Setting the Stage for Haiti Youth Jobs Project

Issa Bitang

Issa Bitang (far right), who works for CRS Dominican Republic, talks with youth in Ouanaminthe, Haiti. CRS is considering starting a youth employment project there. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

Issa Bitang knows a thing or two about youth employment. In 1990, after his parents separated, the 15-year-old quickly became an adult. He cared for himself, paid his school fees, and scraped together $12 a month to rent a room on the back streets of Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital. To afford this, he set up a stand selling candy, chewing gum, and crackers. But cigarettes paid the bills. He sold singles for a few cents, and the wealthier men would spring for a pack. He sometimes walked the streets with his selection displayed on a platter on his head. This is how he’d make $30 to $50 a month.

Twenty years later, armed with a Master’s degree from Columbia University in New York, and a wealth of work experience—everywhere from the produce section at Giant Foods to a deputy head of programs for CRS Haiti—Issa is now back on the streets, in Ouanaminthe, Haiti. This time, he’s working for CRS Dominican Republic, and he’s looking for Haitian teens that are in his former predicament: struggling to make ends meet.

Haiti Bitang

Issa Bitang (far right), who grew up selling crackers and cigarettes on the streets of his native Yaoundé, Cameroon, is researching viable jobs and training options for Haiti youth. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

Catholic Relief Services is looking to start a youth employment project. In this border town, where smuggling Haitians into Dominican Republic is a booming business, Issa has his work cut out for him. Following Issa for the day reveals the challenges of starting a project from scratch in an environment where unemployment is rife and marketable skills are scarce.

There’s lots to consider before launching the project: What should the percentage of women to men in the project? Should sewing be taught even though this border town is flooded with cheap used clothes from Dominican Republic? Would youth cooperatives work?

In the past days, Issa has spoken with unemployed youth, a Senator from the region, a Bishop and the Director of the Caritas in the North-East Diocese and local business men. He also interviewed religious sisters who run a sewing class and stumbled upon a key problem: job placement. Simply put, there is none.

“Youth here don’t have the concept of a business model,” he says. “It’s not really used as a business, just a survival tool. There’s not a strategy for investment, a long-term vision.”

Issa also realizes young people in Ouanaminthe don’t have technical or business backgrounds. Few have any vocational skills. That’s a problem when carpenters, masons and plumbers are needed. Many young people look down on the trades or agricultural work. Members of recent focus group told Issa they wanted to set up Internet cafes so they could learn to surf the Internet. Issa’s suggestion of farm work in this agricultural area drew frowns.

Most young people have given up finding work in Ouanaminthe. Most people here prefer to wade across the Massacre River into neighboring Dajabon, Dominican Republic, and find work.

Take Joseph, a 19-year-old Haitian. He told Issa he cleans houses in Dajabon. With a bribe to officials, he’s in another country where people are hiring.

“There is not really a job market here,” says Issa. “If we can bring the youth together, give them some training in entrepreneurship, we can create some youth cooperatives. That would bring the youth together rather than each one staying in his corner. That will create a demand for the product they’re selling.”

The question is: What should they sell? Issa toyed with the idea of a bakery. But it turns out that most Haitians in Ouanaminthe prefer spaghetti and ketchup for breakfast. Bread isn’t a big seller.

Issa runs into a young man pushing a wheelbarrow full of toothpaste, skin lightening cream, pencils, and soap. “Do you want some deodorant?” he asks. A simple question, but Issa sees it as a glimmer of salesmanship. The man borrowed money from his father to buy his products, and has now built up his business. He makes about $5 a day, a decent wage here.

Issa sees a little bit of himself in the kid — the motivation, the entrepreneurial spirit. And with a little help from CRS, that’s what Issa wants to replicate for the youth of northern Haiti.

Lane Hartill, who is currently visiting Haiti, is Catholic Relief Services’ regional information officer for west and central Africa.

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2 Responses to “Setting the Stage for Haiti Youth Jobs Project”

  1. Bro. Philip M. Talampas Says:

    What a wonderful achievement was Issa done in his life. How I wish could I do the same things before my existence turn to nothing. May God bless me in order to do something good for the benefit of other people.

  2. noel jeanrony Says:

    I very apriaciate the courage of issa.i wanna have this coura too.but i don’t have money to go to school and help orthers.It’s the reason why i wanna have this ;setting stage to have this job,to help myself and others.I already worked at CRS as a mobizer community.God bless you.

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