Sunday, I left the USA again. I was bound for Haiti, the beautifully chaotic island Nation in the Caribbean. It has been over five months since I first went to Haiti to lead two treks with buildOn. As I complete trek setup and prepare to build another school with another eager team, I have so much to reflect on about my first trip to Haiti back in February '15.
To be honest, you can never prepare yourself for your first time to Haiti. Had someone told me on my very first day in Haiti, that five months later I would be over the moon excited to return back, I would have nervously laughed and called them a moron. The corruption, chaos, crowded markets and road blocks in the Capital city of Port au Prince literally scared the crap out of me at first. Throughout all of my travels across the globe, when my family asks how things are, without fail I always say “Great!”, even if I am unsure of things. That is just my stubborn, I got this, nature. However, this time, I said, “Uh, it’s a little rough here.” I think my sister, Emily, wanted to call the embassy and have me shipped out of there on the first flight to JFK. Thankfully that did not happen.
Haiti is an interesting place to be as an NGO (non-governmental organization) worker. Since the Earthquake in 2010 that took over 100,000 lives, Haiti has received floods of people trying to fix all of their problems (Haiti has the highest density of NGO's per capita as shown in the image). The sudden stampede of aid actually hindered Haiti because of the non-empowering tactics many organizations took to solve all of the catastrophic issues. They made empty promises to rebuild and provide stability, only to jump ship and leave jobs unfinished.
There is also a large stereotype that many NGO workers fall into - some call it white savior complex. Since I refuse to be categorized as a missionary, I felt extremely awkward arriving to the airport with all of missionaries who lead their efforts with their Bibles. For the record, Trek is not a missionary trip. I am more interested in forming human relationships that empower, ignite passion and initiate positive change, rather than placing religion on people, or reaffirming my beliefs by helping “the poor”. Can someone please define poor for me? Another pet peeve of mine is the sense of solidarity that many (not all) missionary groups lack - I firmly believe that living with people and putting everyone on an equal playing field will yield the most success and joy, unlike staying in luxury NGO hotels. Also, it drives me absolutely nuts that communities have gigantic churches big enough to house hundreds of school children, yet they do not even have a proper school to send their students. Next time you donate to help build a church, please think about that. But, with everything said, different strokes for different folks, am I right?
So, back to my two treks. It was inevitable - at first, I just didn’t feel like I belonged in Haiti. What good was I going to do here? I finally took a deep breath, opened my heart to the people and my outlook on things changed significantly.
As soon as I entered the villages of La Glace and La Hatte, where I would be staying over the course of a month, I instantly knew that Haiti was a special place. The constant singing, dancing and positivity that filled the air was not only inspiring, but reaffirming that people are inherently happy, regardless of the physical possessions they have or how financially “poor” they are. Haitians also have a sparkle in their eyes that radiates enthusiasm for life. Their enthusiasm was received through the welcoming ceremonies full of unique traditions, through their eagerness to welcome their USA sons and daughters into their homes, and through their unending dedication to build their buildOn school. Both communities were invested in ensuring that education would never be inaccessible again. People walked several miles every day to become involved in something bigger than themselves. The experience was truly a collective effort.
Haiti has an incredibly unique culture that prides itself on tradition, good food and family. I was lucky enough to experience cooking bread from scratch with the local bakers. Our team engaged in deep conversations with Voodoo priests, who alleviated the negative stereotypes surrounding Voodoo. We attended a beautiful funeral ceremony that lasted the good part of an entire day because they literally celebrated life. I watched my students bust a move in dance-offs with enthusiastic children. I witnessed trek members teach games, like Jenga, to their host families late into the night; the amount of laughter that ensues when playing Jenga for the first time is indescribable. Finally, I consoled my students as they emotionally expressed that they did not want to leave Haiti because they felt a stronger sense of family with their host family than they did back in the Bronx.
My time in Haiti made me realize that joy is derived from the collective and that as humans, we have to depend on each other in order to thrive as a community. Throughout the month, the sense of community we created had the strongest emotional grasp on me. It was the phenomenal people that I lived life with who made the largest lasting impact on me.
Meet some of those astonishing people…
Meet Obry - Obry is my colleague within buildOn. He is the Haiti Trek Coordinator and is one of the hardest working and most passionate people I have ever met. He grew up in a village in Haiti and beat the odds by getting an education, attending university and now is devoting his life to ensuring that communities, just like the one he grew up in, has hope for the future. I admire him so much for using his skills with buildOn to better his home communities - something I would love to do someday. Obry is one of the kindest, funniest and most inspiring people I know.
Meet O’Shea Ben - O’Shea Ben is the coolest little kid ever. Not only is he incredibly cute, but he doubles as a shadow. No matter where our team went, O’Shea Ben was right there by our side. My high school students all fell in love with his dance moves, his outlandish singing and his heart-warming hugs. It was no surprise to us that O’Shea Ben is excelling in school and is one of the top students. There was not a dry eye in the bunch when we had to say goodbye to our little buddy.
Meet Nancy - At first, Nancy seemed like an annoying teenage girl that liked to flirt with our team. She did not have a shy bone in her body and was never scared to dance like there was no tomorrow. On the worksite, she was always the first to initiate the drum circle or singing. Nancy taught our team to live life without reservations, to be yourself and that there is nothing a little dancing can’t solve. She definitely lives by the YOLO (you only live once) mantra.
Meet Nassir - Nassir exemplifies being the perfect buildOn student. When I interviewed him for trek, he was incredibly shy, he had just moved to The Bronx from Guinea, and was very apprehensive about going on trek. His home life could have been better and his experience in the USA public school system could have been more inclusive. Even though he is a man of few words, his thoughts are magical when he finally opens up to you. He has the biggest heart and wants to make a difference in the world. He has a way with kids where they instantly connect with him. Nassir absolutely thrived in Haiti and would have been 100% content to live in the village for the rest of his life. Nassir is a student that I will never forget.
Meet Verose - Verose was never happy with the gender roles that were forced upon her throughout her life and marriage, so she initiated a split from her husband. Since then, she has taken on leadership roles in her community, is going back to school and is the strongest advocate for gender balance in the schools. Her smile is equally as beautiful as her personality. (Click link to read more).
Meet Emerson - At first glance, Emerson has a huge presence about him; he’s a good looking, tall, towering man with a deep voice that would intimidate anyone. But, do not let that fool you, Emerson is one of the most intelligent and caring people I have ever met. He does not settle for the status quo - he literally worked his butt off to rally his team around fundraising the funds for their buildOn school. In the village, he was not scared to start conversations that most would consider controversial. He makes anyone that he interacts with feel like the most important person in the world. Lastly, he worked harder on the worksite than anyone I have ever taken on trek - he’s seriously a beast at mixing concrete. I am incredibly honored to call Emerson a friend.
So many great memories were made on these two treks in February and March. Words cannot even begin to describe how incredibly blessed and lucky I am to be able to work with such fantastic people in phenomenal places across the world like Haiti. buildOn has truly made such an impact on my life and I cannot wait to see how my next trek unfolds this week in Haiti and the many more treks to come across the world!