Project seeks to combat Haiti unemployment through jewelry

By Fariba Pajooh, Medill News Service   |   Updated Feb. 15, 2017 at 9:23 AM
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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Makilene Velnis fingered the glass beads she uses to make necklaces as she talked about her dreams for a better future for her seven children.

"My youngest daughter is 8 months old, and I leave her with her sisters every morning when I go to work," the 37-year-old single mom said. "I have to work or there will be no food to eat."

Samuel Jacelth, 32, has been making jewelry for six years to provide for his wife and two children.

"I want to go back to school myself. Education and a good life are my rights."

Jacelth is a high school graduate and Velnis is illiterate. She is unmarried while he has a spouse. Both want their children to be able to go to school.

And both work for Papillon Enterprise's Apparent Project in Port-Au-Prince, making what it describes as "handmade ethical fashion" jewelry and crafts sold in the United States. They earn $7 a day; the average daily wage in Haiti is $5.

Unemployment is one of the chief problems in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with an estimated population of 10.9 million. Unemployment averaged 9.58 percent per year from 1982 to 2014, according to tradingeconomics.com. In 2014, it had dropped 6.8 percent, a historic low.

Over the past few years, residents of other towns have moved to Port-au-Prince hoping to find jobs in the capital. Slums have multiplied around the city, and residents often must abandon their children. At least 32,000 Haitian children lived in orphanages in 2015, and at least 80 percent of them have one or more parent who wants them, the Independent reported.

Shelley Clay, who lived in Haiti from 2008 to 2016, started Papillon to help Haitian parents earn enough to keep their kids.

"My dream is I can work and have faith in God. I hope many of my people can have jobs because most of them are jobless," Jacelth said.

Velnis said it is especially hard for women to find work because "there are not that many job opportunities, so it's even harder for women."

In 2013, Papillon received $150,000 from the Clinton Foundation. Since then, the foundation has facilitated a partnership to provide Papillon's facility with solar power and helped it connect with retailers like West Elm, Breuniger and Urban Zen. Papillon's revenues reached $1.2 million by 2016, with 170 full-time employees who work six hours a day. It also employs 130 artisans who work based on the orders placed by customers.

"Our goal for our workers is 700 gourdes (about $10) per day, but now it's less than it. The project provides workers with day care for their children as well as literacy, English and computer instruction," Clay said.

According to the CIA World Factbook, Haiti's adult literacy rate is 61 percent. Fifty percent of children don't attend school. It costs $200 a year to send a child to school, about half of what an average adult earns in annual income.

Velnis said she cannot afford to send her children to school.

"I want to work hard and save money to send them to school in the future, I want them to learn and have better lives." she said.

Clay adopted two of her four children in Haiti, and recently returned to the United States to open a store selling Papillon-produced goods in Olympia, Wash. She spends one week a month in Haiti overseeing Papillon's operations.

As Velnis made a necklace in a corner of the factory under a ceiling fan that was a sorry substitute for air conditioning, she smiled at her dreams for the future.

"I have many dreams for myself. I hope everybody will be happy and have a nice income."

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