What Haiti Taught Me

Today’s guest post is from Joanne M. Choi. Joanne is a freelance writer who will go anywhere to get a great story! Her passion is staying up-to-date on people and society.
You name it, she has written about it. She currently writes for Color Magazine and is the fashion blogger at Boston Event Guide. Otherwise, her time is spent finishing her first Young Adult novel, volunteering with Boston Cares, and traveling.

From the moment my feet touched down at Toussaint Louverture International Airport last year, my eyes took in this completely new world with both wonderment and confusion. That reaction was not unexpected as this was my 1st time to the Caribbean, Haiti, and on a missions trip. The feat was fierce as our group waited for our rides.

My first impression of Port-au-Prince as we drove away from the airport was beauty in the midst of chaos. It seemed like a place colorless and dusty with patches of vibrancy all the more brilliant for its unexpectedness.  Think endless rubble, children trying to dust off our van, potholes, the random art, and the brightly painted taptap buses with many Haitians crammed inside and out.

That crammed impression was furthered when looking upon Haitians conducting their day-to-day activities.  Those selling goods, other buying goods, graceful women passing by with items balancing nicely on their heads.  The men who seemed to be just hanging around adding to this tableau of densely configured spaces.

The children’s eager faces peered at us excitedly from windows and doors when we arrived on that first Monday to the Caped Orphanage to conduct a weeklong Vacation Bible School. I wonder what we represented to them as we emerged with, most of us armed with our supplies for the week and one with her guitar.

The perpetually smiling Pastor Dimanche and his wife ran the orphanage that had a fence around the property and a gate (I was pleasantly surprised) though the children shared the beds and others slept on the floor.  The Dimanches had one biological son and the rest of the children were between the ages of 2-20.

Schnadine, whom they called Bébé, was the youngest in the orphanage.  Like a delicate figure skater, she walked around carefully in frilly little dresses.  I adored her.  The older children made it a point to include her in games. Bébé had miraculously survived the earthquake and been rescued from the rubble though sadly her Mother had not survived.

As we started singing, John Carey burst into sobs as his thin legs dangled over the seat. Large sad brown eyes stared ahead as I did my best to soothe this overwhelmed child that seemed to have a sorrow within him so profound.  He fell asleep in my arms. What I didn’t know that first day was that only 8 days prior, unable to care for him, his mother had dropped her little boy off at the orphanage.

Even though some kids were shy and did not approach me right away, others did.  One teenage boy with a charming smile inquired, “Do you have parents or brothers and sisters?” I did and we started chatting.  The floodgates opened; he wanted to know the background about the other Americans in my group. Soon, there was a group of older kids gathered around me listening.  I felt like a storyteller weaving in our lives so they could understand us better.

Many children touched and tugged at my hair when I didn’t have it pulled back. “Do you cut your hair?” a teenage girl asked me urgently, seriously while widening her eyes and gazing at me. Confused, I answered, “My hair used to be much longer but now I keep it at shoulder length.”  The other girls around me nodded in seeming awe.  Then, I realized why they asked me. We shared the same hair color, the children and I, but the texture of their hair was different from mine.  I wondered if I was the first Asian person they had ever met in person. It did seem at times that I was one of few Asians in the whole country.

“We call them the United Nothing,” quipped Frenaud, one of our translators, when we both looked at a white UN vehicle with its protective bars that seemed out of place.  To say this is a complicated country whose relationships with other nations like the US are extremely complex is an understatement. Many American, myself included, are not taught in school/aware that Haiti was the first free black republic in the world and once more prosperous than the US.  The issues related to foreign aid are layered.  Reading Margaret Trost’s book On That Day, Everybody Ate, Paul Farmer’s The Uses of Haiti, and Philippe Girard’s Haiti provided glimpses and helped with my general ignorance.  As did watching the episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations filmed in Haiti.

After the 2010 earthquake, Haiti was in the news and on the hearts of many people in the US and around the world, and I hope the focus continues to be there.  I believe that the Haitians can and should take the initiative, working together with self-sustaining charity models. In my opinion, charity-supported models will not break the learned helplessness cycle that is ultimately self-defeating.  Haiti is a country on the verge. It won’t take a day or a year to break free from the effects of generations of poverty, a high illiteracy rate, deforestation, and corruption, but there are Haitians who can take it in the right direction.

Why did I come? Something inside was compelling me and it felt both emotional and spiritual. Also, I didn’t want to be sitting around all the time focusing on myself, my own uncertainties about the future and the path I had chosen.  I knew that I needed perspective and if I did this now, it would be the start of giving back in ways that felt real and relevant.

I still think about the precious Haitian children in the orphanage and writing this now helps me process my thoughts. To the world, they have little prospects and only the guarantee of one hot meal of day until they leave the orphanage. I take comfort in knowing that the children have their hope for a better future along with a spirit of faith and joy.

Information on aid and relief organizations associated with Haiti.

Fonkoze – http://www.fonkoze.org/

Fonkoze, which means “let’s talk” in Haitian Creole, is an micro-lending organization.  They say that they are the largest micro-finance organization servicing Haitians in poor, rural based areas.

Zafen – It’s Our Business https://www.zafen.org/

Zafen, which loosely translated means “our business” in Haitian Creole, is another micro-lending site but it’s built on the KickStarter model.   It allows folks to post their projects (mostly education projects and medium – large enterprises) online and set fundraising goals.  Funders can then A) pick from an array of featured projects and B) Select how much they want to give.  100% of your loan or donation goes directly to the project.

Haitian Artisans For Peace International – http://www.haitianartisans.com/

Support Haitian Artisans and the expansion of the arts in Haiti

International Institute of New England – http://iine.us/

Many Haitians have relocated to the States after last year’s earthquake.  The IINE, located here in Boston, helps recent immigrants adjust to their new lives in New England through workforce development programs and money-saving workshops. The staff is experienced and incredibly passionate about what they do.

Haiti Habitat for Humanity – http://www.habitat.org/intl/lac/89.aspx

This branch of HFH provides both temporary housing and construction skills to the communities affected by natural disasters in Haiti

J/P HRO – http://jphro.org/

The mission of the J/P Haitian Relief Organization is about bringing sustainable programs to the Haitian people in a timely and efficient matter. Co-founded by Sean Penn.

GiveLove – http://www.givelove.org/

GiveLove is focused on teaching the Haitian people about thermophilic composting. Co-founded by Patricia Arquette and Rosetta Getty.

Project Medishare for Haiti – http://www.projectmedishare.org/

It is an organization dedicated to sharing its human and technical resources with its Haitian partners in the quest to achieve quality healthcare and development services for all.

Partners In Health – http://www.pih.org/

The mission is both medical and moral. It is based on solidarity, rather than charity alone.

World Relief – http://worldrelief.org/Page.aspx?pid=2723

Christian organization that works with local churches to serve the most vulnerable.

5 thoughts on “What Haiti Taught Me

  1. Joanne, I’m reading this post a day late and am so moved by your eloquent storytelling and talented ability to give a clear view into unfamiliar territory. I felt an immediate trust in what you wrote and in your perspectives. I’ve always been drawn to those organizations that work with rather than simply for others . . . working with seems not only less arrogrant but more likely to succeed in sustaining what is done. I’ve contributed to Partners in Health and was glad to see it referenced. Thanks so much for sharing!


  2. Wonderful post, and so challenging. Such poverty and right on our doorstep. And you are right on about the failure of “charity supported models” and the “learned helplessness” that has resulted. Thank you so much.


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