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Story Publication logo June 22, 2023

Distant Neighbors: ‘If Only Haitians Loved Haitians As Much as Dominicans Love Haitians …’

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In recent years, a new group of Haitians have arrived in the DR from Haiti’s middle- to upper-income...

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An aerial view of Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, where many Haitians have settled in recent years. Image by Marvens Compère/The Haitian Times.

Haitians with some means say they feel welcomed — and safe — in the Dominican Republic.

SANTO DOMINGO — The way he tells it, Elisée Vallain’s professional efforts in Haiti over 20 years amount to a string of jobs and ventures that failed or were stymied due to corruption.

Aspiring to build primary schools across his country, Vallain, 41, first sought to work in the development and sustainability sector – at a microfinance company, a telecom firm, and community development group. The first saw its funds squandered, the second was called to court over corruption allegations, the third pulled out of Haiti because Haitian authorities refused to comply with the requirement to announce its formation. In between these jobs, Vallain even tried to open a restaurant as an investment, but the 2010 earthquake did away with those plans. 

Finally in 2017, Vallain started a detergent manufacturing business and began traveling to the Dominican Republic to buy raw materials. Over time, the travel itself became perilous as kidnappings and gang violence in Haiti began to rise. In 2021, after he was mugged at gunpoint in Port-au-Prince, Vallain moved to the Dominican Republic for his safety. 

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Two months later, the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse gave Vallain even more reason to stay out of Haiti permanently.

“If they can kill the president in his home, there’s no one they want to kill and won’t kill,” Vallain said from his home in San Francisco de Macoris. “I had to move here for security.”  

“But there are benefits here — the internet is strong, electricity is available all the time, there’s a different mentality [about business] compared to Haiti,” Vallain said, who now earns money through cryptocurrency investments and day trading. “In my case, because I speak English, they think I’m American and give me more attention. As soon as they hear you speak English, they ask, ‘Where in New York you’re from?’”

Elisée Vallain at his home office in San Francisco de Macoris. Image courtesy of The Haitian Times. Dominican Republic.

Vallain is among the estimated 166,000 Haitians, according to the United Nations Department of Economics and Social Affairs (UNDESA), who moved to the Dominican Republic between 2017 and 2022. Many were fleeing Haiti’s implosion since the Moïse murder, but their move right next door is the continuation of a migration that began in 2010, when Haitians began leaving for the U.S., Canada, Chile and other countries in the Americas region. About 496,000 Haitians are in the Dominican Republic, making up 5% of that country’s 11.3 million population. 

Typically, the image of Haitians in the Dominican Republic conjures images of darker-hued people being mistreated or navigating inhumane scenarios. But thousands, like Vallain, have managed to carve out a comfortable existence in their neighbor’s land, they said. With their professional backgrounds, formal education and some financial means, they said, they are able to earn a living working for local enterprises or in their own businesses. 

Also, many in that middle- or upper-income group have procured the legal immigration documents, allowing them to function without much fear of being repatriated the way their poorer compatriots often are. These comfortable Haitians say they feel accepted and appreciated by Dominicans and a minimum sense of safety that doesn’t exist in Haiti. The history of conflicts and racist attitudes don’t impact their day-to-day interactions, they say.

“Never, not even once,” said Pierre “King Kino” Divers, a retired Konpa singer turned entrepreneur. “The day Haitians love Haitians the same way I see Dominicans love Haitians, we wouldn’t have the problems we have in Haiti.”

Ease of doing business a draw

Among those Haitians who fall into the comfortable category are Samuel and Lytyah Aratus. Samuel had studied computer science in the country since 2012, got a job before he even graduated and decided to stay there as Haiti’s problems kept mounting. Lytyah, who lived in the U.S. and visited him often, decided to join him in Las Americas — a well-off neighborhood of the capital city — in 2021.

Samuel and Lytyah Aratus pose for a picture inside one of their businesses, Lytyah’s Salon & Store in Punta Cana. Image courtesy of The Haitian Times. Dominican Republic.

Since then, the couple has purchased a property from which they operate a call center, beauty salon and clothing store. Recently, they purchased two more properties, including a villa, to turn into AirBnB rentals.

“The Dominican Republic has a functioning ecosystem. And when you’re young, it’s good to be in an economy that is functioning, that is stable [because] it allows you to create, to innovate,” Samuel Aratus, 37, said. “Haiti doesn’t offer that.”

In his estimation, Samuel said, “My life is just like the life of a Dominican. I go to the club; I go to the restaurant; I go to the beach. I don’t limit myself to one culture.”

Lytyah Aratus echoed the sentiment, adding that life in the Dominican Republic is much better than life in Haiti. 

“It’s a whole different life compared to Haiti,” Lytyah Aratus said. “Another place where everyone is not trying to steal your stuff. Settling in the Dominican Republic is much better than Haiti.”

Haiti is placed in 189th position in a 2020 World Bank Group’s ranking on how easy it is to start a business when the Dominican Republic is in 112th position. This is why many Haitians such as Divers prefer to have businesses in the Dominican Republic.

Among foreigners, Haitians own more micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) than any other nationality in the Dominican Republic, according to data from the Dominican National Office of Statistics. Haitians own 6.1% of MSMEs, compared to all non-Dominicans’ 1 percent.

Divers lived the experience of trying to start a business unsuccessfully in Haiti for seven years before he finally decamped for the Dominican Republic. When he tried to establish them over those years, Divers said, his fellow Haitians made it hard for him to do business. But when he moved to Santo Domingo in 2021, he was able to start up five different enterprises in that country — within just two weeks.

Two years later, Divers, a U.S. citizen, says he still feels welcomed.

“Dominicans don’t look at your nationality to do business with you, they’re here for business,” Divers said. “[In Haiti], there was a battle against the diaspora,” Divers said. “In Santo Domingo, it’s easier for investors to emerge. No one bothers you.”

Pierre “King Kino” Divers poses for a photo in Santo Domingo. Image courtesy of The Haitian Times. Dominican Republic.

Professional degrees allow access, to a certain degree

In higher-paying professional employment roles, many Haitians fare very well in the Dominican Republic, Divers said. The mistreatment or racism commonly found in low-paying jobs, such as those in the agriculture, construction, tourism and service professions, generally isn’t a part of these comfortable Haitians’ experience.

Orcino Malivert, an engineer based in Punta Cana, recognizes that his social class status shields from racist attitudes and treatments. 

“It’s about the image you’re selling,” Malivert said, from behind his desk at a construction site in January. “If the Dominicans see that you’re educated, you’re really presentable, that won’t even be a thing [racism].”

“They have never been racist toward me,” Malivert said.

Orcino Malivert at a construction site in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, in January 2023. Image by Onz Chery/The Haitian Times.

Business owner Ilande Xavier also said she felt comfortable in the Dominican Republic. Xavier, 33, lived in San Isidro for two years, operating a thriving beauty salon there called X Style Hair Design. She moved to Indiana through the I-134 humanitarian parole program and has since closed the hair salon, but she reminisces fondly about her time in San Isidro.

Speaking from Indiana about 10 days after leaving the Dominican Republic, Xavier said the cost of living there is really high. Those who don’t have papers and can’t work struggle. To earn a living, she started the hair salon, made possible because her husband has a Dominican identification. 

She didn’t encounter racist attitudes, she said, but it wasn’t because of her social status.

“Most Haitians are racist and the Dominicans know that,” Xavier said. “So here’s how it is: The Dominican might think the Haitian is racist and the Haitian might think the Dominican is racist too. But if neither of them starts being racist, the other one won’t reciprocate.”

Ilande Xavier posing for a picture inside X Style Hair Design, the hair salon she owned in Santo Domingo. Image courtesy of The Haitian Times. Dominican Republic.

Over in the healthcare field, Ashley Samson, a physical therapist based in Santo Domingo, said he has never suffered racism in the Dominican Republic either. The Cap-Haitien native moved to the Dominican Republic when he was 10, going to school there and launching his career.

Dominicans have cheered him on over the years, something he noticed in particular the day of his graduation from college. Samson was taken aback.

“Everybody was like, ‘Whoo, Samson, Samson, Samson,’” the 28-year-old recalls. “You know you’re a foreigner, so that makes it even sweeter. You already know how Dominicans treat Haitians but look at that foreign Haitian.”

At times when certain advantages are not available to him as a foreigner, Samson admits, he feels the impact of xenophobic policies. For instance, he paid more for college because he does not have a Dominican identification card, similar to a residency card in the U.S. And he lost his first job in 2018 because his Haitian passport had expired. 

Samson has since renewed his passport and began treating patients at their homes on his own. 

Ashley Samson posing for a picture on graduation day. Image courtesy of The Haitian Times. Dominican Republic.

“I felt bad that’s the only job I had, my only way to make money,” Samson said. “It was at a time when I needed money the most.”

Vallain, the detergent company owner, said such immigration policies make it very difficult to maintain legal status. In his case, even with a renewable visa, Vallain still has to have his Haitian passport stamped monthly at a physical border station, the closest of which is a 7-hour trip each way for him. 

Macollvie J. Neel contributed to this report.





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