The Powerful Lessons I Learned in Haiti, and How You Can Give Back

"Haiti is a country where people can really work. When you see the little finances people have, they do something with it. Today I want all the nations to know that about Haiti, we are a courageous people." --Louis, Community leader of COPRAVACA
Camp Acra, Delmas 33, Haiti

Camp Acra, Delmas 33, Haiti

(Note: In December 2015, I traveled with Resources to Resources to Haiti to start a micro-savings program. This is a story of some of the lessons learned, and how you can help give back in a meaningful, impactful way. In this article, when speaking about Haitians/Haiti keep in mind that I am not referring to the Haitian elite. I am referring to those in the lowest economic brackets that comprise the majority of Haiti. I also refer to internally displaced people, and internally displaced people camps. IDP’s, are those who have been forced to flee their homes, but remain within their country’s borders. The camps are impermanent homes where they reside, that are often made from donated and scrap material.)

She eyed us coyly, with a smile of mischief and a curiosity only found in children. She wore a pink and white checkered dress, two braids, and a pair of open toed sandals. We were probably not the first foreigners she saw, but perhaps the first ones that she saw in her camp. Her camp, found within Delmas, near Port-au-Prince. Her camp, constructed of USAID tarps and tin. Her camp, shared with thousands of other people displaced from the 2010 earthquake. Her camp, that is forgotten, and hidden away from locals and foreigners alike.  Her camp, that provides virtually no privacy, and is susceptible to being destroyed at a moment's notice.  Her camp, her shelter, her home.

I pointed to my camera, and asked if she wanted a photo. I didn’t speak any creole, but she understood.  She nodded her head enthusiastically. I setup my camera like I was shooting a model, and naturally, without question she moved one hand on her hip and struck a pose. I laughed to myself and thought “damn, some things are just universal.”

I still don’t know her name, but I will always remember the twinkle in her eye, and the joy she expressed when she saw this picture of herself, looking back - hopeful and smiling. This was one of the few pictures I shot during my trip to Haiti in 2015, and the only one I took in the internal displacement camp we visited. I traveled there with a former professor, Daniel Beers, and my friend and colleague, Rohail Khan. Our journey to Haiti, wasn’t for leisure, or academics but to formalize a partnership for a micro-savings organization we were developing called Resources to Resources. It was my first time traveling to a developing country, and my first time up close and personal with extreme poverty. While poverty is part of this story, it’s not what this story is about.  This story is about the web of richness I discovered beneath the hardship. It’s about searching for solutions instead of planning them, uplifting unheard voices, and having hope where many people have given up.

When we first arrived to Port-au-Prince, one thing struck me above all else - and it wasn’t economic hardship. It was the strength and power exuded by the women. I had never seen anything like it. Amidst the vast amounts of litter on the ground, the chaotic traffic, and the crumbling infrastructure, every woman walked with her shoulders back, head held high, and had an expression that said “don’t fuck with me.” They illuminated femininity, strength, grace, and determination.

When I asked Daniel about it later, he expressed that in Haiti, the women are often the ones who hold up the community. After the devastating earthquake in 2010, many of the men who were leaders in the community were killed. Many of these leaders, the lawyers, doctors, and teachers, traveled to the center of Port-Au-Prince for work, which is where the epicenter of the earthquake hit. We later found out that the sweet woman, Yolette, who was responsible for taking care of us for the week, lost her husband in exactly that manner. This left many women responsible for taking care of their families, and their communities. I learned that this story was not uncommon, and it’s only part of the struggle that tragically unites many Haitians.

A local woman selling plantains and fried chicken.  Many of the businesses that provide financial security for the families and communities are similar to this. They are often pop up businesses that are portable, and do not rely on a brick and mortar base

A local woman selling plantains and fried chicken.  Many of the businesses that provide financial security for the families and communities are similar to this. They are often pop up businesses that are portable, and do not rely on a brick and mortar base

In Haiti, as of 2016, there are still more than 62,000 internally displaced people, more than 59% of people living on $2.43 a day, and 24% of people living on $1.23 a day. It is one of the poorest countries in the entire world, and yet it is the place I have seen the most giving. The Haitian people have been screwed over by natural disasters, are largely marginalized by the international community, and have a challenging political history. What they have to rely on more than anything, is each other.

I will never forget one instance where I witnessed just how deep this sense of community, and lifting one another up goes. We had the privilege of attending a meeting of a local organization that formed within one of the internally displaced people camps.  Their leader had recently died, leaving his wife pregnant with an unborn child. This community lived below the extreme poverty line, and had hardly any material goods in their name. Yet, at the meeting, the new leader asked for donations to help the new mother, and her unborn child. Every. Single. Person. Gave. They gave everything they had. Not a single person hesitated, or complained. I was flabbergasted. It was inexplicably humbling to witness the sense of care they had for one another.

In that moment, they showed me that even though they may not be materially wealthy, they are spiritually, and socially wealthy in a way most people in developed countries will never experience.

Louis, and his daughter giving us a tour of Canaan

Louis, and his daughter giving us a tour of Canaan

This was not the only time I witnessed this level of generosity and commitment to community. On another trip we visited Canaan, to visit the organization COPRAVACA, that we ended up partnering with. Canaan is located outside of Port-au-Prince and is unofficially considered one of the largest cities in Haiti. This is where thousands of Haitians fled after the earthquake, despite its dry, seemingly un-habitable landscape. We met with Louis, one of the leaders of the organization and he and his young daughter gave us a tour.  They showed us the wells they built for the community, the solar panels they placed so that women would feel safe walking home at night, and Louis spoke endlessly about how much he fights for his community.

When we asked him how he described himself in an interview, he quickly exclaimed “there is a french quote that says ‘It is the pleasure in others I find the filling of my life pleasure’ It’s the reason why I am engaging to work for the community.  Because, me I want to grow up with my community.  Most of the time some people, when they are grown up, they always want it to be just them, but they don’t see the people living in the same community.  Me, I choose to be different, hand in hand together we’re growing up.” Louis was not alone in this sentiment.  In fact, every single Haitian we interviewed, when asked about themselves ALWAYS emphasized lifting up their community, and rising together.

To this day I look back at these words, and am moved by how deeply embedded the sense of community is in the Haitian culture, and how adamantly they fight despite all obstacles to rise up in the face of adversity.

This trip to Haiti came after a year of working with Daniel, his wife Kymber, and a group of volunteers to start a non-profit organization with a local community in Haiti.  Daniel taught International Development at Knox College, and had done extensive research in Haiti, taught in a school for social work in Port-Au-Prince, and volunteered with Kymber after the earthquake.  After researching development in Haiti, he wanted to give back in a more meaningful way. He was familiar with the fact that many aid projects in Haiti lead to nowhere, and many of the local people are completely cut out of the development process. He was committed to starting an organization that would include the people at a grassroots level, and value their input every step of the way. I joined Daniel my senior year of college, to help with the marketing and fundraising aspect of the organization. I was passionate about uniting the powerful forces of marketing with social causes, and committed two years to starting what would become Resources to Resources.

Rohail, and our translator/program manager Stephana, probably laughing because Rohail fell asleep AGAIN on the tap-tap (local transportation)

Rohail, and our translator/program manager Stephana, probably laughing because Rohail fell asleep AGAIN on the tap-tap (local transportation)

As with any start-up project, we experienced enormous obstacles almost immediately-both in the states, and Haiti. We went through overhauls of our internal group due to a division in priorities, faced cross-cultural miscommunications, and had to re-evaluate just exactly what our organization’s mission was multiple times. We started out working with one community group, but left Haiti working with a different one due to varying values and expectations. We went from starting as an artisanal crafts non-profit, to a micro-loan program, to eventually a micro-savings program. Unlike micro-loans which most people are familiar with which lends out money to individuals to start a business or complete a project, micro-savings is a system that allows individuals to save money. This is often an area of finance that we take for granted in the U.S., and something we often don’t even think about as being special, but it is. In Haiti, the banking system is extremely bureaucratic, and many people do not have access to a formal bank. This means that the little money people do make, has to be spent immediately. Without a safe place to put their money, Haitians are not able to save for an emergency, accumulate funds for schooling, or put aside money for a potential business. Additionally, it has been shown that in cases of extreme poverty, micro-loans can actually cause more damage than good - leaving the beneficiaries worse off than when they started because they are not able to pay the loan back.

After searching and failing, searching and failing, we finally found a strategy that seemed right. We hired a local program manager, Stephana, who was our translator during our stay in Haiti, and partnered with a local community group called COPRAVACA to start a micro-savings program. In this program we included workshops on financial literacy and entrepreneurship, and access to a mobile banking system called “Mon Cash” that didn’t require any bureaucratic hoops. We developed a 1:1 model, that allowed participants in the program to save a certain amount each month that would be matched by U.S. donors. At the end of the program, the participants could use their money to invest in a business, pay for schooling, use as an emergency fund, or anything else that would better their life and opportunities.

Today, Resources to Resources has graduated their first round of savers, and are gearing up for a new round. The graduates have used their money to invest in livestock, pay for education, and open or expand businesses. Resources to Resources is also partnering OPMAGAT, a farmers cooperative that was badly hit by Hurricane Matthew. They are working with the cooperative on an agricultural rehabilitation program, that provides food for at least 140 families. Daniel, Kymber, and the entire team at Resources to Resources, continue to search for the best solutions to some of the most challenging situations. They continue to listen to, include, and uplift the input and voices of their Haitian partners, and create a global bridge between our communities in the U.S. and communities in Haiti.

Myself, Rohail, and Daniel on our trip

Myself, Rohail, and Daniel on our trip

Journeying to Haiti, and working with Resources to Resources was one of the most impactful experiences of my life. I feel humbled and inspired by the amount of strength, courage, and community I witnessed in Haiti. With the abundance of violence, hardship, and misunderstanding there is in the world, it is ever more important that we choose the path of compassion.  It is vital that we learn from individuals like those I met in Haiti and work to lift one another up, give back, and trek forward on the path of healing.

I ask you to join me in giving back to Resources to Resources, so we can take a giant step forward together.