This past spring break I was able to lead a group of 10 Gettysburg College students to Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. The experience was sort of surreal for me, as a college senior who has been to Haiti four times. Only a few short years ago, I found myself on my first trip to Haiti, then a high school senior who simply wanted to help, and to learn. The things I saw on my first trip will never leave my mind, things both beautiful and devastating. Haiti is one of the only places I have ever seen this dichotomy play out, and it’s kept me coming back since. This year, I was able to show 10 new people the country I had fallen in love with. Some of them had never even been out of the United States, none had entered Haiti – but every single one went in with an open mind and heart, ready to learn.
We focused our trip on access to education and healthcare – two issues that seem to be hot button topics as much in Haiti as in the United States. Personally, I got the most out of the education portions of our trip. Working with Outreach to Haiti (the partner organization) provided incredible opportunity to meet and speak with all kinds of people directly involved in the field; students, teachers, school administration, human rights activists, even government officials all working towards a more educated Haiti.
It all started with friendship. About 4 months before I left, I worked with some incredible students in Haiti to form pen-pal partnerships between English speaking university students in Haiti and the Gettysburg College trip participants. At least once a week, these students had messages going back and forth - mostly using Facebook for email. When we got to Haiti, one of the first things we did was meet as a big group, starting with all the pen-pals talking to each other. As an organizer, I didn’t have anyone specific to talk to, so instead I go to observe. I watched as slight language barriers disintegrated, as Americans and Haitians talked somberly about problems with the government one minute, laughing hysterically about the latest episode of “Orange is the New Black” the next. It is conversations like these, the ones that show us all people, that I hope I never forget.
One day we got a chance to visit a local primary school, it had students from kindergarten to 6thgrade. The students were positively adorable, and incredibly well behaved. They all wore matching uniforms; the colors indicated the grade year. One our trip we wanted to show the importance of education to the Haitian people, and so we filmed every classroom we entered, always asking the same question: “do you think education is important?” Without exception, every hand went up, every time. Seeing the excitement about education gave me pause as I considered if the enthusiasm would be matched by a classroom of American students. In Haiti the job prospects of an uneducated person are brutally limited. In a country with 80% unemployment, children as young as 6 or 7 are fully aware of the struggle they face if they are left outside school walls.
We also got to meet a member of the Ministry of Education in Haiti, the government’s branch dedicated to running and expanding the public education system there. I am not quite sure what I expected walking into that room; I only knew the gravity of the situation for children in Haiti. They have the same legal requirement that all children must go to school as the United States does. However, there is an absolute inability to fulfill this requirement in terms of who wants to go to school, and who gets to – less than 20% of children in Haiti receive a public-school education. With numbers so staggering, I guess I expected some sort of casual man to work in that department; perhaps cruel, perhaps inept. Instead, we were introduced to a man who was clearly aware of the problems with the education system, and deeply desired to fix them. As he explained, a lack of funding has been devastating to their cause. As the government flounders without any significant tax income, education is one of the first departments to get cut. Private schools, like the ones supported indirectly by Outreach Haiti, have become a necessity to getting kids the education they deserve. One day, he hoped, the system would develop a place where the public schools could serve everyone.
Haiti is a beautiful place, without a doubt. There are so many things working against the Haitian people, and yet they persist. The only truly stable facet of the country is its instability, and yet there is no pity or depression to be seen in the eyes of the people there. Only hope and potential exists in this country. All too many go there with this concept of exactly what needs to be done, “here is what is wrong, and here is how you fix it.” The time our group spent in Haiti was focused not on how we knew what the Haitians didn’t, but rather how we could learn from the Haitians ourselves. I am confident in saying I have gotten far more out of Haiti than I have been able to put in, yet I don’t feel that this is a selfish statement. Haiti is a country with so much to offer. As we learned on our trip, it needs dedicated leaders with heroic levels of patience. These leaders are already there, right now - sitting on the desks and chairs of the cinderblock schools, reading their books. They raised their hands to our questions, but they were committed to far more. We won’t know the extent of their success for years to come, and yet I cannot wait to see it.