Thy Kingdom Come: Hidden History and the Fall of Haiti

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The story of Haiti, is the story of a fallen champion. Today, Haiti is tagged as, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. However, this tag it is unfair, incomplete, inaccurate and therefore misleading, as it proclaims Haiti’s present, without giving a full scope of its past.

Why don’t headlines ever talk about how Haiti was once, one of the most prosperous colonies in the world and one of the world’s leaders in coffee and sugar exports? Why don’t headlines emphasize how it was the first Black republic in the world and for that, it was isolated, punished and blackballed by its former colonizers and their slave-holding allies? Why don’t the headlines report how Haiti was occupied by the United States military for nearly 20 years and how the Haitian people were exploited for cheap labor against their will? Why don’t the headlines mention how the United States government sponsored Jean- Claude Duvalier, also known as “Papa Doc,” one of the most ruthless and notorious dictators of the 20th century with money and arms to rule Haiti for decades under pure fear and terror? I don’t hear many headlines tagging Haiti for having its already fragile economy destroyed in the 1990’s by Bill Clinton’s backdoor deal, that bankrupted and pushed out Haitian rice farmers, while subsidizing farmers from the Clinton’s home state of Arkansas. And more despicably, the hundreds of millions of dollars of humanitarian aid to Haiti in response to the 2010 earthquake that the American Red Cross used to build gated communities for its workers, instead of homes for the victims of the actual earthquake. Oh yeah! What about the United Nation “peace keepers” who have impregnated hundreds if not thousands of Haitian girls and women, while leaving them to raise a generation of children on their own.  Did I mention how those same “peace keepers” brought cholera to Haiti, by contaminating the Haitian water supply with their human waste and feces, leading to the deaths of thousands of people?

To continue to simply tag Haiti as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere is like watching Mike Tyson’s last fight against Lennox Lewis and deciding that Mike Tyson’s legacy would be cemented from the results of a fight, that should have never happened in the first place. Tyson had been far beyond his prime and to say that he was damaged goods, would have been a compliment. Tyson was merely a shell, a shadow of what his name meant to millions, who watched him in his prime destroy anything that dared to stand in the square with him. And let us rest assure, that his fall from glory, was not by happenstance. The untimely death of his mentor, coupled with his exploitation by the infamous Don King among others; lead one of the greatest fighters the world has ever known, to his back on a canvas mat, in an arena filled with perplexed eyes, pitied hearts and the realization, that this once great boxing warrior-god, had been reduced to a mere mortal. But still, in his downfall, Tyson will always be recognized as one of the greatest. We do not honor hour heroes in their defeat, but in their glory. We should do the same for Haiti.

Haiti has been down for quite some time now, but its true historical and cultural narrative, still outweighs its current calamitous present.  The black sheep, the dark child, prodigal son, the underdog. All these metaphors hold the real story of a nation that continues to fight for its rightful place in the history books and in a world that is quick to forget and dismiss the mighty legacy of the land where black people actually came together to achieve the unspeakable and the unthinkable… FREEDOM.

Many nations have built tremendous wealth on the backs of the oppressed. Just over 200 years ago in 1804, when New World slavery was at its relative peak in places like Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia, 1000 miles away, nearly half a million slaves had flipped the script. Greater than any March on Washington, Million Man March, Emancipation Proclamation, Thirteenth, Fourteenth Amendment or Black Lives Matters hashtag… Just as the Patriots had defeated the British, the Africans on the island of Hispaniola had defeated the French army.  Inscribed on the Haitian flag you will find the quote, L’union fait la force, In unity there is strength; which is a kin to the motto of the Thirteen Colonies during the American Revolution… “Join or die.” To be Haitian is to know that you come from the same ilk of the only nation on earth to ever lead a successful slave revolt and to know that running in your veins is the same blood of men in women, who were the original freedom fighters. This is what Haiti should be known for. Because if not, then to be fair, accurate and transparent, we must tag those countries responsible for Haiti’s economic demise … France, the country that still owes Haiti billions in reparations. England, the country that colonized and enslaved millions of people and bled their resources dry until the mid 20th century. The United States, the wealthiest country in the world by inheriting a lucrative slave economy from the British and continued to profit for nearly a century from free labor and has yet to provide reparations to the families of former slaves, while the families of former slave owners continue to thrive from generational wealth.

With the recent landfall of Hurricane Matthew, today, Haiti is clinging onto the ropes. The combination of natural disasters, political and economic sabotage have taken its toll on Haiti. Her opponents have hit her with every hook, jab, uppercut and combination imaginable. She is hurt, wounded and bloodied. And though she has been knocked down and knocked out, she continues to pick herself up and fight again. What a mighty people! What a mighty nation! Haiti, the strongest country in the world, the champion of the people. 

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More Than a Game

Since 2010 I have worked and partnered with a Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization called Community2Community. They help to build self-sufficient communities in Haiti, by working with the community.

The organization is focused on tackling four areas the impacted the people of Piton, a mountainside village just outside of Petit Goave, Haiti:

1. Building a road to allow supplies to come in and out the community, as well as allow commerce and transportation to take place more efficient and effectively.

2. Reforest the mountainside, which had been ravaged after years of excessive production of chabon, which is Creole for charcoal.

3. Providing a centralized clean water source, so that the people of the community no longer have to spend 6-8 hours a day fetching buckets of water to perform their daily tasks; such as cooking, laundry and bathing.

4. Rebuild the school that had been damaged by the earthquake and subsequently destroyed due to a series of hurricanes.

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Being a teacher, I naturally gravitated towards the rebuilding of the school. After a few conversations and brainstorming with Marie Eusebe, the found of C2C and I came up with an fundraiser called Change04Change.  It started off as a basic operation of having students and staff members bringing in loose change and donating it to our cause, coupled with a bake sale and a few other activities. The homeroom that raised the most money won a pizza party and was celebrated at a school-wide assembly. Our goal has always been that and we have met our goal essentially each year. Our hope is to get as many schools in the New York City area to do the same. But it has not been an easy task.

Five years later, Change04Change has evolved into a more focused and engaging initiative. During the month of May which is Haitian Heritage Month we not only fund raise, but we really engage our students throughout the month.

1.Our Global Citizen Essay Contest– students write essays about what it means to be a global citizen and how they can get involved in assisting with our efforts in Petit Goave. The top three finalists are awarded at our annual Hope and a Future Celebration.

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2. Hats04Haiti– students and staff all wear the hat of their choice for a day and give a kind donation to show their support.

3. Flag Day & Dance04Haiti– In commemoration of Haitian Flag Day, students wear the flags of their national origin to school and after school, students who make a donation can come and celebrate at the school’s Dance04Haiti celebration.

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4. Hoops04Haiti– The students and staff play each other in a “friendly” game of basketball. It’s a great way to celebrate what our kids already love, but also bring the school together to play for a purpose.

This year something special happened. After years of tension with our neighboring school, as we are in co-located space. We were able to work collaboratively to have a game in which our students played our neighboring school’s students and then the staffs of each school played each other. We all came together for a good cause and as a result have started the beginning of a beautiful partnership between my school, which is a charter school and our neighboring school, which is a public school.

Thus far we have raised  nearly $800 but are still well short of our goal of $1000. After sending out a thank you email to all the staff members and everyone involved, the assistant principal from our neighboring school called me down to his office and said “We didn’t make our mark, I want to make sure that you reach your goal of $1000. Let’s have a rematch before the end of the school.”

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Do You Speak Haitian?

Florida has the largest Haitian population outside of Hisapniola (the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Nearly  400 hundred thousand people of Haitian descent reside in Florida and yet Mark O’Mara, George Zimmerman’s defense attorney, did not know that Haitians do not speak Haitian. I was aghast. Haitian is not a language. This is a sad example of the lack of cultural awareness on the behalf of Zimmerman’s legal team. Do Americans speak American? Do Cubans speak Cuban? Do Jamaican’s speak Jamaican? For the record, Haitians speak Creole (Kreyol). I would not expect someone from Oshkosh, Wisconsin to know that. On the other hand,  anyone who lives in Florida and is working a high-profile case such as this one, should.

Even after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the entire planet witnessed  the toll over 200,000 lives taken,  while  another million people were left homeless, you would think that Zimmerman’s counsel would get it right. Granted, Rachel Jeantel is not the most articulate witness. Being Haitian-American myself, I will admit at times that I was embarrassed by Ms. Jeantel’s behavior and demeanor on the stand, but she was totally out of her element and dealing with the loss of her close friend. Zimmerman’s defense team had no excuse for not doing their research on a case with obvious cultural implications. In America, we have this disconnection that gives us the silent permission to dismiss certain subcultures. This is dangerous and quite frankly irresponsible.

Mr. O’Mara, after this is all over, please purchase a map and locate Haiti. I hear that the people there led the only successful slave revolt in human history and established the first black republic in the world in 1804.

“Do you speak Haitian?” Really?

Rachel Jeantel is being questioned by Mark O'Mara, George Zimmerman's defense attorney.
Rachel Jeantel being questioned by Mark O’Mara, George Zimmerman’s defense attorney. During his examination, Mr. O’Mara asked Ms. Jeantel if she spoke Haitian.

The Haitian Mother

I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. My parents migrated to Miami, Florida from Haiti in the early 1970s to escape the notorious Duvalier regime. In those days Duvalier ruled Haiti with an iron fist and terrorized anyone who would dare oppose him. He and his tan tan makout left Haitians living in constant fear, from Port au Prince (Haiti’s capitol) to Port de Paix (My father’s hometown in Northwest Haiti). Like millions of immigrants before them, they came to the shores of the United States in search of a better life for themselves and their family. Since I can remember, they had always instilled in us the importance of education.

Every morning my mother woke us up at the crack of dawn. We did not attend our neighborhood schools because they were some of the worst schools in Miami. Our parents sent us to school in the white and Hispanic suburb of Miami Springs, from elementary to high school. This meant we had to wake up extra early to make sure we made it to school on time.

From day one, education was a priority in my household. There was only one thing greater than education, and that was God. There was zero tolerance for doing poorly in school and even less tolerance for heathenism. As a result I received numerous perfect attendance awards throughout elementary school. Ironically, I probably traveled further than any of my classmates each day. Most of the students at my elementary school lived within in the school’s boundary however, my siblings and I lived about 6 or 7 miles away in a neighborhood known as Allapattah. Mommy would drop us off on her way to work or she would leave bus fare for us to catch the MTA (Metro Transit Authority).

School started at 8:30 a.m., and our commute was about 30 minutes by car and about 45 minutes by bus. Not only did we get to school on time, but we arrived at least thirty minutes early in order to take advantage of the free breakfast.  Therefore, Mommy would wake us up each morning at 6 a.m. She’d first knock on our door like a drill sergeant, as if we were new cadets in basic training. Then she would flip the light switch and yell out to us in Haitian Creole, Leve’, leve’, leve’, li le pou nou al lekol (Wake up, wake up, wake up, it’s time for school).

From kindergarten to my senior year of high school, Mommy was my alarm clock. Even when she stopped barging into the room at the crack of dawn, I could still hear her floating through the house, washing up and making her daily cup of Bustello Café’. This was our morning ritual and we never missed a beat, we were always in school.

Today, I still have a long commute, but I do not let that stop me from being there and on time for my students each day.

Like all cultures, the importance of parental guidance and support is crucial in ones development. I was blessed to have two parents and my mother was a true disciplinarian. The portrait above demonstrates the unbroken strength of Haitian mothers.

Ayisyen on Campus

I speak in front of people all the time, but for some reason I was a little nervous tonight. The first speaker was a young professional Haitian-American by the name of Jean Pierre-Louis. His organization  Capracare Haiti is fairly new, less than two years old. His work is familiar but not taken for granted.  He is rebuilding and changing Haiti, one step at a time. Jean’s vision is written powerfully at the bottom of his business card, mete men nou ansanm pou nou viv an santé ( promoting health change through individual acts of courage).

Then it was my turn. I had been up since five in the morning, worked a full load teaching and debating with  7th graders about whether Christopher Columbus should receive credit or acknowledgement for discovering America, when in actuality he thought he was in Asia. Furthermore, my principal decided that we are going to have professional development on Fridays; afterschool.  After a less than inspiring P.D. session, I grabbed my materials hustled out of the building, ran across the street to the local bodega, grabbed a Nutriment and hopped on the 4 train.  I was tired from a long day and a longer week. But the idea of being able to talk about two of my passions for a few minutes in front of an intimate audience at NYU gave me the surge that I needed. What an incredible way to end the work week!

So I introduced myself, loosened the stoic crowd with some of my subtle humor, and it was on. The Community2Community video was a hit as always, and I used it to bring a real connection to what we are all doing in some form or another. There is something for everyone to do and that was my message this evening. “Give a man a fish…” I’m not a fisherman, but I am teacher and a coach; educating young people is what I do. Tonight I had the esteemed privilege of educating and informing others about the great work that Community2Community has been doing.

As the evening moved on and other groups presented, you could feel the energy and passion in the room begin to emerge. After the last presentation by Artists Village, we were all on our feet, inspired, energized, ready to mix, mingle and share ideas. They had just come back from Haiti, less than a week ago with an inspiring message of love and hope. It was beautiful.

The high point of the evening for me,  was when one of my former students walked into the room with about 20 other young men. Instantly, I knew was the leader. It was powerful to see. I could see my own influence and work after eight years of teaching begin to manifest, right before my very eyes. His name is Gerald Jean-Baptiste, he was a student of mine at North Miami Beach Senior High School, where I taught for six years. He is now a senior at NYU and the president of an organization on campus called Gentlemen of Quality.

At first he did not see me, but when he did, he immediately introduced me to his group of 20 or so gentlemen and the networking exploded. They all signed the Community2Community Volunteer Sheet and have agreed to help out whenever they can. Before long the once small, quiet, stoic room, turned into a buzz of life, laughter and excitement. I am more than proud of the work that H.A.S.A. is doing. They are bringing like-minded people together to work towards one cause.

I look forward to next year’s event. It will be a testimony to the work that we are all doing. This year’s event has already done that and more. Our dreams will not be deferred, for they are being realized each day through the great efforts of our young brothers and sisters on NYU’s campus.

What My People Go Through

When I woke up on the morning of Saturday, July 23, 2011 I did what millions of Americans do each morning. Before washing my face or even brushing my teeth, I looked over at my Blackberry to see if I had missed any messages, emails or phone calls. I noticed that the customary red light was flashing. I had missed a phone call from my older brother, Ray. This was odd because he never called this early. Immediately I dialed him back, without a greeting or a good morning, he said “Ashley, the cholera is back, six people have died already!”

It didn’t sink in right away, so I let him continue talking. What was I supposed to say or do? He continued to explain the grim events that had taken place over the past few days. Earlier that week, Wednesday evening, three people had reportedly been on their way to Immaculee, the largest medical center in Port de Paix. All three had died, two at the hospital and one in the ambulance. That was just the beginning. Over the next couple of days, it was said that nearly a dozen people had died from the cholera exposure.

I began to brainstorm about what I could do to help. Sitting around and feeling hopeless wasn’t going to solve anything, so I told Ray that I would call him back. First I went online and searched the internet for any new stories or releases talking about the most recent cholera outbreak in Northwest Haiti; The Miami Herald, New York Times, CNN, Google, nothing . No one was reporting anything.

My next step was to call my father down in Miami. He is an immigration consultant who primarily helps Haitians who are seeking to become American citizens. He’s been serving the Haitian community in Miami for over 20 years, if anybody knew about what was going on in Port de Paix, it would be my father. I called him and what he told me was even more graphic and detailed than what my brother had described.

One of his clients had just left his office in tears. The man had just come back from Port de Paix and said that dozens of people were sick and that the situation was dire. He said that they were running out of beds in the hospital, even worse, as people began dying, they would simply bury their corpses in a lot adjacent to the hospital. The potential ramifications of these actions were unimaginable.

If all this had happened within the course of three days, imagine what possible tragedies loomed ahead. As I began to brainstorm, I started to think about all the people I could call upon that would have ideas, resources or experience with this sort of situation and the name “Marie,” popped into my head.  Within seconds I was on the phone calling Marie Eusebe, founder of C2C, a New York based organization that has been doing incredible work in Haiti. We spoke briefly.  She was in a meeting and she said that should would have to call me back. Hours later, the phone rang. It was her and we began an ongoing dialogue and plan of action on what we were going to do, to help the people of Port de Paix…

Two weeks had gone by and thankfully the situation improved. Aqua tabs and medicine were distributed by local NGO’s and Sister City International.  I continue to receive updates from Ray about what’s happening on the ground.

Sadly, the local government of Port de Paix have been very slow to act and respond to the needs of the people. It has been rumored that the mayor had been in South Florida in the midst of the outbreak and essentially did nothing to improve the situation. As a result of his apparent apathy, many citizens of Port de Paix have lost faith in their local government, therefore taking matters into their own hands. When the people needed leadership the most, is when their local officials abandoned them.

As the rainy season persists the Northwest becomes more vulnerable to another cholera outbreak. The mud along with the trash and litter that piles and accumulates after each storm creates an ideal environment for bacteria to thrive. The people of Port de Paix need the local government to get more actively involved, they need community leadership and some good fortune.

What makes the situation sad, yet hopeful is that it’s just as simple as giving people a tablet that can save their lives.  I hope that the people can make it through the next hurricane season without unnecessary loss. The resilient spirit of the people is a miracle in itself, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

This map illustrates the outbreaks of cholera in Haiti in the fall of 2010. Port-de-Paix is located in the Northwest Province of Haiti.
This map illustrates the outbreaks of cholera in Haiti in the fall of 2010. Port-de-Paix is located in the Northwest Province of Haiti.

Going Back to Haiti

I have only been to Haiti three times. My last visit, was in April 2012. I have made a pledge to myself, to visit at least once a year from here on out. The Earthquake on January 12, 2010 was in my eyes is this generation’s most tragic story of human loss. Was I there? No. But to watch the news and hear reports of thousands, tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands dead or missing was staggering. Like so many others, I was compelled to get involved by using my gifts, blessings, talents and opportunities to reach out to the people back home. But even before the Earthquake, Haiti had endured a decade of deadly storms, mudslides, floods and political unrest that seemed to have no cause or an end.

My first visit to Haiti as an adult in 2004 changed had a great impact on my life. I noticed that the people (my family to be specific) did not have much in the way of material wealth, but their resourcefulness, resilience, courage, strength and laughter were something that truly inspired me. They welcomed me into their humble abodes with open arms, hugs, kisses and smiles. They shared everything. No running water was available, like many families. Thus, someone would fetch water from a nearby stream and warm it up each morning so that I could have a warm bath (outside). We all bathed outside. This is the way they lived. No running water and no electricity (with the exception of a gas powered generator which they used at night).

We were considered fortunate, as the only house on the entire block with electricity. And that was their reality, 24/7. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Port-au-Prince. We went to soccer matches played on gravel roads, listened to live Haitian hip hop rap battles on rooftops. We walked through the streets of Carfour and met my cousin’s friends and neighbors. He even took me to the neighborhood gym, with weights made of pales of cement and used make-shift weight benches. This was their Haiti and now my experience of it.

I left Port-au-Prince with a totally different view of the world. While I complained about the things I did not have, in the way of material riches, I should have been praying to God to give me the strength of my brothers and sisters in Haiti. My experience was so profound, that I actually stopped going to church; I didn’t know what to pray for. After visiting my family abroad, I realized I had everything I needed. People at my church back home would cry on the altar, while pastors laid hands on them, to bless them with the ability to pay their water and light bills? Really? How could I return to Miami, get in line at the altar and pray to God for luxury?

Obviously, not everyone who visits their relatives back home come away with the same experience. Some people get on the plane and never return. Some people get caught up in the rat race and forget about the struggle of others. Living in middle-class America is not easy. We have bills and obligations to meet. We have our own lives and struggles too. I’m not here to be the judge of what is more important. However, if you have family back in Haiti, their should be some since of duty to at least stay connected.

I tried my best to stay in touch. I said that I would go back each summer, but I would not return to  Haiti for seven years.

A boy throws stones into the ocean during sunset in Petit Goave, Haiti.
A boy throws stones into the ocean during sunset in Petit Goave, Haiti.