One Country, Many Nations

nik9133_cmykIs Providenciales becoming the “melting pot” of the Caribbean?
By Katya Brightwell

Once upon a time there was a sleepy island called Providenciales. Just about 550 men, women and children lived there. There were no roads and no cars. There was no television. There was no airport. And visitors from other countries were rare.

And then one day, so the story goes, a boy, playing on the beach, saw a little boat arriving off the Caicos Bank. In the boat there was a man with his guitar. The boy ran home as quick as he could to find his mother. “Mama, mama,” he shouted excitedly, “There’s a coloured man on the beach!” That (white) man was Tommy Coleman, one of the pioneering members of Provident Ltd. He had arrived in his small Boston Whaler to take a look at the 4,000 acres of land offered to the group. The proposal would involve the initial development of the island, with a small inn, some roads, a dock and an airstrip. He wanted to speak with the residents, the Turks & Caicos Islanders, before the deal was struck. It was Spring 1966.

Bengt Soderqvist was another member of Provident who arrived that year, this time in an old army PT boat, named Seven Dwarfs and loaded with supplies, including what would be the first car on the island. Originally from Sweden, Bengt was taken on as a surveyor by entrepreneur Frederick “Fritz” Ludington, who led the Provident group, while they were both in Great Exhuma in the Bahamas. He tells how wind came to Fritz that the British wanted to develop an island in a place called the Turks & Caicos and the rest, so they say, is history.

“So Fritz got together some people with serious money,” Bengt recounts. They included Teddy Roosevelt III (the former U.S. president’s grandson) and Richard “Kip” DuPont. “They probably thought, ‘Fritz has found another island here somewhere, we’ll put in some money and go down and build a little airstrip and a little inn and then build our own houses, and then we’ll need a little extra land so we can sell it to our friends, make a little club,’ that’s probably how the whole thing started.”

Bengt, although busy with surveying, was obviously struck with the beauty of this remote island he found himself on and Providenciales has remained his home ever since. He says, “I was 28 years old. I was the only Swede who’d been here. To a Swede, to see coral like that, to swim around in an aquarium, it was amazing. I remember in the middle of winter I used to say ‘Well, if I could somehow get in contact with all eight million Swedes and tell them what I’m doing right now, 90% of them would want to swap places with me!”

Today, Providenciales may not be home to those seven million Swedes but the Island has changed — just a little. That the rate of development and the increase in population on this 38 square mile island has been dramatic is more than an understatement. In 40 years, the population has grown to an estimated 24,000, a figure which many claim is actually quite conservative. And whereas almost all of those 550 people living in Providenciales in 1966 were Turks & Caicos Islanders, today the nature of the population has chanaged almost beyond recognition, with Belongers accounting for just over a quarter of all residents.

Things happened slowly at first and, by 1980, the number of residents stood at just under the 1,000 mark. “H” Hinderaker, who found himself in Providenciales in 1979 with a group of fellow Norwegians and now runs a successful architect’s practice here, remembers that maybe 10% were expatriates at that time. “There were maybe 50 to 60 on a year-round basis and then during the holidays there was an increase of people who had vacation homes here, maybe taking it up to 100. They were mostly from the U.S. Some Canadians. A Frenchman, two Germans, a couple of Finnish people, oh, and The Swede of course!”

By 1981 there were sufficient people for the first travel agency to be set up by Chloe Zimmermann, a French-Moroccan native. Marco Travel’s methods were basic. “There was no airport, so I was working through a friend who had a travel agency in Boca Raton, Florida. I would telex people’s requests for flight bookings to my friend and she would deliver the ticket to our friend the pilot, who would fly the ticket here and I would give the ticket to the people and they would pay me, and he would fly the money back. And people said, ‘Wow, we’ve got a travel agency.’”

It was between 1980 and 1990 that resident numbers really skyrocketed. Official figures show that over this decade the population of Providenciales increased by 500% — to almost 5,000 people. Club Med, the first-ever resort on the island, was built in 1984 and the creation of an international airport was linked to this key development. A small airstrip — built by local residents and then extended by Provident — already existed, but the new airport took the island into a whole new league and Providenciales opened up to the world.

So today, just over 40 years since some of those first expatriates set foot on shore to find opportunities and homes on beautiful Providenciales, non-Belongers vastly outnumber Turks & Caicos Islanders. The majority of the estimated 18,000 are, as would be expected, people from neighbouring Caribbean nations — Haiti, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and the Bahamas. U.S. citizens, Canadians and British have also traditionally settled in large numbers. But in recent times, the variety of different nationalities in this small and still relatively little-known island chain has grown to record levels, with some more surprising nationalities now calling the Turks & Caicos Islands home.

Atu Finau has the proud title of being the only Tongan living and working in Providenciales. The quality assurance manager for Air Turks & Caicos arrived just over a year ago and admits he had never heard of the Turks & Caicos before. “At first I thought it may be a group of islands near Turkey and then I looked it up on the Internet and discovered it was in the Caribbean,” he laughs. Never having been outside of the Pacific, he moved here with his wife and daughter, for “curiosity and adventure.” He remarks that his workplace is “like the United Nations!” “There are only two Turks & Caicos Islanders here at work. Most people here are from the Philippines, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Guyana, Belize, Nepal, Brazil . . .”

In fact, a total of 63 different nationalities were granted the right to live or work in the Turks & Caicos Islands last year, and by far the majority of these reside in Providenciales. There are St. Lucians and Barbadians, along with Bolivians and Brazilians, Colombians and Guatemalans; there are Germans and Belgians and Swiss and Swedish; Romanians and Polish; Turkish and Jordanians; we have Nigerians and Ghanaians; Russians and Chinese; Indians and Filipinos; Koreans, New Zealanders and Fijians. There is no doubt that Providenciales is now truly a cosmopolitan island.

By far the largest national group to have arrived in recent times couldn’t have come from much farther away — the Filipinos. The fourth largest group to be issued work permits last year (after Haitians, nationals of the Dominican Republic and Jamaicans), it is estimated that there are almost 2,000 Filipinos in TCI today, mostly in Providenciales.

Marie Papico is one of the 500 that arrived last year. She works as a nanny, having found her job on the Internet. She explains that the majority of Filipinos work in construction and in the resorts, while many others are nannies and health care sector employees. Most have discovered the Islands through family connections. “There are a lot of opportunities for work here,” Marie explains. “Good salaries, the same weather as in the Philippines, the people are nice and it’s safe. Safety is a big one, because our families back home will not worry about us so much over here.”

tai-chi-pdThe Philippines has experienced a substantial exodus of its people in the last few years, with the Turks & Caicos Islands just one of the latest places to be discovered by Filipinos escaping the economic hardships in their country. Educating your children is almost impossible on current salaries, says Marie, and, for many Filipinos, leaving their children with other family members while they earn money abroad is the norm. Sonia Carurucan has been here for two years. She cannot even speak about her family without tears welling up in her eyes: “I have 3 children back in the Philippines. They are aged 3, 11, 16 and 24. It is a big sacrifice, a really big sacrifice to leave them to come here and work. But it is necessary.”

Many of those arriving from the Philippines, and from other areas of the world, are temporary residents, their presence dictated by the country’s need for their manpower or by their own economic requirements. The majority of the over 200 Chinese nationals granted work permits last year are working on the construction of the Seven Stars Resort in Grace Bay; the Turkish on The Atrium in Leeward; and the large group of Mexicans (300 were granted work permits last year) on other construction projects linked to tourism in the country. Sonia, who works for Marco Travel, thinks she will be here for “another five years at least” to see her children through their education.

These changes in the composition of the island affect many sectors of the economy. To ensure all of their audience is kept informed, local newspapers like The Free Press publish news from Haiti, Dominican Republic, the Philippines and Mexico, and travel agencies such as Marco Travel (a significantly larger and more modern operation 25 years after it was established) note a marked increase in travel bookings to the Asian region. More ethnic restaurants are opening their doors and grocery stores are being forced to cater to a diverse clientele too.

In fact, Providenciales has changed so much recently that many Turks & Caicos Islanders from other parts of the archipelago do not recognise it. “Provo is considered by many as this foreign place, this foreign country,” says David Bowen, the TCI Government’s director of culture. “You have folks in Grand Turk who will come here only to shop or for a meeting, but they don’t want to spend the night here, they want to go back to Grand Turk because they don’t have a sense of belonging here. They go to the stores and they don’t see our faces, they see foreign faces. They go to restaurants and they hear a foreign tongue.”

In all other islands in the archipelago (apart from Parrot Cay where no Belongers live), Turks & Caicos Islanders remain in the majority. While only just the case in Grand Turk (2,921 Belongers and 2,797 non-Belongers), in Salt Cay the percentage of Belongers is at its largest — out of a population of 114, only 19 people are non-Belongers.

Naturally, many citizens of other countries who come here for temporary employment will end up staying and making Providenciales their home, as so many “expats” have already done. Yoshi Ono, from Japan, found himself working as a chef at a local resort five years ago, a chance job that appeared when he was on his way back to Tokyo from a holiday in Florida. He has since opened two sushi bars of his own on the island and met his St. Lucian wife Noriette here, who also came to Providenciales to work temporarily. Businessman and Thai restaurant owner Jumphol “JP” Srinark, from Bangkok, has lived in the country for 17 years. Now a Belonger, he also met his wife Nancy, from the Dominican Republic, on the island. Nigerian Dandy Owoh landed a job at Club Med seven years ago through a chance encounter with a friend in Lagos. He married fellow Nigerian Doris, a science teacher at a local church school here, and they now have an 18 month old son who was born in the Islands. A total of 18 different nationalities were granted permission to stay in the country last year, through “permanent residence certificates,” from countries as diverse as Syria, Ghana and Cuba. There is no doubt that Providenciales is now truly a cosmopolitan island.

The Islands are also seeing the return of sons and daughters of those first expatriates who settled here 20 to 25 years ago. Karen Misick, a Turks & Caicos Islander and daughter of former Chief Minister C. Washington Misick (and niece of the current Premier, Michael Misick) grew up in Providenciales in the 1980s, and went to school with many of these first expatriate children. She returned to the island a couple of years ago to work. “Most children I grew up with went away to study and have now come back to work. There are a lot of people who grew up here who still consider Turks & Caicos their home whether their family is from the United States, Europe, Haiti, Jamaica or wherever,” she says. “Your heart is still going to pull you back and economic advancements are pulling people back too, as there are a lot of opportunities in lots of areas.”

Karen is enthusiastic about the changing face of Providenciales and the vast numbers of different nationalities working and living here. “It’s a great thing! I think we have a huge opportunity to show the rest of the world how to have all these cultures mingle and work together positively,” she enthuses. “We have a huge responsibility, more than ever, to treat all nationalities with respect and not take advantage of the rights that Belongers have.”

Guiline Brutus also grew up in Providenciales in the 1980s. Her mother arrived in the 1960s, hers and many fellow Haitian nationals’ presence linked to the maritime trade between the neighbouring countries. Guiline grew up in Blue Hills as a Turks & Caicos Islander and a Haitian. She is proud of her heritage and culture, and has spearheaded the creation of the first nationality-based non-profit organisation in the country. One of the aims of the Haitian Heritage and Cultural Foundation is to educate second and third-generation Haitians and other residents about her country. “Haitians have played a major role in the development of the TCI, because they were the first migrant labourers,” she says. She feels that their role in this development has not garnered as much respect as it should have and explains that, although the situation has improved in recent times, Haitians have also suffered discrimination as a nationality in the islands. The foundation’s goal is to change that through educational and community programmes that also showcase the rich art and culture of this Caribbean nation. “We want to create programmes for children so they can take pride in being Haitian,” says Guiline.

Ironically, the most recent large national group to arrive in the TCI has also just established a non-profit organisation to showcase their cultural identity. The Filipinos Volunteer Association will, explains founding member Marie Papico, be a civic action group to assist non-governmental and government projects in the Turks & Caicos Islands, while at the same time sharing the culture of this far-away country with its new island hosts. “We want to be a part of this community, so that when we leave we can say that we did something, we enjoyed ourselves and we contributed something . . . that we were not just here to make money,” says Marie.

As TCI’s director of culture, David Bowen welcomes other nationalities organising themselves in this way and sharing their rich culture with others. But he adds that theirs and other nationalities’ displays of cohesion now exacerbate the challenges that Turks & Caicos Islanders face in ensuring their own cultural identity is strengthened.

children-with-puppets-pdWith the speed of development, the heritage and culture of these Islands has been somewhat sidelined, says David, and efforts must be made today to ensure that a sense of national identity does not disappear now that so many other strong cultures are making the Islands their home. “Unfortunately we as a people have not discovered unity as yet, culturally,” he commiserates. “There is still an issue of Grand Turk people against South Caicos people against Provo people. So we as a people have not got used to the idea of each other in our own country and we still have issues as to our own identity. So when you have people of different nationalities coming in here, and they are united or you see them as a group or you see them celebrating, it’s difficult for some people to deal with that on many levels.” However, Bowen hopes that the wealth of nationalities now in the Turks & Caicos Islands, even if concentrated in Providenciales, “will inspire people to look at themselves and try to identify ourselves as a people.”

Karen Misick also sees modern-day Providenciales as an eye-opener to the need to showcase Turks & Caicos culture and history. She says she enjoys hearing stories from her grandmother and her friends about “back in the day,” but believes that there needs to be a greater focus on this aspect of society here. “It’s really important to acknowledge your history and acknowledge the importance of it and share it with the other people that are sharing their culture,” she asserts. “I don’t think having all these different nationalities and cultures here is a threat to us, but I think it is now more important than ever to take hold of our culture and make it important. It’s great what the Maritime Heritage Federation is doing and what David Bowen is doing to focus on culture, and there needs to be more emphasis on this now.”

One of the places to start ensuring this happens is in the primary schools. With Belongers only just in the majority amongst schoolchildren in the Islands, and with many schoolteachers in the Turks & Caicos from other countries, the time for education about Turks & Caicos culture is now. David has some programmes ongoing in the schools, but stresses that more resources and attention need to be focused on this area. “It’s important for TIs and also for kids who are foreign, so they get a sense of TI culture as they are growing up along with TIs. So when they reach adulthood there isn’t a sense of separation and there’s more of a cohesiveness between the two.”

The next generation in these Islands will be the most cosmopolitan yet and, as other islands in the archipelago develop and inter-cultural marriages continue, this diversity will spread. Along with Haitian, Dominican, Jamaican and Canadian Turks & Caicos Islanders, there will be Filipino, Mexican, Nigerian, Russian and Japanese Turks & Caicos Islanders, and many, many more ethnic blends. And all of them will consider these small islands in the middle of the Caribbean their home.

Meanwhile, Bengt Soderqvist, one of the first European expatriates in Providenciales, has plans to continue his journey to other places. He has signed up as a passenger on Virgin Galactic’s inaugural commercial flight into space. Time will only tell if a multitude of nations will follow in his footsteps this time.


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Alexa Tracy Latimore
Apr 11, 2012 15:39

O.M.G kinda interesting but what a long story

Lasse Lundin
Mar 25, 2013 17:27

Hallo Bengt!

Jag är tacksam om denna hälsning framförs till Bengt Söderqvist.!!!

Det var ett tag sedan vi åkte skidor i Kitzbyel. Jag inser att du levt ett spännande liv. Jag har noterat att du planerar att ge dig upp i rymden härifrån Kiruna. Det skulle vara fantastiskt roligt att höra från dig på något sätt. Du kanske är i Kalmar ibland
Du kan nå mig antingen via mail el tel 031-286309 alt mobil 073 6308533.
Bästa hälsningar
Lasse Lundin

Min adress är: Halliden 23, 43639 Askim

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