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Haitians discover learning Spanish is key to better life in Chile

Shelda Ocapenceval was concentrating hard. “Enero, Febrero, Marzo, Abril”: Learning names of the months in Spanish is one of the many things she needs to do to build a new life in Chile. She arrived from Haiti in late June on a tourist visa, but she’s hoping to stay.

“In Haiti I used to be a seamstress, but there’s no work for us there and it’s very tough. I need to find a job here in Chile. I will do anything. But if I want to do well, I have to learn Spanish,” she told Catholic News Service.

In 2010, an earthquake killed more than 200,000 people and caused extensive damage to the infrastructure and economy in Haiti. For decades, it has been the poorest nation in the Americas, and thousands leave every year in search of a better life.

Dressed in a summery turquoise top, Ocapenceval looked happy to be at the Spanish class, which takes place every Sunday afternoon at Our Lady of Victory Parish in downtown Santiago. She attended one recent class with her friend Vestudieu Petit-Gar, who sported a baseball cap and red-tipped hair. Petit-Gar’s Spanish was so basic she needed to speak through a translator.

“I can’t find work until I learn how to speak the language. It’s expensive here and I need to make money to survive,” she said.

The atmosphere in the community centre was friendly, with plenty of laughter. Red, purple, yellow and blue streamers hung from the classroom ceiling, and the walls were covered with basic Spanish vocabulary. The five tables were covered in books, and seated around them were young, stylish Haitians in their 20s and 30s, trying to learn the language of the place they want to call home. Around 60 students split into three different levels, with 10 volunteers to help teach them. Some volunteers spoke French and acted as translators.

Haitian Wifredo Oximis was one of the people who helped start the project.

“I went to the local priest, asked him to organise some classes. It’s really important for our community to learn Spanish, because when they don’t it’s a huge barrier for them to find employment. I work for the local town council as a street cleaner. It’s not the best job, but at least I have a job.”

Oximis lives with his brother, Blasito Oximis, and a cousin.

“Everything is so expensive here, the rent, the bills the food. The people are friendly and we have a better life here, but it’s tough sometimes and, because Haiti is a tropical country, I find it very cold here,” Blasito Oximis explained.

Wilfredo Oximis went out onto the streets, looking for people he thought would find the classes useful. He’s been in Chile for two-and-a-half years and speaks good Spanish, so he helps people enroll in the classes and acts as one of the translators.

“In Haiti I was a good Catholic, and I want to continue helping people here,” he said.

Another key person who helps with the classes is Italian Sr Donata Cairo, a member of the Little Sisters of Jesus who has lived in Chile for the past 26 years. Sitting in the chapel close to a statue of the Virgin Mary, as Haitian children and a local dog ran about, she said: “This area is very popular with Haitians because it is close to the largest fruit and vegetable market in Santiago – La Vega. Many of them arrive on a tourist visa, but want to stay and live in Chile. They have no papers, so some Chileans exploit them by paying them badly. Many of them work at the market unloading the fruit and vegetables from the trucks, and the women find work peeling potatoes. Among the poor, this community really is the poorest and most badly treated. A lot of them live in rooms, with 15 other people, and just one bathroom.”

The classes include grammar, vocabulary and practical advice on resume writing and filling out forms to sort through the paperwork for their visas. The classes are open to everyone and any religion, but it is mainly Haitians who take advantage of them; most of them are evangelical Christians, not Catholics.

Statistics say the Haitians make up just 0.2 per cent of the 18 million Chilean population, but because so many of them are in the country illegally, the estimate is much higher. In the past few years Chile has seen a huge rise in the number of immigrants from places like Haiti, Colombia, Bolivia and Peru, and Chileans are not used to it. Racism is a problem and, with the economic climate getting worse, many Chileans feel threatened and say immigrants take their jobs.

Picture: Blasito Oximis, pictured, helps other Haitians to learn Spanish at the Nuestra Senora de la Victoria community centre in downtown Santiago, Chile. The classes include grammar and vocabulary as well as practical advice on resume writing and filling out forms to sort through visa paperwork. (CNS photo/Jane Chambers).