(Haeinn Woo reports on her recent trip to Haiti. The “Hope of Haiti” project is working on a grassroots level to build a school and orphanage in a tent city. Her team of intrepid Mount Holyoke College students brought down suitcases crammed full of school supplies. Reader to Reader is pleased to partner on this project, helping them fundraise and gather resources.)
My name is Haeinn, a Korean American from Long Island, New York and a senior with a major called Faith and Science at Mount Holyoke College. In January 2011, I traveled to Haiti with three other Mount Holyoke students: Sharon from Korea/China, Tebo from Botswana, and Mervnide, a Haitian American from Boston.
I organized this pilot service trip to help a Haitian grassroots organization called OFPADAH build a school for impoverished children in the community of Meyotte, and to provide an educational experience for both Mount Holyoke students and Haitian children. I was connected with OFPADAH through its founder, John Peterson Raymond, the first time I went to Haiti the week after the earthquake in January 2010.
When John first asked me if I would like to help his organization build a school, I knew this was going to be a long term commitment and my portion of reconstructing Haiti. After I met many orphans and children in the community who did not have access to schools, and ordinary Haitian people who came together to develop their own community, I couldn’t refuse this opportunity to help. So I gathered support from my school and Reader to Reader, and decided to return to Haiti with this group.
As soon as we left behind snowy New England, we had to get used to being uncomfortable, from sleeping in the Florida airport to being bounced around in a “tap taps” (Haitian public transportation) on very rocky roads. We stayed in the house of a Korean missionary Simon Kim, who has been working in Haiti for 8 years and supports the children of Cite Soleil, the poorest slum in Port Au Prince. He took us to visit the children and school in a ghetto within Cite Soleil called “ti Kanada,” or “little Canada.” We had to cross a bridge over a river of sewage to the school’s entrance. About 20 children were studying in the tin-roofed two classrooms with one teacher who was also the principal. The children were beautiful and bright in their pink uniforms and smiles.
We also visited an orphanage in a village called Meyer. Father Bourdeau Jonel who is a Haitian Catholic priest has been running this orphanage in a dilapidated rented building for three years. The orphans were absolutely precious. They were such talented artists and by the end of the math lesson, many of them could count up to twenty in English. Father Jonel told me that our visit had made a very special day for the children and asked me to help him find sponsors and volunteers in the US. There are so many orphanages like this that I visited in Haiti, but Father Jonel struck me as someone who has true compassion and really wanted to change the lives of these orphans. He told me they had already lost a child to cholera. But after a missionary installed a water filter, the children are able to drink and wash in safe water.
I also had meetings with OFPADAH to discuss the buying or renting the land for the school, cost of construction, and teacher salaries. We came up with a contract that defined their role and OFPADAH in this project. OFPADAH also gathered about 80 children in a church in Petionville for us to meet. First thing we did was introduce ourselves and then we did a hand-raising survey. “Who goes to school, who doesn’t go to school?” I asked. Many of the students attended school, but only for a few months of the year because of the high tuition. There were also street children who had never been to school.
Our team taught English, math, cholera prevention and treatment, to the children. We verbally tested them on some important concepts they had learned and rewarded them for participation. For the children older than 10 years, I also taught basic sexual health and we were able to get at some meaningful discussion about how to prevent HIV/AIDS. We also did arts and craft, drawing and finger painting to explore creatively what they had learned. The children’s artworks were mostly what you would expect from kids their age, but their subject matter showed what children in Haiti see, such as palm trees, helicopters and cholera. The children were enthusiastic learners and they were all full of dreams of a better future. I think that a high quality school that will provide an affordable education to every child, especially the orphans and children of refugees is very needed in this community.
The challenges I faced on this trip helped me grow so much. I got to taste the unpredictability of tomorrow and feel the joy and gratitude for being alive today, at this moment, like the children I met. There were risks I could not predict or control, difficult cultural barriers to negotiate, mistakes and some bad luck as well. So I learned to be more resourceful, patient and resilient from obstacles including traffic jams, communication difficulties due to dead phones, long meetings with language barriers, and my bag being stolen. All these experiences will prepare me better for future work in Haiti.
Haiti to me is an absolutely fascinating place, rich in culture, history, and work to be done. This beautiful Caribbean nation, which is proud of being the first black republic of the world, faced so much oppression from colonialism and neoliberalism, and still suffers form much misunderstanding and exploitations. Haitians deserve more respect than pity for their resilience in overcoming so much to just live. The foreign aid efforts need to better coordinate with Haitians partners and support existing Haitian community organizations like OFPADAH and Father Jonel’s orphanage to provide education and loving support for the most vulnerable children.
I believe it is each of our duty to respond to the sad realities of the world, by trying to imagine what it would be like to be a Haitian child for three seconds, and take the next step to do something about it.