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.
“I have hope, because I think Martelly thinks a different way,” Robinson says. “He has vision, but we have powerful politicians who are bad businessmen who will try to stop Martelly. The corruption in Haiti is like a system. Maybe Martelly is involved already in that system.”
The corruption, Robinson says, is fueled by unchecked donations from NGOs that throw money and resources at a problem without holding anyone accountable.
On top of that, he adds, many Haitians who have the money, influence or leadership to help change things in Haiti don’t live there most of the time or at all, instead choosing places like Miami to call home and educate their children.
“America cannot help us to change that system,” he says. “The system can be changed when Haitians realize that this is my country—it’s my house, it’s my place, I have to make it become better and I have to not think about having a house in another country.”
Talking about Haiti’s system of government puts him in some danger, he notes, but it’s a risk he says is worth taking.
“How can you say ‘I love my country, I’m going to do something for my country,’ when you’re not even have that country in your blood?” Robinson asks. “To change a system, first, every Haitian should realize that we not wait for the blanc [white people], for America or France to bring change. I have to bring the change, no matter what. If I have to die for the change, it’s my country—I’m going to do it.”
BRIDGING THE GAPS
On Oct. 15, 2013, inside Camatin’s small, sweltering yellow concrete schoolhouse, Robinson was translating a free clinic for new and expectant mothers given by English-speaking volunteers from Park City.
He spoke to his audience with his eyes as well as his hands; occasionally a sudden smile broke out over his face or his voice went up an octave during a moment of emphasis as he explained to the women with swollen bellies that prenatal vitamins would not make their babies “huge.”
A pregnant young woman named EphÃ¨se Surin had walked to the yellow concrete building to attend the clinic, but just yards away from the entrance, she started labor and instead sought shade from the intense midday heat under a nearby tree.
Mari Kaye Monday, a Medic Samaritan volunteer from Tennessee, tried to tell the expectant mother in Creole, EphÃ¨se’s native language, how important it was that she go to a hospital right away, but Monday’s Creole vocabulary was insufficient to the task.
A machete hanging from his waist, EphÃ¨se’s father, a farmer who lived near the school, helplessly paced in circles alongside the road after being told his daughter was in labor.
Finally alerted about the woman about to give birth just steps away from the school, Robinson cut short his talk and boarded the back of an open-air flatbed truck with Monday and EphÃ¨se and her father. It was decided they’d drive into the costal town of Jacmel, visible from Camatin high in the mountains.
EphÃ¨se’s water broke in the back of the truck just as they arrived at the hospital in Jacmel. Robinson’s cool but firm leadership during tense, loud negotiations with hospital staff allowed her to be admitted in time to give birth to a healthy baby girl—a noisy, beautiful reminder of the life that Robinson is helping to breathe into this area.
Meehan’s base of operations in Camatin is an orphanage with about 30 children, mostly girls, where THA connects sponsors with children to help fund operations in Haiti.
One day during Meehan’s recent visit, she and another volunteer sat with a woman who could not afford to feed all of her children. The mother chose one, a scared, skinny little girl, to give up to the orphanage, where she’d be fed and, just up the hill, educated at the sturdy yellow schoolhouse.
Families being forced to make these kinds of decisions is not uncommon in Haiti, where work—and thus food and shelter—is hard to come by.
One of THA’s goals is jump-starting the local economy in Haiti by creating jobs and helping people start micro enterprises. On this trip, Meehan and other women in the group taught about 25 women from the Camatin area how to make bracelets. Meehan plans to sell them back in the United States, with all of the revenue going back to the artisans and to supplies. Meehan also leaned on Robinson to help a group of men from Cité Soleil start a business making and selling decorations made out of tin.
On this trip, Meehan and Robinson, with help from other locals, assessed needs at several homes in the Camatin area that badly needed repairs.
Prior to arriving in Haiti, volunteers had purchased supplies with donated funds, and now volunteers helped haul those supplies into the first of several homes slated for work, then took part in the demolition.
The paid locals, a few working in bare feet and using machetes as their main tools, quickly took over construction operations, which is the kind of self-governance THA hopes for on every expedition.
On another day, a group of volunteers delivered food, water filtration systems and school supplies to a crowded structure made from palm fronds for walls and a threadbare blue tarp for a ceiling, held up by trunks of small trees harvested by men with machetes.
It was also the setting for the third of Robinson’s clinics—and by that point they really were his clinics, as he did all of the talking while Meehan and others simply watched.
Every night during THA’s final 2013 visit, Meehan called all the volunteers up on the roof of the orphanage for a starlit chat about the day’s events, the highs and lows.
A recurring high is just how grateful Haitians, who have so little, were for simple things.
At one point, a little boy was given a new backpack with school supplies and a pair of used shoes. But what he seemed to care about most was whether the pack contained a pencil. It did—and he was happy.
A common low point is the cultural differences that interfere even when skilled translators are involved.
“I asked him about love and how mistakes could turn this love off, about judgments and, if he judged the kids for premarital sex, how might others look at him about having a daughter in an orphanage run by a bunch of ‘whities’ from Utah,” Meehan says. “He said that because of this, I could never understand the depth of his shame.”
Yet even this low changed after Robinson and Monday took EphÃ¨se to the hospital to give birth.
At dusk on the last night THA was in Haiti, Pape led a group that included Monday and Robinson over a narrow trail and down into a valley to a simple wood home with a tin roof. Inside the dark house, lit by a single candle, were the new parents.
With Robinson translating, he and Monday learned that the parents wished to name the girl after them and to have them be her godparents. Both agreed, taking turns holding Marisonya as Meehan looked on.
Meehan later recounted how the birth of a child brought one family back together and formed new bonds with a second family.
“I hear Pape and his son-in-law work together on his farm. I hear the young Marisonya is well and will be baptized when I am next in country, and that they will wait until I return,” Meehan said. “So, I am blessed one more time to witness life getting in life’s way, social justice working out, love dominating even shame and poverty, and the beauty of the Haitian people.”
Stephen Speckman is a Salt Lake City writer and photographer. This was his second self-funded trip to Haiti. More of his work can be found at StephenSpeckman.com.