Reconnecting Haitian American Youth to Haiti Through Service

  • Posted on: 29 August 2009
  • By: Bryan Schaaf

Below is an article from the Miami Herald about Haitian American youth who increasingly want to make a difference for Haiti, not through politics but through service.  An increasing number of Haitians and Friends of Haiti believe now is the time to implement a modest program through which Haitian American college students and/or graduates can serve in Haiti with an emphasis on teaching computer skills, environmental conservation, best practices in education, and English instruction.  Haiti needs its Diaspora, not just its remittances, but its active engagement.  Such a program would help instill a sense of committment among future leaders in the Haitian American community.  We endorse the idea wholeheartedly. 


Isles Beach, elbow-to-elbow crowds of participants swapped business cards, passed out policy papers, and pitched earnest plans to develop Haiti.  Gonzalez, 25, was busy, too. In small groups and large, he talked about the United Haitian Students of Florida, an organization he heads to get students more involved in Haiti.


``A lot of us, the younger ones, haven't even been to Haiti,'' said Gonzalez, who lived in Haiti until he was 9 and is now a graduate student in accounting at Florida State. ``But they want to contribute to Haiti.''


From Washington's corridors of power to South Florida's classrooms and conferences, Gonzalez and other young Haitians from outside the country are developing ways to help rebuild from decades of economic devastation and civil strife.


The effort comes at a crucial moment for Haiti. The country enjoys a semblance of political stability not seen in years, and former President Bill Clinton, the United Nations' special envoy to Haiti, is trying to lure foreign investors after the country suffered widescale destruction from last year's spate of hurricanes and tropical storms.


At the diaspora conference, where Clinton urged Haitians overseas to play an active role in what happens in Haiti, the idea of youths helping Haiti popped up repeatedly.  The basic premise is for first-, second-, or third-generation Haitians to travel to the country during their junior or senior year of college, or after graduation. The in-the-trenches work ranges from teaching computer skills to planting trees.


One conference speaker likened the role of young Haitians going to Haiti to the rite-of-passage trip many young Jews take to Israel. The reason: It's a chance to do good, to forge meaningful ties with culture and community.


``This is an opportunity to create bonds that are not artificial bonds, that are not familial bonds,'' said David Elcott, a professor of public service at New York University.


At the diaspora conference, Elcott urged Haitian parents outside the country to encourage their children to volunteer in Haiti. The work, Elcott noted, is in keeping with President Barack Obama's inaugural call for public service.  Opportunities to visit Haiti are likely to increase now that the United States has downgraded its travel advisory to the country. It no longer advises against nonessential travel.


Robert Maguire, an international affairs professor at Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C., has worked on the idea for the past seven or eight years, though political unrest in Haiti had thwarted progress.


Development in Haiti rests heavily on building the health and education systems, Maguire said, and so the diaspora is ideally suited for teaching, in part, because of its knowledge of Creole.  Maguire has passed the idea on to State Department officials.


``The U.S. authorities are certainly aware of this,'' said Maguire, an expert on Haiti. ``I introduced the idea as a kind of mechanism that would facilitate productive engagement of Haitian youth.''


A spokeswoman from the State Department said that the agency has received the proposal and looks forward to discussing it soon with Maguire.  Maguire and other advocates of such ties say the benefits of a diaspora connection are countless.


Carolyn Rose-Avila, a former Peace Corps volunteer and director, has helped draft a proposal for a diaspora youth program, which she said would help fill a void since the Peace Corps no longer operates in Haiti.  The Peace Corps suspended its Haiti program in June 2005 because of security concerns and shut down entirely in April 2006. It is not clear when or if it will resume work in Haiti; a Peace Corps spokeswoman said the agency has not received an invitation from the Haitian government to reestablish a program.


Its absence moved Rose-Avila to consider the Haiti Volunteers in Education Corps. Young people, she said, view the country without cynicism.  ``I was driven by the fact that the Peace Corps was no longer in the country,'' said Rose-Avila, a board member with the Favaca volunteer nonprofit and its former executive director. ``Since [the Peace Corps] is not in Haiti, I thought it was a major disconnect. Young people tend to work in a different space -- they don't try to know all the answers. They don't come in thinking Haiti's a `basket case,' but that it presents a wonderful experience.''


Along with a few colleagues, Rose-Avila hammered out a program sketch, which would require $1 million to start. The project would target college students or recent graduates as volunteers to help teach computer skills, environmental conservation, math, reading and English for at least one semester.


Axelle Latortue is among those interested in creating a youth program. The 27-year-old daughter of Haiti's Miami Consul General, Ralph Latortue, she sees the diaspora's involvement as instrumental to Haiti's development.


``You have people not as politically engaged or politically polarized as the older generation,'' Latortue said. ``They come with creativity in approaching Haiti's problems.''


I am very happy this article came out, for the past few past I have been trying to find the best way to go about volunteering in Haiti. I am a recent graduate and very interested in doing some environmental/reforestation work in Haiti. I have been in contact with numerous organizations but so far I have been unsuccessful in finding an organization that has the space to take on a volunteer. I am very passionate about helping out my country and restoring it to the beautiful island that it once was. I am very excited about to new initiative to get the youth involve with going back to Haiti. Not only is it important to help out a country were our ancestors came from, but this is a wonderful way to get reconnected. I would love to take part in this program, especially with hurricane season under way they need our help more than ever.

-Joanne Veillard

Most of the emails we get are about volunteering in Haiti, many of them from Haitian American youth. The desire is there to be involved and make a difference, there just needs to be mechanisms for doing that.
Peace Corps is no longer in Haiti and I dont know if it will come back. It has been evacuated three times already and starting/closing a new program is very costly. But Peace Corps is small and will always be subject to the security situation.
But no matter how tense things get, lakay se lakay. There will always be Haitians who want to get involved and who know the language and understand the culture. This makes them ideal volunteers who can hit the ground more quickly than myself for example, a blan from the Midwest who needed three months to pick up the language and longer than that to understand the culture thoroughly.
We wrote a blog about volunteering in Haiti called "I have two weeks - how can I help." I think something many people didnt anticipate while volunteering is how it is often easier to make a difference for Haiti from the United States than from Haiti itself. But in order to be very effective, you've got to know Haiti's history, language, and culture. So that experience of volunteering is very valuable so long as someone keeps in mind that it is not that two weeks in Haiti that will allow a person to make a difference so much as what comes after that when a person returns to the United States.
There are plenty of volunteer opportunities, including with the organizations we've featured on this blog. You can always start volunteering with the many, many U.S. based organizations with operations in Haiti and then go visit projects in Haiti. But should nothing emerge, hop a plane and just go to Haiti. Travel around, learn some Kreyol, talk to people, ask their perspective on development issues like reforestation, crime, health care, education, etc. Then you can take what you've learned and heard and apply it from the United States.
And of course there are many organization serving the Haitian Diaspora on the East Coast. These are good groups to tap into and you may find opportunities this way as well. Or maybe your Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club, your church, your fraternity/sorority, or any other group you belong to may be a mechanism for making a difference. There are many possibilities but I hope an exchange program like the one discussed above could actually formalize those opportunities.

Sometimes Patners In Health (Paul Farmer) have job openings. You might want to check their website out. If you do read the blog Fixin Haiti's environmental woes. Good Article

It's great that you want to volunteer and now have a degree to help reforest. What exspense is involved with this sort of project or do you want to teach techniques. My spelling as gone south sorry. I have become involved recently with a mission in Haiti and will be on another short mission trip in Jan. The mission is directed at spreading the word of god,education and feed alot of children. They may be open to your knowledge depending on cost. "Childrens International Lifeline"

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