Saturday, August 16, 2014

Je lance un appel à la diaspora haïtienne en faveur des personnes handicapées en Haïti afin de soutenir le financement prévu pour le projet documentaire ABILITYHAITI. Il suffit de «partager» l’information qui sera très utile; faire un don si vous pensez que c'est digne. Veuillez m’envoyer un message si vous voudriez plus de détails afin que je puisse vous diriger.  MESI AMPIL:

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Help me tell the stories of disability and persons with disabilities in Haiti

Please check out my fund raising campaign for a documentary project telling the stories of persons with disabilities in Haiti. The funds will be for a mission to Haiti this October to beginning filming and interviewing.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

June 9, honouring my heroes

June 9, honouring my heroes

It's 13°C and raining when we land in Toronto. What the hell am I doing here? 

I spent 12 days and 11 nights in hot, sunny, humid Port-au-Prince, a vital, hectic city in its third year of fragile recovery.  The struggle to take two consecutive steps forward without stumbling backwards is a historic and heroic one. Disease, colonization, slavery, civil wars, dictatorships, invasions, natural disasters are it's continuous cycles. 

But there are heroes everywhere:

- at a small private school in Delmas 19 just down the street from Wall's International guest house where I comfortably stayed.  It's operated by Edmond Joseph, a dedicated, outgoing 40-year-old school director who has focused the last 10 years of his life building his dream to educate young Haitians. His small, open classrooms hold the promise of Haiti's future, eager young minds seemingly oblivious to the heat, noise and sparseness of their lives and surroundings but determined on attaining the graduation certificates which will be their tickets to something or somewhere better. 

- at a tiny, well-kept orphanage with pink painted cement block walls in Cabaret outside Port-au-Prince, where Camille Otum, an ex-pat Haitian and her small band of volunteers from small-town Ontario have established a home for a dozen orphans aged one and a half to 12. It's as meagre a refuge as you can find but is validated by the kids who welcome their surrogate parents and visitors with kisses, hugs and bright, excited faces. A girl of seven or eight, in her best after school dress, instinctively holds her recently arrived baby brother on her hip, surrounded by siblings obviously proud to present their newest little family member. Healthy and hopeful, these kids, sustained by love and precious few resources, are also the promise of Haiti's better tomorrow's. 

- at the new, Haitian managed Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Institute, operated jointly by Healing Hands for Haiti and Handicap International where trained Haitians are providing physical therapy and fabricating custom orthotics and prostheses; and training students in internationally certified prosthetic and orthotic programs. It's bright orange walls surrounded by lush tropical trees and vegetation are in strikingly hopeful contrast to the neighboring mountain side slum (bidonville) that overlooks the facility.

- in Delmas 19 where Haitian work crews, having done with the earthquake rubble, earn the new minimum wage of $5US/ day making the new rubble of progress digging up the neighbourhood's old roadbed and laying down new in the brilliant, broiling 39C Port au Prince sunlight.

And there are my own heroes; reuniting with them was the greatest gift of this trip - Franz Noel (in the photo), Dr. Ben Nau and Antonio Kebreau, who worked with me before and after the earthquake as dedicated professionals with Healing Hands for Haiti, and as Haitians who love their country and reserve a special empathy for the 800,000 persons living with disabilities in their homeland. They and their colleagues do the greatest service to those in the greatest need. From them I have learned about friendship and loyalty; from Haiti, about myself and things larger than me.

Heroes making progress, progress making history. Can the orbits of disaster be nudged to avoid more collisions? Can the nation's DNA mutate enough so that this people, created by one of the worst failures of humanity, will be selected for survival, adapt for success and not become an abandoned orphan of human civilization. For fragile Haiti and its proud, resilient, survivors, extinction, I believe, is not an option.

Home now, with its comforts and regime; happy to have been briefly in the place I most like to be. Happy to think about and prepare myself to go back again. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

June 3 The rubble of progress

June 3 The rubble of progress

I feel like I'm at the epicentre of progress and reconstruction in Haiti. 

8 Mackandal St., in the Delmas 19 district, is situated exactly at the juncture of two Y intersections placed end-to-end. I can't think of any better way to describe this intersection, right outside Wall's International Guesthouse. Facing the street at diagonals to each other are a bougainvillea, plantaine and coconut tree, blossoming and fruit-filled. I am under the coconuts looking down over the compound wall onto a striking scene: Haitians at work with heavy equipment and tools MAKING rubble in the process of reconstructing a network of roads in the area.

The cacophony is orchestral and plays for days at full volume.

It's not so much the construction noise as the traffic. I'm told that this route is a popular short cut but no one is aware that this week it is completely blocked and bottle necked by road demolition at the narrow juncture of the intersections. The 'under construction' sign a half block away makes it official only to the lengthening line-up looking to get through to the other Y.

Today, the horn section is the loudest:  motorcycle and backhoe backup beeps; honks and air horn BLASTS you can feel from enormous dump trucks and cement trucks; burp-burp-burps from lumbering water trucks; toots from shiny, dusty American cars and rusty tap taps; the quick, authoritative squeals of NGO jeeps.

Everyone wants progress to move forward, FASTER, and says so.

Followed by the mechanical section: low gear grinding and muscled revs of diesels and whines of gas engines; squealing, scraping brakes and rumbling of strained chassis and bottoming shocks. Somehow, in the brief spaces in between you can pick out two guys swinging pick axes singing (I think in harmony) and a rooster crowing on some unknown cue, above it all. Culture and nature, human or animal, will not be pushed out. 

Commerce is in slow but steady motion. And the conductor is doing his best to thread the traffic merging from every direction, motioning vigorously to guide the continuous parade of new Haitian reconstruction artillery around the crew manning jack hammers, cement saws and power shovel, who are fearless and never flinch. A tall, bent man pushing a wheel barrow stacked high with old wicker furniture took almost20 minutes to pick his way through the scene, but made it. He stops to pick a plantaine from a low hanging branch, and continues. 

Every order on delivery will be a little late: sand for cement, rebar and wire mesh for strength and resilience, and cement block - to rebuild; empty cola bottles to refill, fresh Coke, Haitian cola and clean water - to slake the thirsty city; plastic plumbing pipe for better sanitation, workers on the new $5US/day minimum wage being trucked to job sites. Jobs.

There are highly visible improvements everywhere in Haiti: street lighting, road and highway building, garbage collection and cleanup, two big new hotels – best Western and Royal Oasis, free schooling for grades one and two in many schools, laws for the rights of persons with disabilities. There are still plenty of problems, old and new, but there is a momentum now that feels like its unstoppable. 

The most striking sign of all, the old earthquake created rubble with it's crushing sorrow and pain,  has been removed, the new reconstruction rubble is being carted off to bury it.  

Sunday, June 2, 2013

June 2 Sister Paola's advice

June 2 Sister Paola's advice

Trying to help another person, a vulnerable group, a village, a country is challenging in the extreme and  always illusive. There is so much need that it's all overwhelming and therefore initiative can be immobilized or doomed. Eyes through which the benefactors are viewed are often clouded by self-interest and perspectives are myopically self-serving.

The complexity of  it all shreds the best and most diligent minds. I've seen lots of evidence of that.

In travels and work with four quite different NGOs and in meeting a number of others since 2006, the difference between what works and what doesn't, at both the individual and organization's level, is simple enough to see but hard to get right.

Character, discipline, focus, empathy, humility are at the top of the list of ingredients that fuse to help create effective, sustainable programs. It always takes money to fuel projects, but donor dollars can't produce desired outcomes by themselves. And it also takes experience, but that is only hard earned by learning through brutal, sometimes costly, trial and error and from the example of others making the mistakes ahead of you.

Humility is the gateway attribute and, in any measure, of course the hardest human attribute to truly comprehend or develop. I was thinking about this in conversation with the Sister Paola Trevino, of Mission Youth, who introduces North American teenagers and young adults to excursions to help in Haiti. She had just returned from a visit to a tent city delivering new beds her crew had made for Haitians still sleeping on the ground three years after the earthquake. None of the all-girl team on this mission had ever been to Haiti or outside the US. The feelings and reactions to what they saw and experienced were seismic.

I have become frustrated on this trip with - logistics, my role and agenda, urgency, a desire to matter, the witnessing of drive-by aid - while, dangerously, having more freedom and spare time that I have had in the past, to think about what I have and have not accomplished over the last 7 years coming here. She told me a story about being in a similar state of mind when she first started in this mission, and how she was admonished by Betsy Wall, the director of The Wall's guesthouse and foundation, for approaching the job the wrong way.

 In essence, she was advised that unless she opened her eyes to what was being offered to her in Haiti, instead of being driven to satisfy the need for finding more ways to give and more solutions to problems, she'd never be any good or do any good.

The offering from Haitians, and the experience of Haiti itself, whether it be friendship and dialogue, awareness of suffering, exercise of compassion, gaining a different perspective on humanity, heightened self-awareness, acceptance of limitations, clarity of purpose, fathoming of meaning, confronting something larger than yourself -  is a gift, a continuing gift, which in the opening and understanding, gets you outside yourself and enables a different dialogue, a new engagement and very special dynamic with yourself and those to whom you want to give a hand.

Be open and accessible, not closed up and driven. Let Haiti and Haitians in; let go of expectations and assumptions you brought with you.

A conversation that will be with me for a long time, and was probably worth the whole trip.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

June 1 On a lighter note

June 1 On a lighter note

The procession of characters continues through the guesthouse. 

A young, arrogant Brit shows up very late last night with high expectations. He doesn't buy into the culture of this establishment with their unlocked doors policy for guests. He's been 'travelling the world ' for seven months and been mugged before, losing all his toys. I interrupt his berating by sharing that it's my first time here as well and this business is owned and managed by Canadians and has an impeccable 30 year reputation among international NGOs. And Sean Penn's crew stay here. What's not to trust?  

Yet, he wants to trust all of Port au Prince and go to the centre by himself by tap tap. I suggest that as a Blanc (he's young, tall, quite handsome, pale white, tourist - at least I'm short and old) and on his first trip to Haiti, I'm guessing he might be safer hiring a driver. At supper tonight he tells me he's gay and the tap tap crowd were very friendly. Gutsier than I thought. 

Another group of young, beautiful and restless Christian missionaries. Very preppy. Their leader  is an emergency room doc right out of med school who says he can do better than just handing out pills by spreading the word and treating the spirit. He looks like a young Mathew McConaughey. Obviously he doesn't have any huge med school debts to pay off and can afford his other priorities. When he learns of my work with medical NGOs, he asks confidently if I can source some deworming pills and antibiotics he forgot to pack. Some priorities. 

I found it strange that, in the morning when he comes to say goodbye, he catches me blowing my sinuses out into a napkin and confidently thrusts his hand out for a goodbye shake. I figure he will lose in the exchange of viruses and that he also has more protection on his side than I do.  Two beautiful guys with two beautiful girls off for a week of proselytizing in the Mountains. Hope they didn't forget their bibles. 

OK, so I don't want to be late for school again today. Rushing through the guesthouse lobby,  I see the principal, Joseph, at the guest computer. 'Hi, where are you going, the school is on holiday today'. OK, I need a detention now.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

May 30 A Priest's story

May 30 A Priest's story

Sitting around the dinner table sipping beer after a long, hot day, the evening breeze can often waft in a good story, some poignant, tragic.

Paola Trevino is the national director for a Catholic youth NGO, Mission Youth International, that offers teens and young adults all over the world the opportunity to do good works in Haiti, as well as other developing countries. A week or two of soul and faith building experience with the flavour of summer camp at the guesthouse in the evenings. Paola has been in Haiti for three years and has seen a lot. Somethings she is lucky to have not seen, but came to know about, and shares.

Father Tom Hagan68, is a Catholic Priest, a member of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, who operates alone in Cité Soleil, the city centre slum with a hellish reputation of for gang control and violence. He spent seven years as Princeton University's chaplain, and started coming to Haiti in 1986.  For more than twenty five years Father Tom has been feeding up to 5000 people a day and running school programs for the slum's families and children. This is a priest, excuse me, with balls.

Cité Soleil (see the documentary, 'The Ghosts of Cité Soleil') was originally developed as a model inner city community by Duvalier. It eventually fell into disrepair, despair, disrepute -  closed off from the rest of the city by competing gangs holding both the authorities and often the residents hostage to their crimes and lifestyle. Part of their self-acclaimed mandate, inherited from generations and centuries of oppression from all sides, is to keep foreigners and authorities out of their lives.

In effect they are kind of nationalist bandits, an alternative to the corrupt authorities and foreigners they detest, who take and control everything by every means at their disposal - shooting, murder, beatings, theft, hate. I might be oversimplifying or not; this slum is a complex cultural phenomenon penetrated by very few organizations, first among them Médicines sans Frontier who play anyway they have to, to do their acute and preventative medicine and life saving programs.

It's a tough game with no favourites allowed and a delicate balance of street diplomacy. Two years ago the country made a huge effort to clean the place out. The UN and Police Nationale d'Haïti stormed in and took back the slum street by street until every gang member they could find was captured or killed or fled. For a while you could go in and bring water trucks and aid workers. No, it's all back to normal.

Against this backdrop works Father Thomas and Hands Together, his own foundation, very

independent of the Church. He refuses to leave, because no one else would replace him. 

He deals with the gangs head on, as they deal with him. They tolerate him because he has the courage that they do not and his work is effective and he is well known and accepted. But tolerance is all on their terms.

To assert their authority sometime ago, Paola tells me, they killed his right hand man in front of him while holding a gun to his head so that there was nothing he could do, but stay. This man was his best friend and had saved his life in the earthquake of January 11, 2010 when Father Tom was buried under rubble along with some 300,000 other victims who died in the 30 second calamity.

No authority or justice here to deal with rage and terror confined in a city slum with no moral sunlight from above to shine on it - only the harsh Haitian one, relentlessly blasting tin roofs, cooking anyone inside, burning the souls of their young ones, testing the resilience of every cell in every body.

Father Tom stopped bringing in Haitian assistants, he now employees large numbers of only Haitians from Cité Soleil to run and learn how to run the programs. This, all second hand from a woman who knows and meets with him. Her deep convictions and beliefs in his holiness stem the sadness and pain of the human condition existing just on the other side of the street from the regular, broken, struggling Port-au-  Prince.