Images of an earthquake-ravaged Haiti have faded from the collective world conscience these days, replaced by occasional photos of horrific poverty and desperate living conditions, seen firsthand by the non-governmental organizations and missionaries who still travel to the country to give aid.
On the two-hour plane ride from Miami to Port-au-Prince, you’ll see clusters of volunteers, some wearing matching T-shirts that advertise their cause or group. You’ll see it again inside the main terminal of the airport in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, as you walk past volunteers queuing for a return flight to the United States.
These volunteers keep coming back to Haiti, long after it fails to produce shocking headlines for newspapers.
Utah is one of the top-ranking states in the country for donations to charities—largely fueled by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ emphasis on overseas missionary work—but what happens to those donations on the ground rarely gets discussed.
In Haiti, or anywhere else in the world where those who don’t speak the local language try to help out, translators and passionate locals are the ties that bind. Without them, NGOs like THA would, in effect, become little more than bandages on problems that are long-festering and deeply endemic.
One of those powerful ties is Remedor Fritzner Robinson, a 29-year-old Haiti native who works with THA as a translator and more.
Robinson’s “involvement and wisdom,” says THA’s Haiti project director, Kym Meehan, “is essential to any impact we want to make.”
Robinson, who speaks Creole, English, French and a little bit of Spanish, grew up in the area of Port-au-Prince known as Cité Soleil, which has been dubbed by the United Nations as one of the world’s most desperate, dangerous slums. His mother, Darline Joseph Remedor, sold charcoal to help feed her family. Early and often, she impressed upon Robinson the value of education and faith in God. Before he worked with THA, Robinson translated for missionaries and helped manage a medical clinic in Cité Soleil.
Meehan met Robinson about a year after the January 2010 magnitude-7 earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people and left hundreds of thousands of others without homes. Meehan had been awarded a grant to build a schoolhouse that could double as a church, and the same grantor asked her to check out how grant funds were being used at a clinic in Cité Soleil that at the time was being managed by Robinson.
They struck a bond and decided to meet for lunch at a hotel in Port-au-Prince to talk more. Lunch grew into a partnership that has become a lasting friendship.
Now married with a young daughter, Robinson is one of THA’s most valuable staffmembers.
“From my point of view, he is my adviser, my translator, and he is one of my few buffers in Haitian culture,” Meehan says. “Because he is one of my best friends, he will not let me make cultural, financial, emotional or dangerous mistakes. … When I start to plan a trip, he is part of the conversation from the very start—what shall we do, where should we go, how best to spend my funding.”
And to follow Robinson through his work with THA is to witness how aid can transform not only those it seeks to help, but those it employs, too.
“He is uplifting to be around, and I believe that is because he is genuine in his desire to lift up all those around him,” says Melissa Caffey, THA’s executive director.
THA’s working philosophy is to transform critical needs into sustainable change by building lasting relationships within the host countries where they serve.
But that’s not always easy because, as Caffey puts it, the Robinsons of the world are pretty rare individuals.
“A big challenge NGOs can face is developing trustworthy in-country program staff,” Caffey says. “Due to many reasons, such as cultural differences, entitlement, desperate circumstances or the misrepresentation that NGOs have a lot of money just waiting to be spent, we sometimes find that local staff people become involved under the pretense of helping their fellow countrymen when, in fact, they become involved for economic and perceived ‘status’ reasons ... [and] often begin to increase or pad their budgets or tell us what they think we want to hear instead of accurate expenditures or honest situation assessments.”
And on the flip side, Robinson has seen plenty of do-gooders and missionaries come to Haiti long on messianic ideals but short on tact and understanding.
“Some NGOs just send money to Haiti [and] don’t care where it goes,” he says. “Some NGOs, they think for Haitian people: ‘You should have this, you should have that.’ ”
But not, he says, THA or Meehan, who “participates—she gets her hands dirty. She don’t just say, ‘I’m going to do this for you.’ She comes in together with you and asks you what’s best for you. ... She feels the Camatin people’s pain. When you suffer, it’s like she suffers with you. She wants to make sure your suffering stop.”
But, Robinson says, it’ll take much more than well-meaning volunteers to truly effect change in his beloved country.
“We’ve been suffering for so long,” he says.
“THIS IS MY COUNTRY”
Robinson traces his country’s anguish all the way back to the 1490s when Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola, which eventually was split into Haiti on one side and the Dominican Republic on the other. Spanish settlers needed to replenish their supplies of slaves because the indigenous Taino and Arawak Indians were dying off from diseases. So throughout the 1500s, the settlers brought over African slaves to work in mines and on sugar plantations. Soon, Spain shared Hispaniola with France, which is where Haiti got its Creole version of French.
Slaves revolted in the 1790s, and in 1804, Haitians declared their independence. But the country’s economy, already suffering, was made even worse by widespread deforestation throughout Haiti.
Civil unrest, unimaginable poverty and corrupt governments have defined life in Haiti since it won its freedom. The United States and its military have stepped in a few times, and today, the United Nations still has a peacekeeping presence in Haiti, as seen in the occasional truck thundering by with armed soldiers aboard.