Kamal Aleen, 52, owns KBB Shipping on Nostrand Avenue in the heart of Crown Heights. There, Aleen caters to West Indian families who, under the economic recession, are struggling more than ever to support two or more households — theirs in the United States and those of family members who live in the eastern Caribbean.
How much obligation do family members living here, feel to send foodstuffs back to families still in the Caribbean?
If you have to put it on a 1 to 10 scale, with 10 being the most, I put it on a 10. Their folks are so heavily dependent on them right now. Packing a barrel is very stressful.
Why is that? Isn’t it just, well, filling a barrel with stuff?
People from the islands, you find that they work with babysitting or whatever and they collect salary by the week. They may be living in a room and have to pay every week for rent and other bills. Whatever little is left, say $50, they may go to the supermarket because they see a sale.
Right. But even with the sales, food prices have risen here.
They have to put out more money. Take sardines. You used to buy sardines, two for $1 and now it is 99 cents for one sardine. Sometimes it take a person almost two months [to fill a barrel]! Unless you have cash in hand to say, “Well, let me go and buy everything one time.” And it is very rare that you find people doing that.
Do you find that you are shipping less?
Today, Saturday, we have six pickups. Last year, it would be almost three times that amount. Right now we are not really making anything. We are only floating.
And how does the slowdown affect people living in the islands who depend on these goods?
You know, when America have a cold, if America sneeze, then we catch the same cold that America has. We have a situation where there is less stuff exporting to St. Vincent [Aleen is Vincentian and the island accounts for most of his business]. Every barrel [that goes through customs], you might pay about $60-$80 EC which is equivalent to about $30 US. A container might contain 200 barrels and you multiply that by $30 and you see the amount of money going into the economy. Let’s say, between the other shippers and myself, you have at least three, four containers going in per week. Now, we have only one.
Well, why not wire money instead of taking the time and effort to wait for sales and buy, pack and ship the goods?
Sometimes, some of these things, they cost three times there, what it sells for here.
So it is worth it to buy the goods in the U.S.?
Yes, it’s worth it. Like, for example, my mother. Sometimes I say, “Let me send a few dollars.” Then she turn back and say, “No, send a barrel.” In the islands, people share a lot. If I send something to my [mother], she have to give this friend something, that friend something. So everybody benefits from one individual person. It’s just like a family.
Wait. So family members living in the U.S. are sending goods back to people who’re not in their immediate families, too?
Yes, they know that they have to maintain that sort of a tie. Let’s say you leave St. Vincent to come here and you never keep a tie with your people there, the day you ready to go back there, it’s problems. Let’s say you’re making it. You’re not making it biggers but you still making it. And you never even send a sweet soap or not even a pound of rice even though you know the condition there. Nobody’s going to recognize you. When you were here you wasn’t studying anybody and so now you come back, you expect people to study you? A lot of people face that.
Don’t people move to the U.S. to live though and not go back?
There’s a few people that does that but a big percentage goes back to the places that they came from. We’ve been doing a couple of jobs for people who’re moving back to the islands. Most of them are in their 50s and after so many years out here they say, “Well, time for me to go back.”
Now that foodstuffs and remittances aren’t coming back as regularly, how are people in the islands going to survive?
I think this is a wake up call. Somewhere along the line, we used to be self sufficient in terms of food. In my days growing up, we were never in need of food because in every town and every village everybody had a backyard garden. And then we start getting supermarket oriented and wanting everything from supermarket shelves. Then we neglected the little backyard farm that we had. I wouldn’t say everybody but, a lot of people going back to planting food. Because if you have this neighbor planting one crop, this other neighbor planting one crop, we go back to sharing.
When you were growing up in St. Vincent, do you remember barrels coming home?
Yes, I remember that. At the time, you used to have barrels coming out of England but I had nobody to send barrel to me. It used to make you feel kinda weird [Aleen smiles] because you see your little friend getting things from America. You know, in them days, everybody was dying to come to America.
What’s the best part of your job?
I like serving people. I see myself as making a contribution to my country, in terms of helping people get their stuff from here to there.