Haiti hasn’t always been home for Barnaby Riche, a locksmith at University Hospital in Mirebalais.
Riche, 37, was born to Haitian parents in the Caribbean island of St. Martin. At age 2, he moved to the United States. But in 2003, he was deported to Haiti—a country he had never known—with little family, few resources, and no job prospects.
In 2011, he heard about the hospital Partners In Health was building in Mirebalais in partnership with the Haitian Ministry of Health and convinced the project's leaders to hire him onto the crew of more than 100 Haitian construction workers. (Read about how the construction and ongoing operation of the hospital are creating jobs and stimulating the local economy).
Everybody puts you down, and no one gives you a chance. It’s like being convicted a second time. By the grace of God, I am still standing. The hospital is definitely a second chance. This job changed my life.
Riche was honest about his background—his deportation followed several years in prison for a nonviolent drug offense when he was 20 years old. Many nonprofits working on Haiti’s recovery wouldn’t hire deportees, and discrimination from other Haitians made it hard for him to earn a living in the informal economy.
“Everybody puts you down, and no one gives you a chance,” Riche said. “It’s like being convicted a second time. By the grace of God, I am still standing. The hospital is definitely a second chance. This job changed my life.”
A rough start
Riche wouldn’t describe his childhood as Haitian. He remembers only one or two Haitian friends.
“When I was growing up in Brooklyn, lots of Haitians tried to hide their nationality,” he said. “Haitian kids were picked on constantly and jumped in the street. There were lots of fights. It was bad to be Haitian in New York and in Boston back then.”
Riche dropped out of high school after tenth grade and enrolled in night school. He did well, earning As and Bs, he said. He was two weeks from graduation when he was arrested and sentenced to prison for the drug offense.
The night school secretary cried when she heard the news, he said.
In prison, Riche continued studying for his GED. He remembers his teacher well—Mary was fantastic, he said. He wrote a paper about Frederick Douglass and the movie Glory, which told the story of one of the first all-black units in the U.S. Army to fight against slavery in the U.S. civil war. His teacher said it was the best work she’d seen in prison.
Struggling for survival
When Riche finished his six-year sentence, he was deported to Haiti—a place he had never known. He arrived in 2003, with few family members to help him adjust to his new home. He found a little work tutoring English, and some relatives in the U.S. sent money to help him get by.
Riche, his wife, and their young daughter lived on the second floor of a cement building with no stairs. They had no door, just a curtain in the entryway, and it was so short he had to duck to get inside. He would enter the house by climbing the wall “like Spiderman.” He said the neighborhood was dangerous, but people were scared of him because he was a deportee.
In 2009, he was strapped for cash and decided to try his luck in Lascahobas, a rural community in the Central Plateau where he had distant relatives. He left his wife and daughter in Port-au-Prince.
In January 2010, the earthquake crumbled their home, killing his daughter. His wife ended up in a makeshift shelter, like nearly a million other homeless Haitians. She gave birth to their second child there later that year, and soon became sick with pneumonia.
His wife went to a hospital in Port-au-Prince but didn’t get better, and the family didn’t have enough money to seek better care. Riche believes she was given the wrong medicine. In the end, he says, her lungs collapsed, and she died.
His daughter came to live with him in Lascahobas.
A second chance
In 2011, Riche pursued a job at University Hospital, traveling to the construction site day after day to convince PIH’s Dr. David Walton and construction supervisor Jim Ansara to hire him. They were concerned about whether the staff and community would accept him as a deportee, but they were impressed by his honesty and tenacity. They hired Barnaby as a translator, but he soon joined the construction team. He woke up at 4 a.m. each day to reach the work site by 6 a.m., and often stayed well into the evenings, even in the oppressive Caribbean summer.
“Barnaby has been an invaluable part of this team,” said Jean-Brucely Joseph, a Haitian-American who served as site supervisor of University Hospital during construction. “Haitians blame problems on deportees. Not all of them are bad people. Maybe they made a bad choice. They are very productive people when given a chance.”
It’s so important to give a chance to people who need one. People will surprise you. That’s the only way there is going to be a real change in Haiti or the world.
Riche worked with Ansara, an expert contractor who volunteered his time overseeing the hospital’s construction, and learned as much as he could. When construction was finished, Riche joined the facilities maintenance crew as a locksmith, his specialty.
“Barnaby has grown tremendously,” Ansara said. “He has become a highly skilled leader who has helped set a standard for the team of incredible positivity and doing whatever it takes to maintain this incredible asset for Haiti. Dr. Walton and I are both incredibly proud of Barnaby and appreciative for his commitment and his contributions.”
Riche is proud of the work he’s done to help build a hospital that provides care to the poor. He believes his wife would have survived if she’d received care there.
“The hospital is amazing,” Riche said. “Just looking at it, I can say I was part of that. I put these doors up, I put this ceiling up.”
Riche dreams of starting his own construction company. But for now, he’s grateful to have paid off the debt he accrued before he found work and to support his family, including his second wife and his children.
“It’s so important to give a chance to people who need one,” Riche said. “People will surprise you. That’s the only way there is going to be a real change in Haiti or the world.”
Andrew Johnston, former University Hospital project coordinator, contributed to this story.