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Microcredit Helps Refugee Get on His Feet

From the outside, it looks like any Costa Rican corner store. Signs announce the sale of the dailies La Nación, Al Día, Diario Extra and La Teja. Rows of toilet paper and cleaning products press against the window.

Inside, rickety shelves hold bags of beans and rice, and metal stands overflow with plantain chips and other snacks.

But a closer look reveals this small business in the western suburb of Rincón Grande de Pavas is different than your average pulpería.

Owner Pierre Dortilus opened the small store after seeking refuge here from his native Haiti and later expanded it with a microcredit he got through a U.N.High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) program.

Dortilus, 36, recently told The Tico Times the story of fleeing Haiti and landing in Costa Rica.He paused occasionally to attend to customers or grasp for the right Spanish words for his Haitian Creole thoughts.

In September 2002, fear for his life drove Dortilus from his home in the Port-au- Prince suburb of Arcahaie, where he was an elected government representative.

He belonged to then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Lavalas party, but Dortilus’ support for a certain legislative candidate caused friction between him and the President.

Upon receiving word that Aristide had sent men to kill him, Dortilus quickly fled to Panama.

There, he “met a few Haitians and they said Costa Rica is better because you can walk in the streets calmly without problems,” he explained. So he crossed the border and applied for refugee status, which he was granted within a few months.

His wife, the quiet-yet-quick-to-smile Audania Bonheur, 29, joined him here 11 months ago and now works beside him in the pulpería. Their three children, ages 10, 8 and 4, remain with their grandmother in Haiti, and the couple is in the process of trying to bring them here legally.

After arriving to San José, a job at a carwash helped Dortilus get on his feet, but he was required to work Saturdays, which clashed with his Adventist faith.

“So I decided to start my own business, and I decided on a pulpería,” he said. A UNHCR ¢250,000 ($480) loan helped him expand it, and after he paid this amount off he qualified for a ¢750,000 ($1,442) loan.

The UNHCR microcredit program is run in coordination with the Association of International Consultants and Advisors (ACAI) and the Association of Development Professionals for the Promotion of People in Conditions of Poverty (APRODE), explained coordinator Yessenia Valverde.

Refugees and Costa Ricans with limited resources who “otherwise couldn’t get a loan” can apply for money to start or expand small businesses. Those who prove they have a defined project can receive ¢250,000 ($480) to ¢1 million ($1,923), depending on their needs and ability to pay back the loan in 18-36 months. Since the program started in 2002, 327 people have benefited, most of whom are Colombian, Valverde said. Dortilus is one of three Haitian recipients.

The pulpería earns enough for Dortilus and his wife to live and send money to Bonheur’s mother for their kids.

“In Haiti, I earned good money working for the government,” he said, explaining that after he entered into political conflicts, his accounts in Haiti were frozen. “Now I have money in the bank that I can’t give to my family.”

Dortilus has found life in Costa Rica to be good in the sense that “you can talk without anything happening to you; you can express your opinion without being afraid,” he said, his Spanish infused with the French tones of Haitian Creole.

“But what I don’t like is that the law is very soft on thieves. Here, a thief gets captured and then in 10 days he is back on the street,” he said.

His wife was robbed at gunpoint while working at the pulpería a year ago, and the thieves made away with the cash drawer’s contents and a black light used to check for counterfeit bills.

“After that, I never left her alone. I always work with her,”Dortilus said, explaining that he had overestimated the safety of Rincón Grande de Pavas, a lower-income neighborhood in western San José.

One day, Dortilus says he’d like to further expand the pulpería or buy a bigger one. But for now his priority is reuniting his family. He’d like his children to go to school in Costa Rica, he said.

A few minutes later, he collects a handful of change from a few uniform-clad students who stopped in to buy an after-school snack.



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