Haitians flock to Mount Olive

mlocke@newsobserver.comJanuary 22, 2012 

— It was Halloween 2010 the first time Mount Olive police chief Brian Rhodes noticed there were some new faces in town.

He saw a cluster of people walking down Breazeale Avenue pushing carts full of groceries away from the Piggly Wiggly. He turned on his sirens, rolled down his window and told them they couldn't take the carts home.

The newcomers unleashed a flurry of explanation in a language he couldn't readily place.

"They was speaking French Creole, and I was speaking Eastern North Carolina," Rhodes said. "I knew we were in for a big change."

Since late summer 2010, Haitian immigrants have flooded this tiny hamlet south of Goldsboro, which is known for a pickle empire and little else. They came from Florida, mostly, fleeing a job market caught flat-footed after tourists all but abandoned South Florida during the recession; some came directly from Haiti, leaving the island after the devastating earthquake in January 2010.

As many as 3,000 Haitians, from toddlers to grandmothers, have settled in and around this town with a population of 4,600. Their arrival seemed to happen overnight; the 2010 census counted no Haitians in that area. Their newcomers' lure: the Butterball turkey processing plant and a handful of other meat producers within commuting distance of Mount Olive.

In a matter of months, Mount Olive was transformed.

In the historic downtown, tucked among a real estate office and a furniture store, Suzette Lubin sells plantains, soda made in Haiti, and shirts and shoes flashy enough to sport in South Beach.

Around the corner, Rosemarie Porcenat, a grandmother who fled Haiti after the earthquake, makes big pots of rice, pureed black beans and steaming bowls of beef and brains. Hungry workers drag into her restaurant midday after overnight shifts at Butterball.

And a few blocks away each Sunday, the 150-year-old First Baptist Church becomes a multicultural center of sorts. White Mount Olive natives quietly pray in the sanctuary while a group of 80 or so Haitians meet in the fellowship hall, singing hymns in Creole while a bass player and drummer keep the beat.

"This was a dead city," said Erilus St. Sauveur, a Haitian pastor of Solid Rock church in Raleigh who leads Sunday services in Mount Olive. "We bring it to life."

At first, a few

How the Haitian migration to Mount Olive began has become a sort of legend. Each Haitian loves to tell it, and slightly exaggerate with each telling.

At its most basic, the story goes like this: A single Haitian worked at the Butterball plant in Mount Olive in late summer 2010. He heard his boss complaining about having to replace a dozen or so workers quickly because of problems with their work permits.

The Haitian worker volunteered to solicit new employees. He called a friend in Miami, who then called a few friends. Two days later, two vans packed with eager Haitian men arrived at Butterball. A hiring supervisor eventually offered jobs to all of them.

Losner Jean-Baptiste, 25, came aboard those first two vans. He had gotten a call from a friend who knew he needed work. Jean-Baptiste had drifted since graduating from high school in Miami, unable to secure a job with more than a few weeks or months longevity. Without asking a single question, he hopped on the van and headed to North Carolina.

"I came to Mount Olive with nowhere to stay and no money," Jean-Baptiste said. "Still, this was better."

Now, each day, he wrestles 60-pound live turkeys onto hooks connected to a conveyor belt. He earns $11.47 an hour, enough to finally rent a house that's not overcrowded.

His life is simple and quiet in Mount Olive, a stark contrast from the constant pulse of Miami. He spends Sundays and Wednesdays worshipping with other Haitians at the Baptist church. He feels no pull toward Miami and plans on staying.

Jean-Baptiste brags about another Haitian who recently bought a home in Mount Olive, the first of the newcomers to lay such a stake here.

Following a check

Since January 2010, when an earthquake ravaged the small island in the Atlantic, many Haitians already living in the United States have been legitimized. The United States granted temporary protection to Haitians, those fleeing Haiti and those already here who would be unable to return to the devastated island.

With those temporary visas came work permits and a chance to follow promises of jobs. Those permits are set to expire in January 2013, but officials could and often do extend the deadline.

Jean Claude Voltoire, 53, proudly carries in his wallet an Employment Authorization Card, his first bit of legal authority to work in the United States since he left Haiti in 1987. He fled as a young man, escaping a political system he calls corrupt and untenable.

In his years in the United States, Voltoire has supervised large crews of workers at warehouses in New Jersey, and before the housing market collapsed, he ran a mortgage company catering to Haitians in Miami. Since then, it's been a mad scramble to earn enough money to feed and clothe himself and send $300 a month to his three sisters in Haiti.

He came to Mount Olive six months ago after picking watermelons at a farm in Georgia. Like many Haitians, he heard the words Mount Olive whispered like it was the new promised land.

Voltoire now works an overnight shift at Butterball, earning $9.82 an hour packaging turkey parts. He shivers through his shifts there, unaccustomed to rooms as cold as refrigerators. During the day, he catches some sleep in a room he shares with another man, separated from the front entrance by a curtain. He pays $25 for rides each week to and from the plant.

"I can do more, but I do this," Voltoire said. "This is where the check is."

Jim Johnson, a professor at the Kenan Flagler School of Business at UNC-Chapel Hill, said the new wave of Haitians in Eastern North Carolina is the classic immigrant labor story.

"The jobs at Butterball are what we can call 3D: dirty, difficult and dangerous," Johnson said. "Nobody wants to do them, and the immigrants fill the gap."

Butterball officials declined to be interviewed.

Leaders in and around Mount Olive know local production plants such as Butterball, House of Raeford, Smithfield Foods and Mount Olive Pickle plant are dependent on immigrant labor.

The town has long played host to newcomers of all sorts of nationalities.

A similar wave of immigrants came 12 years ago.

Laborers from Mexico rushed here for work picking cucumbers for Mount Olive pickle plant.

Others found work at the poultry plants such as Butterball.

While some Hispanic workers linger in this area, many have moved on to other opportunities elsewhere or have returned home.

When the Hispanics arrived 12 years ago, many in the town kept their distance.

This time, with the Haitians, town leaders vowed to do better.

Help from the church

Dennis Atwood, pastor at First Baptist in Mount Olive, noticed a dozen or so black faces sprinkled in with his all white congregation one Sunday in September 2010. Throughout the service, they seemed bewildered. Atwood recalled. When he introduced himself after the worship, he understood why.

"They understood nothing I said," Atwood said.

He spent the next day calling anyone he could think to call who might link him to a Haitian minister in the state, or at least someone who might speak Creole.

Finally, he met the Rev. Erilus St. Sauveur, pastor of Solid Rock church in Raleigh.

The two formed a swift and solid partnership. Atwood promised his congregation would do anything it could to ease the Haitians' transition to Mount Olive if St. Sauveur let them know help was coming. The two spent days on end riding around Mount Olive, introducing themselves in homes so full of Haitians most had to sleep on the floor. The pastors' question was simple: "What do you need?"

Haitians, the majority of them men, were packed together in the limited rental homes available in town. Many had to sleep in shifts. Town officials fielded complaints about overcrowded houses, but they eventually threw up their hands.

"We had a tough choice," said town manager Charles Brown. "What was better: Let them stay in a crowded house or force them out in the cold?"

Congregants at First Baptist donated food, furniture and housewares. They created a special food pantry just for the Haitians. Atwood opened the church's doors at night and through the day on Sunday so the Haitians could have a place to gather and worship. St. Sauveur committed to coming each Sunday to lead services.

"If you can't get your basic needs met, it's hard to focus on anything else," Atwood said. "Here they are in the middle of nowhere, and no one was here to greet them, to help them figure out how to assimilate."

Atwood called town leaders and urged them to reach out. Soon, they planned open town meetings, inviting the Haitians so the town could welcome them and ask what they might need for a better life here.

Eventually town leaders called together landlords in town and warned them about overcrowded houses; many Haitians have fanned out of the town center, finding homes on the rural highways leading into Sampson and Duplin counties.

So far, the Haitians have blended nearly seamlessly with those who settled in Mount Olive decades ago.

Meanwhile, the Haitians, as many as 10 a week, keep coming to Mount Olive. Some take buses to Raleigh and catch rides south; others tag along with friends returning from a visit to Florida.

Local leaders wonder if the town may reach a breaking point in the future. What about the 911 call that will come in a foreign language? Only 36 school-age children have come in Wayne County so far, but how many more will arrive in the local schools? Is there enough housing?

Lubin, the market owner and a self-appointed ambassador for Mount Olive in Miami, fields a half-dozen calls a day from Haitians asking about jobs here. Some catch a ride with her to Mount Olive when she drives down to pick up supplies for her store.

She's become so good at recruitment and placement that a representative at House of Raeford has asked her to send him more Haitian workers, she says.

"Everyone there knows Mount Olive," Lubin said. "This is the place to be."

Locke: 919-829-8927

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