The Ties That Bind 

Utah volunteers work closely with local Haitians to mend a broken country

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Robinson has very little good to say about past presidents of Haiti, and his hope for President Michel Joseph “Sweet Mickey” Martelly, a musician elected in 2011, is tempered by perennial aftershocks of past corrupt governments.

“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.”

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The schoolhouse clinic was the second of three such clinics run by 12 THA volunteers. Robinson and Meehan view these new clinics as a way to bridge social gaps between Western doctors and the Haitian midwives and “voodoo medicine men,” who normally care for pregnant women.

A pregnant young woman named Ephèse 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, Ephèse’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, Ephèse’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 Ephèse and her father. It was decided they’d drive into the costal town of Jacmel, visible from Camatin high in the mountains.

Ephèse’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.

ENTERPRISE
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.

FAMILY
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.

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Meehan had talked to Ephèse’s father the day THA volunteers arrived in Camatin in October 2013. She knew the man, whom she calls Pape, from previous visits. He’d told Meehan about his pregnant daughter and how he had kicked her out of his house. Pape was too poor to care for his entire family and had previously given one of his own seven children to the nearby orphanage that THA maintains in Camatin.

“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 Ephèse 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.

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