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How we should be helping Haiti

Ines Lozano is the principal of Metropolitan International School of Miami and founder of Flying High for Haiti. She lives in Key Biscayne.

I met Makenley Louissant four years ago when he was 15, the tallest and shyest of the 135 students at the community school I sponsor on the beautiful island of Île-à-Vache, off Haiti’s south coast.

When I met him he was quietly seated in the grass, making a kite out of sticks and plastic garbage and I was immediately struck by his skill and creativity. I discovered that making – and flying – kites is the favorite past-time of the children of Île-à-Vache.

It became the inspiration for the small charity I founded to support the school, Ecole du Village, which now brings me back to Île-à-Vache several times a year.

 

As part of that initiative I take high school volunteers from Miami to conduct art and photography workshops with the pupils at Ecole du Village, and to open the eyes of our American students to Haitian culture.

Makenley’s photos stood out from the hundreds of photographs taken by the students. He has a special way of capturing the beauty of the island’s virgin beaches, the lush nature and the hospitality and tranquil way of life of this peaceful fishing and farming community with no public utilities such as running water, electricity. There are no paved roads or cars, and the 15,000 residents get around by boat and motorbike, or on foot.

When people talk about Haiti in the United States the word “beauty” is not usually part of the conversation — quite the opposite. People sometimes ask me why I love Haiti so much, a place so associated with political violence, diseases, and natural disasters. That is one of the reasons why for the past five years I have been organizing photo exhibitions in Wynwood, showing the beauty of Haiti and its people, as seen through the eyes of young Haitians. These exhibitions have the purpose not only to raise funds for their education and support Ecole du Village but also to show to the world the other face of Haiti, the face that is rarely seen in media coverage.

Unfortunately Haiti is now again in the news for the latest natural disaster, Hurricane Matthew. The eye of Matthew passed only 35 miles west of Île-à-Vache, where local residents took refuge in churches and schools, including Ecole du Village. Most of the houses were damaged and lost roofs. Crops are gone and fishermen are struggling to get their boats repaired.

My heart sank when I saw the track of the Category 4 hurricane going towards the southeastern part of Haiti. I had just repainted the school and put a new roof on one building. I was glued to the Weather Channel, monitoring every step of this monster storm, praying it would go away. But Matthew was merciless and destroyed the most fertile area of Haiti, leaving decimated villages and a staggering death toll.
Thankfully the school survived almost intact, save for one palm tree that fell on the new roof and some water damage to textbooks.

We quickly reached out to friends in Port-au-Prince and Miami to help organize a delivery of emergency food kits to the island, which were distributed in an organized fashion by local authorities.

I have since been back to assess the damage and to see how I could best help. When I arrived at the dock in Île-à-Vache I was encouraged to see that the distribution of metal roofing sheets by a local NGO was already taking place. The locals were already getting organized to fix their homes. Cement bricks were being made on the jetty.

This reinforced my belief that rather than send large shipments of foreign aid to Haiti, which often get stuck in customs for weeks, held up by bureaucratic red tape, and end up costing large amounts of money in administrative costs, the best way is to join local efforts to provide the materials they need. As other smaller groups in Miami have done – especially Michael Capponi’s Global Empowerment Mission and Alison Thompson’s Third Wave Volunteers – working with local groups is a more sustainable approach to helping southwest Haiti heal from the wounds of Matthew.

Together with my Haitian partner, Patrick Lucien and his EDEM (Education Development for the Emancipation of the Masses) Foundation, I visited many damaged homes on Île-à-Vache. I saw families living in the crushed ruins of their roofless homes, their few belonging scattered on the ground. Some have managed to cover one room with a plastic or nylon sheet so the family has a place to sleep.There is a tremendous amount of work to be done to repair all the homes, reopen schools and plant new crops. But I am confident that Île-à-Vache will be back in its feet very soon, thanks to the joint effort of the community and the handful of charities like mine and my local partner, EDEM Foundation.

Makenley showed me the recording he made on his phone moments before the full force of Hurricane Matthew hit the island. Palm trees were bending along the shoreline as the vicious winds kicked up. Those palms are an ideal metaphor for the resilient residents of this beautiful island. Vulnerable to the vicissitudes of Mother Nature, they are used to being knocked down, but they always get back up. Or course they could do with a little help from their neighbors. That is who I consider myself to be, living on a small island with about the same number of inhabitants, less than 90 minutes flight time away.

I will be back at Thanksgiving with 19 high school and university students from Florida. I look forward to seeing the children’s kites flying high over the island in kinder winds.

Your View is a recurring series of opinion pieces from members of The New Tropic community. To share your ideas, goals, and work about Miami with the community in a Your View piece, please submit it to [email protected]