This update is not what I planned to be posting this week. I thought I would be writing about joyful reunions with dear friends; hot, dusty, bumpy bus rides; delicious food; and the great work accomplished by our summer 2018 Health for Haiti team and Haitian community partners. Instead, I am home reflecting on the differences between the Haiti I see on the international news broadcasts, and the Haiti I know from personal experience in the country.
Our summer SUNY Broome Health for Haiti team of 14 students and staff was supposed to be in Haiti now and for the next several days. This dedicated group has worked for months preparing for this trip. Each member of the team made sacrifices to be a part of the group and was ready and willing to share their own unique talents and abilities. I knew each of us was very much looking forward to reconnecting with friends and a wonderful experience in Haiti.
Just days before our departure, on the afternoon of Friday, July 6, the Haitian government announced that fuel prices would increase up to 50%. This would mean a huge jump in the price of gas, diesel fuel and kerosene. For people who already struggle to meet basic needs, this was devastating news. The announcement sparked protests and civil unrest that soon turned violent and led to widespread vandalism and looting. Even though the Haitian government quickly reversed the decision (for now), the violence continued.
Businesses and vehicles were destroyed, and it became unsafe for people to leave their homes. Flights to and from Port au Prince were suspended for a few days, and the U.S. Department of State raised the travel advisory for Haiti to Level 4: “DO NOT TRAVEL.” Sadly, with this change in status, Haiti joins the other Level 4 countries which include Afghanistan, Libya, North Korea, South Sudan and Syria. To ensure the safety of the U.S. and Haitian members of our team, we had no choice but to cancel our trip. The certainty that it was the right decision does not make it any less heartbreaking for our team, both here and in Haiti.
For anyone who is familiar with the poverty experienced by so many families in Haiti, the initial protests are not hard to understand. However, the violence and destruction and the resulting loss of jobs for the working poor are in polar opposition to the protestors’ claims that they are demonstrating on behalf of the poor. It is the local Haitians who will be the most hurt by the recent events in Haiti. Our Health for Haiti team is profoundly disappointed to miss our trip to Haiti, but we have the luxury of choosing safety and security. This is not an option for the typical Haitian.
Haiti has a long and complicated history. As a U.S. Citizen who is relatively new to Haiti, I certainly don’t presume to know much about what life is really like for my neighbors in Haiti. What I do know is based on about a dozen visits over the past five years and the treasured relationships I have built with the people I have met in Haiti. What I have seen in the news this week is very different from what I have personally experienced.
I believe that the majority of the people in Haiti are not destroying their neighborhoods and stealing from local businesses. They are doing what they do every day: struggling to survive. We all have the same basic needs, but the opportunity to meet those needs is not equal. I know many people in Haiti who begin their day not knowing if they will eat. Loss of property, loss of local businesses, loss of jobs, and an increased threat to personal security only make the daily task of surviving in Haiti more difficult.
Unfortunately, every country has opportunistic criminals who take advantage of crisis situations for their own personal gain. We have seen this kind of looting and destruction in our own country after natural disasters, and it typically gets a lot of media attention. The people who commit these crimes do not represent the general population. I’m saddened to think that the images shown on worldwide news this week are what people will remember when they think of Haiti.
The Haiti I know is beautiful. I have seen many more gorgeous sunsets and lush, green fields than burning tires. The people are welcoming, warm, and fun. I have experienced wonderful hospitality from Haitians who are quick to share what little they have with a stranger. Simply put, the people I have met are good and decent people. They love and strive to provide for their families. They readily help each other. They are talented and eager for employment and education. They are proud of their accomplishments.
If you have ever seen Haitian children in their crisp uniforms walking to school, or a Haitian family in their Sunday best headed for church, you see a reflection of the pride and perseverance of the Haitian people. The Haitian people I know work hard and worship with a joy and enthusiasm that I have seldom seen in my own country. I think it safe to say that every member of our past Health for Haiti teams has been profoundly changed by their experience in Haiti and has come home with a broader understanding of humanity and a new appreciation for what really matters.
In honor of the Haiti we know, SUNY Broome Health for Haiti will continue to stand in support of our neighbors. I hope that people who have never visited Haiti will look beyond the recent images. I hope that our Health for Haiti family will continue to share the Haiti they know with their own friends and family. We who know the Haiti behind the headlines have a responsibility to speak out. Health for Haiti considers it a privilege to work alongside our friends in Haiti. We will continue to advocate on their behalf and work for sustainable improvements, and we look forward to our future work and experiences together.