EVACUEES have said they have been left feeling uncertain over their future as they try to adjust to life in refuge shelters.
By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
Fleurimond Toussaint finally saw an agent of the National Insurance Board after five hours in the waiting area.
The 42-year-old had heard NIB was expediting the unemployment benefit process for storm evacuees, so on Wednesday he left the Fox Hill Community Centre and caught a bus to NIB’s headquarters on Baillou Hill Road.
What the agent said surprised him.
“The agent told me they don’t have time for me. He say ‘I have time for residents and people with Bahamian passports,’ and he told me go to (the Ministry of) Immigration after I showed him my NIB card but I don’t know what he want me to do,” he said.
Mr Toussaint, who lived in the Mudd, is one of many displaced Haitians who are in limbo after Hurricane Dorian ravaged Grand Bahama and Abaco two weeks ago.
Some storm evacuees are now pining for financial help beyond the food, clothes and shelter provided so far and don’t know where to turn.
Public Services Minister Brensil Rolle, who has responsibility for NIB, did not dispute Mr Toussaint’s story yesterday. He told The Tribune: “In times of crisis, some things happen that are inappropriate.”
He reiterated the responsibilities of NIB, noting: “If you make a contribution, it should be in the system and if you’re working for an established business and they’ve not given to NIB, we’re going to go after that business. I don’t know that we can discriminate.”
One man, Success Jean, 37, has not been turned away by NIB – he just doesn’t know how to get there.
“I don’t know the location and where to go,” said Mr Jean as he sat outside the Fox Hill Community Centre yesterday morning.
Breakfast was running late and some displaced residents were fearing the shelter was running out of food.
Soon they were served grits and tuna with slices of avocado and packaged drinks like Capri Sun or Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink. Medical personnel from the Heart-to-Heart nonprofit organisation administered Tetanus shots nearby. Dozens of displaced residents were dressed in donated clothes they wore as volunteers took them to church.
Mr Jean stayed behind.
“Sometimes my bosses paid NIB every month, sometimes every three months, sometimes every six months,” he said. “I went to NIB before with a letter for a business licence. They told me my contributions were not up to date. I called my boss and he said he paid it every few months. If I go there now, I don’t know what to expect.”
People like Patrick Augustine, 24, say their inability to get benefits speaks to larger problems relating to immigration.
Mr Augustine was born in the Bahamas to Haitian parents and never visited Haiti. He applied for citizenship two years ago but has not received approval. He did maintenance work for the past three years without a work permit. He doesn’t have an NIB card.
“I went to school here and everything but I can’t get benefits,” he said.
One hundred and thirty-five people, mostly of Haitian descent, now stay at the Fox Hill centre, down from a peak of 239. Most Bahamian storm evacuees are staying with family and friends, but Shonel Ferguson, the Fox Hill MP, said they return to the shelter to collect a box of goods containing food, clothes, diapers and toiletries – important items that help lessen the burden on families that take them in.
Some of the people who have left the shelter have gone to Haiti, she said.
Fred Louis, 47, told The Tribune he is open to returning to Haiti for three months to clear his mind, but he can’t leave because his young daughters don’t have legal status.
“If I go Haiti with them, I can’t bring them back,” he said.
For now Mr Louis, a permanent resident who has lived in the Bahamas for 24 years, has no reason to seek unemployment benefits because his employer, Starfish Construction, has tentatively committed to providing him a salary.
“I talked to human resources on Tuesday, they’re trying to get (a) one bedroom (apartment) for me in Nassau,” he said. “I’m registered with NIB. I received a cheque from them before for being sick.”
As residents pondered their situation, a man from a Fort Lauderdale church stopped by and committed to indefinitely supplying breakfast and dinner to displaced residents, according to Ms Ferguson. Another company volunteered to donate a freezer. Bahamas Waste donated four portable toilets and a dumpster. The community centre has an industrial stove and a local company has agreed to run a line from the kitchen to the gas tank, which is separated by a pool. Ms Ferguson said there has scarcely been a need donors have not met.
Beginning on Friday, however, displaced residents have been ordered outside at 10pm to be searched for weapons.
“I never been jail in my life but I feel like I’m there now,” Mr Louis said. “My daughter was sleeping. I put her on my shoulder in the draft to be searched outside.”
“We’re grateful,” Mr Toussaint nonetheless added. Across from him, Patricia Box, 51, looked at the street, waiting for a pastor she recently met to take her to church.
She and Mr Toussaint have taken no comfort in the government’s suspension of apprehension and repatriation exercises for people affected by the storm.
Their work permits are expiring soon and if their renewal requests are approved, they will have no money to pay to get them. There are no jobs for them on the horizon and without something like a work permit, they fear they aren’t safe from deportation.
“Last week Friday, the Asue draw was supposed to come,” Mr Toussaint said. “I paid $200 every week and I was supposed to get about $5,000. That would have covered my work permit. I applied for two years.”
“If you don’t pay that,” Ms Box interjected, “if you don’t have that paper in your hand, that’s a problem for you. Immigration don’t play with people.”