Published March 20, 2013
MANDEVILLE, Jamaica – In this affluent town in Jamaica's cool, mountainous interior, Jasmine Pottinger has realized the dream that kept her going while dealing with racism, culture shock and other challenges during almost four decades of working in drizzly London, a city where she never felt entirely accepted.
The 73-year-old retired nurse and her husband, Earl, have retired to the Jamaican parish of her birth. Their pensions and hard-earned savings from Britain afford them a handsomely decorated house with a big balcony and spacious patio looking out on a terraced garden buzzing with hummingbirds and exploding with red and orange flowers that bloom year round.
"In London, we could never afford all this," she says as friends enjoy freshly baked banana bread and strong Jamaican coffee served by a domestic helper. "Jamaica is certainly not cheap, but it does offer us a quality of life we enjoy. Plus, we are Jamaican and this is our country. Although I lived in England for 36 years, coming home was always my intention."
For years, that was the goal of nearly all Jamaicans who left seeking work because of the poor wages and scarcity of opportunity at home. They returned at retirement to take advantage of the sunny Caribbean island's lower costs and comfortable climate — and at the same time they provide a significant source of foreign currency for the economy.
But to the dismay of the government, fewer and fewer Jamaicans are coming back from London, New York, Toronto and other cities that drew them away as young adults. Over the last 20 years, the annual number of "returning nationals" has dropped by more than half — down to slightly more than 1,000 in 2011, the most recent year for which official figures are available.
Some overseas Jamaicans are stuck in devalued homes because of the world economic crunch and find their Caribbean paradise is out of reach financially. Others are choosing to live in retirement communities in places like Florida that offer strong personal care services. Often they are put off by Jamaica's struggle with high rates of crime that were unimaginable when they left just as the island was shedding its status as a colonial outpost of Britain a half century ago.
Caribbean islands have long suffered from a "brain drain" that has seen professionals and skilled workers head off to jobs in the U.S., Europe and Canada. Leaders of small islands like Grenada and St. Lucia have lately begun wooing nationals abroad and encouraging them to assist with developing their struggling homelands, but much more populous Jamaica has the most focused effort to forge relationships with its overseas citizens.
About 3 million Jamaicans live abroad, more than the 2.7 million who are here. The $2 billion they send home each year is a major source of investment and wealth for this poor island, accounting for more than 13 percent of its GDP. The Bank of Jamaica says retirees who move back home are a key factor, estimating that their pensions provide 15 percent of the inflow of foreign currency.
Government officials are working to entice more nationals to come home — or at least to invest in Jamaica. A four-day Jamaica Diaspora Conference in mid-June hopes to attract hundreds of representatives of Jamaican overseas communities in the U.S., Britain, Canada and elsewhere in the Caribbean to discuss trade and investment.
The private sector also touts the need for more Jamaicans to move back. Developer Stafford Earle, who has just completed a subdivision selling primarily to Jamaicans with foreign pension checks, says returnees are a boost for the local economy along the scenic coast of Westmoreland parish where he builds.
"The overall long-term financial input will be as great as that of sugar and tourism," Earle said.
Irwine Clare, managing director of the New York-based advocacy group Caribbean Immigrant Services, believes crime is the biggest problem keeping Jamaicans from resettling on the island.
"We recognize the impact of what crime and violence has done to our beloved nation. It is cause for major concern. But we are very much a God-fearing people so we never give up in spite of all the odds that are against us," Clare said in a telephone interview. "It is also for us in the diaspora to help find a solution."
Migration back home is a sensitive subject for many overseas Jamaicans who are afraid to burn bridges by discussing why they are reluctant to move back.
Stephen Batchelor, an 89-year-old returnee to gang-steeped Spanish Town, said former neighbors in the British city of Birmingham told him they are afraid to come back. They believe they will be targeted by criminals in Jamaica, where nearly everyone lives behind iron burglar bars installed on windows and doors.
"It seems to me that the interest in returning home has mostly faded," Batchelor said, standing by his bungalow's front gate where last year two thieves robbed him of his monthly pension packet.
The good news for Jamaica is that homicides and other major crimes have been going down since 2010, when an anti-gang crackdown got started. For 2012, police reported 1,087 homicides, the lowest number in nine years. National Security Minister Peter Bunting says the island aims to reduce crime to "First World levels" by 2017, when he hopes to have a maximum of just 321 killings.
For now, Jamaica still has an eye-popping violent crime rate. When Chicago, with roughly the same population as Jamaica, chalked up 506 homicides last year, the bloodshed put the city at the center of the U.S. debate over guns. Jamaica's has had 1,000-plus killings every year since 2004.
Perhaps nowhere is there more at stake than in Mandeville, where the rolling hills are dotted with stately homes owned by returned Jamaicans, including mansions with secret gardens and ornate fountains.
On a recent morning, the Pottingers met with other former British residents who have formed an association for companionship and safety. They reminisced about the long-ago challenges that confronted them when they first went to the "Mother Country" of England some 50 years ago.
But when the conversation turned to their retirement in Jamaica, member David Fyffe's face turned sour. Having come back to his homeland, he still has to deal with alienation and hostility — this time from envious countrymen who look upon him as a moneyed foreigner ripe for exploitation.
"The homes of returning residents are robbed when they go to church, robbed when they go on vacation. There are strong attempts to cheat and defraud. Yes, there has been a decline in Jamaica and returning residents can be a target," said Fyffe, nearly 70, who worked on the British railways for years.
The group of senior citizens rattled off a litany of safety measures large and small: Always keep your car windows up in traffic. Only deal with police officers you trust. Install closed-circuit television monitoring. Don't dawdle at your front gate. Nearly ripe bananas and plantains must be concealed from street view or they'll be stolen.
Yet, they say Jamaica is still a good place to live. Many of them enjoy support networks of family and friends and love being back on the island where they grew up, no matter how much it's changed.
Pottinger said she never had any intention of staying overseas.
"None of us went to England and thought they would stay for any longer than five years. We thought the place was paved with gold — you'd go and get our money and you'd come back home," she said, grinning at the memory.
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