This week I had a rare moment of downtime. While flipping through TV channels I caught a preview of a show that will air this weekend: Oprah Winfrey interviewing Sean Penn in Haiti for “Oprah’s Next Chapter” on OWN. I couldn’t help but wonder what their interview will depict, and whether it will show what I saw earlier this month in Haiti as part of a delegation organized by Dr. Ron Daniels of the Institute of the Black World and the Haiti Support Group. I am still deconstructing all of the emotions I have from the sojourn we took, and already planning a trip with Young Black activists and professionals.
When most people think about Haiti, the first thing that comes to mind is the devastating earthquake that ravaged the country. That’s exactly what I used to do — that is, until I had the remarkable opportunity to visit the first free Black nation in the Western hemisphere. I joined about 30 others as we spent five days absorbing the rich history, culture and determination that defines Haiti. Yes, there is still great suffering from the horrific quake of 2010, but if there’s anything I learned on this eye-opening trip, it’s that resilience and a passion for life still dominate the people.
As an American who sometimes takes for granted the amenities we have available, my first reaction when we landed in Port-au-Prince was that of shock. The devastation from an earthquake that killed at least 300,000 and injured countless others was still prevalent especially in this city that was the epicenter of the disaster. Parents lost children, children lost parents, families were torn apart and some just disappeared in an instant. Even two years later, the effects of this dreadful quake are visible everywhere, and the sheer scope of the damage was a big hit to my chest. Going past tent cities where people are still living without proper homes or clean running water, and watching young children with missing limbs go to school touched all of us in a way that words cannot even describe.
But just like the structures that re-emerged from the rubble, the spirit of the people uplifted all of us. Cooking meals on the street, mothers made sure their daughters still had barrettes in their hair as they ran off to play and clean uniforms as they went off to school. It was those little things – the signs of hope – that reinvigorated our own passion to continue helping the people of Haiti. Visiting the Oasis Institute, an orphanage and learning center for young girls, we were honored to watch these kids as they smiled and sang their hearts out for us despite their own circumstances. We were all humbled.
As part of our trip, we also spent some time in the city of Milot taking in the unique background of a country where slaves were freed even before abolition occurred in the United States. In that realm, we were escorted up the large mountainside of the infamous Citadelle Laferriere, constructed as a one-of-a-kind symbol of liberty for a one-of-a-kind revolution. Today, it still serves an icon for the bravery and courage of Haitians in their quest for justice. But unfortunately, the end of slavery didn’t deliver a guarantee of prosperity.
Following French colonial rule, international boycotts of freed Haiti, coupled with U.S. occupation of the nation in later years and a tremendously high volume of resources exported, Haiti continued suffering for years. The 2010 quake only exacerbated the challenges. And though there has been extensive progress since the disaster first struck, much work remains. National Action Network and I will maintain close contact on the ground and continue to assist the resolute people of this Caribbean nation. I encourage everyone to support organizations that they trust and donate their time or money to keep hope alive for those that have been doing so even with all of the odds stacked against them. It is not enough to say you don’t know who to trust…find someone!
Whether it’s Dr. Daniels’ Institute of the Black World, Wyclef’s Yele Haiti Foundation or any other charitable group, be sure to get involved, learn the exceptional connection and debt we as Black people have to Haiti and remember to assist anywhere disaster or injustice strikes. We do live in a place called the world; let’s start embracing it.