In the three trips I have taken to Haiti (and in my dad's first trip), people always ask us what we did while we were there. When we say that we spent our week loving children and learning about the people of Haiti, they always come back with something along the lines of "yeah, but what did you do?" Well, if you want to look at in terms of something you can see, then we did nothing. Because Helping Haitian Angels has never been about what other people can see.
Many Americans and people who have grown up with opportunity often believe that the best way for us to help underdeveloped countries is to do for them. We send clothes, we send food, we pack meals, and we feel good about it. Sometimes we donate money to an organization that says the money is going to go to this cause or that, and again, we give and feel good about it. Unfortunately, when Americans and aid groups do these things, they make the problems that exist in Haiti (poverty, unemployment, lack of resources, lack of education, to name a few) worse. The Haitian man who owned a rice farm, who earned a living harvesting and selling good nutritious rice at the local market, who sent his children to school on the money he made, loses his farm and his income, because an American organization donated rice to his community. The US grown rice was packed by volunteers, shipped to Haiti, and then was given out for free; that has ruined the lives of the Haitian rice farmer, his family, and as things continue to trickle down, his community. Since he lost his farm, he had to fire his employees; his employees have to stop sending their kids to school because they cannot afford tuition, and since there is not public education system in Haiti, those children don't go past elementary school. Because there are fewer people with jobs, there is less money being spent in the community and eventually, more people have to shut down their businesses. The cycle then spirals to effect thousands and thousands of people. But we feel good about ourselves because we were "helping" those poor people. I wish this was an isolated example. But in Haiti, it is too often the reality.
This story makes many people uncomfortable. Whenever I tell it, most people will start to argue with me. "Yeah but they had free rice so everyone was still being fed," they often say. Or I hear "Well I am sure the organization didn't realize that was going to happen." Unfortunately, they did know what they were doing; the founder of Helping Haitian Angels reached out to the organization that packed and sent the rice to that community and told them about the problems that their free rice caused. And they didn't care. Because at the end of the day, American rice farmers profited from what they did. While that is great for the American, it ends up hurting the people that they claimed to be saving with their meals.
When we return from Haiti, everyone always asks about the things we did. They never ask us about the things we learned. And honestly, when I start to talk about the things I learned, I often get tuned out. The fact is, we didn't do anything; we loved, we learned, we experienced, and we listened. More than anything, we listened. We sat with the pastor and listened to him talk about the beauty he sees in Haiti despite its problems. He told us about seeing God and grace and mercy where the rest of the world sees poverty, depression, and something less than. We listened to one of the house parents talk about how he sees every child that lives in his house as his son, even though he didn't raise them from birth; he told us how deeply he loves them and then went on to show us how well he knows every single thing about them, just as a father would know everything about their biological child. We listened to our driver tell us about how his family and friends helped him build his house; he could have hired a contractor but instead, he gave work to the people he loved and they jumped up to help him work on a home that he saved for years to build himself. We listened to the 23 year old mother of one (soon to be two) talk about a her new handmade jewelry business; because of this new source of income, she was able to take in her 8 year old cousin who lived at the orphanage because his mother beat and neglected him.
These stories have taught me that Haiti doesn't need foreign people to do anything. They need us to listen. They need us to listen to their needs and understand how our perception of how we are helping them, is making their problems worse. They need us to work beside them not for them. Haitians, like any other person in this world, are capable of great things. But after decades (if not centuries) of abuse and oppression, the world looks down upon them. The story of the rice farmer losing everything he has worked for is often the norm. And it makes the rest of the world pity Haiti and her people. But the stories that we should focus on are the ones that show us the resilience of Haitians; the stories of their unending devotion to God; the stories of family stepping in when things fall apart. And that's why I keep going back.
Every time I return from Haiti, my hope for what the world could be is renewed. I come home and immediately want to return because love can be found there even in the most dismal of circumstances. Of course, Haiti is not without its problems. There is corruption in the government (frankly, much of it because of rich foreigners), there is abuse, there is neglect, there are human rights violations abound. But seeing that is only one part of the picture. And you cannot see the whole picture until you go to Haiti and learn to love people who live there.
So let's come back to the question, well, what did you do? Like I said, we loved, we learned, we experienced, and we listened. And then we come back here so that we can be ambassadors for Haiti. We come back to challenge others about how they see charity and how they understand giving. We come back to tell our churches and friends and even our family, that we are often irresponsible with how we think we can help. We come back to help change the perception of not just Haitians, but the poor and the organizations that claim to help them.
When we go to Haiti, our only job, our only mission, is to love. Because ultimately, Haitians can (and should) build things for themselves. What they need from us, is knowing that someone believes that they can. What they need is empowerment, not pity. It may not happen with the older generation of Haitians, who have learned to see themselves as the world sees them. But the children that live in Kay Anj Village know that we don't come down there to give them anything; we come down there to love them and to show them that we believe in them to go make a change, for themselves and for their people.
God has given us a gift by calling us to Haiti. He gave us the opportunity to learn and we hope that we can share what we have learned with our church. But to understand how we can help and what our Haitian family needs, we first need open minds and open hearts. It's not easy to look at ourselves and understand that in some of the ways we "help," we are the problem. But we don't have to be. And we ask that the congregation of St. Paul's open their hearts and minds with us, to do right by God's people.
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