Tuesday, May 17, 2022

[Ed. note:] Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF), partnered with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to bring a group of 15 students from Stern and Yeshiva Colleges to assist in Haiti since the devastating earthquake in 2010 that affected more than 3.5 million people. Staffing the trip was CJF representative Gila Rockman, JDC fellow, Jenette Axelrod, and Yeshiva College’s Dr. Aaron Koller. In the midst of the destruction that is still visible five years later, Stern student and Teaneck native Michelle Levine saw some heart-warming successes of local Haitian leaders. Here, she shares her experience.

This trip was an incredibly eye-opening experience. I have never witnessed such poverty and destruction so prevalent throughout an entire country. However, in the midst of all of the filth and dilapidation, we met remarkable leaders who take action and create hope for underprivileged and abandoned children, while making significant strides to improve the situation. There are now havens for abandoned children in Haiti, and because of that there are happy, enthusiastic, thriving children.

On our second day in Haiti, we went to Zanmi Beni (meaning “Blessed Friends” in Kreyole/Haitian Creole), a children’s home established after the earthquake for children who were abused, orphaned, or disabled. It was funded by the JDC and founded by Zanmi Lasante (“Partners in Health”), a Haitian organization. We met with co-executive director, Loune Viaud, an incredible individual who saw kids without homes in the hospital and took it upon herself to provide care for each one. She took in 64 children, and some of the older boys and girls help as staff or teachers for the younger children.

Loune wanted us to understand that Zanmi Beni was not an orphanage. It was a family setting and a group home. That morning, we ran activities with children from ages 3–16, doing arts and crafts, playing dominoes and makeshift tennis, and dancing. It amazed us to be able to bond with them despite the language barrier. Some of us learned Creole phrases from the kids, while others taught English phrases to them in exchange.

We spent a majority of our time at Zoranje, a model school founded by PRODEV (The Foundation for Progress and Development, a Haitian organization also funded by the JDC). We met with one of the founders, Maryse Panette-Kedar, and were inspired by her determination and passion for educating the youth in Haiti and improving conditions in the country. Maryse is the epitome of a leader—she saw gaps in the system and issues within the country and took action to combat those issues. She told us, “If you kick me out the door, I’ll climb back in through the window.”

A group of students from Zoranje won a national science contest and we were tasked with helping them plant new trees as a part of their project. We worked with the students to pickaxe through the rocky ground and dig 20 holes to plant the trees. They had researched the specific type of tree that would grow best in that area and chose Nigerian almond trees. Each day that we were planting the trees, numerous Haitians would stop by to talk to us and help us pickaxe. In the afternoon, we did art projects with the first-grade classes. We also taught them the song “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” in English, and then learned the same song with the words in Creole (tèt, zepòl, jenou, zòtèy).

The next day we continued our digging, and showed immense improvement in our pickaxing skills. In the afternoon, we taught lessons we had prepared before the trip to a few different classes. The groups provided a choice of bridge-making, homemade volcano experiments, and dancing. When we returned to the hotel, we met with Lucia DiPoi, a director from CHLE (Centre Haitian du Leadership et de l’Excellence), a program also funded by the JDC. She told us about average locals in Haiti who demonstrated extraordinary leadership skills and spearheaded projects in their communities on their own initiative, using only resources that were locally available. CHLE recognizes these local leaders, organizes leadership programs, and tries to implement leadership training so that others will also step up to help.

We also visited a designer handbag factory own by Paula Coles. One day Coles noticed the enormous amount of T-shirt scraps that her husband’s business generated and trashed and decided to repurpose them into handbags. In each handbag that she sells, she includes an ID card of a child. If the buyer goes on the company website and types in the ID number, it shows a picture of a specific Haitian child, gives a short biography, and enumerates how many years of schooling he or she just received because of the handbag purchase. Coles demonstrated how one can make something out of nothing and have an incredible impact on one’s community.

During our last day in Zoranje, we played duck, duck, goose with the children. To our surprise, almost 50 kids joined our circle as we kept moving back to make more room. I have never seen such joy from such a simple game.

For our last stop in Port-au-Prince, we visited the General Hospital, which created a mind-numbing picture of the medical care challenges facing Haitian citizens. It was heart-wrenching to see patients lying outside in the heat and hearing that there is not a single MR in the entire country. As we moved on to the mountainous town of Fondwa, we visited the local school founded by Father Joseph B. Philippe and learned about the APF, the Peasant Association of Fondwa that he also helped establish. A group of local farmers in the community, recognizing there was limited government control in their area saw the desperate need for organization and pulled the locals together. The school they built is attended by over 600 children, and can withstand the impact of an earthquake. Some of the children walk up to four hours a day in order to attend classes there.

We spent a beautiful Shabbat on the coast in the city of Jacmel, and then came back to our lives in America, with a new perspective on Haiti, as well as a shared bond among all of the participants in our group.

Most of the leaders we met on this trip were women who had noticed certain issues within Haiti (lack of proper care and love for abandoned and disabled children, lack of proper childhood education, limited leadership or unawareness of leadership, and limited job opportunities) and took action to combat those issues, creating incredible change. While it was disturbing to see the widespread poverty throughout the country, it was amazing to see the small, yet significant, progress in many parts of Haiti. JDC has played an incredible role in facilitating that progress as part of their vision of Tikkun Olam, a value in Judaism of “repairing the world.” Haiti still has a long way to go to improve daily life, clean the streets, raise the bar for education, and enhance the overall state of the country, but hopefully, with continued awareness and funding, leadership and progress in the country will continue to develop step by step in a positive direction.

By Michelle Levine

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