having got to know Milice Norassaint, who is now a true friend. He helped me to see what really counts in life.
St. Michel, Haiti
By Marie Arago
Last summer I began noticing masses of people gathered in front of the Brazilian Embassy in Port-au-Prince. Seeing that scene in front of the embassy day after day, I began to wonder what life was like for Haitians in Brazil. Soon after that, my editor asked me if I wanted to work on a story about the family of a Haitian man living in Brazil. My colleague, Bruno Kelly, had been documenting Milice Norassaint’s life in Manaus, and my job was to photograph his family here in Haiti.
Over the next month or so I made various trips to photograph Milice’s wife, Jolaine, and her family in St. Michel, a rural area in southern Haiti, about three hours from the capital Port-au-Prince. On my first trip to St. Michel I made a few wrong turns down the dirt roads and Jolaine finally had to come and fetch me.
I was waiting by the roadside watching people working in a bright green rice field when I saw a woman on the back of a motorcycle-taxi waving both arms at me and smiling. She was dressed in white and had a friendly face. She jumped off the bike, ran over to my car, and started speaking quickly about how happy she was that I had come. As we drove off in my car she started pointing out different things to me in an excited voice.
“That is where I went to school!”
“That is manioc over there!”
“Down that road is where the boys go to school!”
“Over there on the motorbike – that is MIlice’s brother!”
“That is the church where Milice was a pastor!”
Finally we pulled up in front of the house where Milice grew up. It seemed like the entire family, plus all their neighbours, were there waiting for me. I introduced myself and pulled out some photos that Bruno had taken of Milice to show them all what his life was like in Brazil. There were photos of Milice as a construction worker building a World Cup stadium in Manaus, Milice at home, and Milice at church. Haitians are huge soccer fans, usually either fans of Brazil or Argentina, so I thought for sure at least one of the kids would get excited seeing their father building a huge arena. But the picture everyone liked was the one of Milice at church.
Milice and Jolaine were married to other people and living in Port-au-Prince when the 2010 earthquake hit. They both lost their spouses as a result of the quake and were forced to return with their children to St. Michel, where both of them grew up. They each have three children from their previous marriages.
Milice and Jolaine had known each other distantly when they were growing up in St. Michel, but they met again after the disaster through the Protestant church where Milice was a pastor. Brought together by their strong faith, they fell in love and decided to marry and unite their two families. When the opportunity for travel to Brazil came up, Milice decided to take it in hopes of making more money to support them.
With Milice gone, Jolaine is now raising the six children. Milice‘s three kids sleep at his family house, while Jolaine’s usually sleep up the hill at her mother’s. Jolaine divides her time between the two homes and somehow gets all the children off to school every day. She misses Milice very much and speaks to him as often as they can afford by telephone.
One day Bruno and I photographed Milice and Jolaine separately as they spoke together on the phone. Their conversation was filled with declarations of love, as well as requests from Jolaine for money and complaints that they do not have enough to eat. When she got off the phone she was both happy and sad.
The money that Milice sends home is not enough. When I met Jolaine in October she had not received enough for food because school started that month and the money Milice sent went on tuition for the six kids. They rarely have enough to buy meat, but survive on beans, rice and manioc. Jolaine can’t find work to supplement their income. She wants to join Milice in Brazil, to take care of him and to find work to help pay for all of the expenses. Then, she hopes to send for the children.
St. Michel is incredibly beautiful, but offers very little economic opportunity. On all of my visits there, I have thought how tragic it is that people are forced to leave the places and people they love, just to provide the basic necessities for their families.