A week in Haiti

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Haiti: it will break your heart and rebuild it in the same breath. This was my experience throughout our five day visit this spring. It is a place of poverty and scant opportunity, but also a home to strong, capable, caring people who long for the chance to build a better life for themselves and their children. Didi Jiiva Prema, the director of Amurtel Haiti, has created successful and empowering programs dedicated to help them do just that. A children’s home, three schools, micro-credit and Self Help groups for women, teen girls after-school programs, and computer literacy classes are just some of the projects Amurtel runs that make meaningful differences in the life of the women and children in the camps and small villages.

Arriving at the children’s home in Bourdon Port au Prince we find a place of controlled chaos that seems to runs on love. Managing a household of seventeen children under the age of eight requires a deep calm that is the bedrock of Didi’s temperament. Doing this with intermittent electricity and no running water is nothing short of a miracle.

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These sweet, smart, funny and curious youngsters start their day early, beginning with optional meditation and yoga. On this dawn, the small foyer lit faintly by a few candles, my voice joining the voices of these sixteen tiny warriors as they sing Baba Nam Kevalam, “Love is all there is”, which feels so true right now. The children then don their birthday suits, and run down to the river for a morning splash. I watch as little Bondita, barely two years old, shivers in the early morning light awaiting her warm sudsy bath. If only that were so. Instead she gets a cleansing ladle of water dumped over her little head and a quick scrub. For her, there is no fluffy warm towel waiting, she just stands there and sucks her thumb. She doesn’t cry or throw a fit; she stands with an experienced stoicism that belies her age. My heart breaks, and I run to my room, grab my beach towel, and scoop her up. She nestles her little head into my neck, and for a moment we heal.

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It was surprising to learn that these children were not up for adoption. “What do you mean it’s not an orphanage?” I asked Joni. She explained that these children live as family, very much brothers and sisters, with all the joys and sorrows that brings. Can you imagine being the two older boys with fourteen little sisters and a newborn baby brother? Felito and Chupateen are now eight and have been with Didi from their fragile beginnings. While they both rule as big brothers, it is six year old Sarita who makes sure that everyone has their fair share, enforcing integrity as needed. Each of the children has his or her own distinct personality, and as the day flowed from one activity to the next, it was a joy getting to know them. And I will not soon forget. This home is truly an oasis from the camp life of scarcity and violence from which most of these children have been rescued.   Secure in a feeling of safety, their daily routine includes nutritious warm meals, education, laughter and music, and time to just play or relax – a luxury for almost all Haitian children.

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Didi’s day transitions from caretaker to program manager, as the children head off to the school downstairs or busy themselves with their new art supplies. She and Joni are meeting with Shealda and Hilda, the two women who work with Amurtel Haiti as community organizers, They are discussing programming plans, budgets and financial needs for the coming year. It is a difficult conversation, as funding for these projects has dried up considerably since the earthquake. Yet the organizers are determined to keep them running; the overwhelming success, and the ardor of the women they serve prove their worth. Both women offer to take significant pay cuts on their already meager salaries, and Joni promises to find funding, assuring them Amurtel will not turn their backs on these programs. While so many other organizations have come and gone, Amurtel endures with over twenty years of support based not on throwing money at problems, but providing self-help solutions and partnering with those they serve.

My work day starts too, as I travelled here with two other friends, Emily and Alex, to bring yoga classes to the schoolchildren and offer some mother/daughter classes for the teens and women who participate in the programs.  I was in for a quick lesson on how not to get attached to your plan. We had a wonderful translator, Jagat, our constant companion for all of our adventures. But quite a lot gets lost when you are leading a giggling gaggle of 30 three year olds. Over the course of five days, it became easier and easier to go with the natural flow of the people and their country, and measure my success by laughter and exhaustion at day’s end. One night Joni was checking in with us and asked how I was doing.   My response was, “I’ve been peed on, rolled around on a filthy floor, mimed yoga postures to thirty confused faces, I’m exhausted and I feel so happy! What a great day!”

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The afternoon schedule was a class for teen girls enrolled in the Teen ESPAS PAM (translated as Girl’s Space) program. These girls meet once a week for presentations, activities, games, and interactive discussions about the issues they face, with the ultimate goal to keep them in school and delay pregnancy. Many of the village girls have their first child before they turn 15, and rape and sexual abuse are not uncommon. But of the 57 girls who have participated in this program, only two have dropped out with one confirmed pregnancy. She bravely came back and spoke to the group on the hardship of poverty and pregnancy – it is much easier and better to stay in school. A powerful message when it comes from a peer.

This class was again an exercise in letting go of plans and connecting with the girls’ rhythm. It was quite telling when we went around the room, asking them to introduce themselves and tell us how energetic they felt, with responses from, “I feel strong. I feel sad. I am hungry. My stomach hurts. I am happy. I want some food.” Many of the responses broke my heart.   But by the end of ninety minutes of yoga, activities, and a closing discussion on confidence, I found myself uplifted by their laughter and courage.

On the fourth day we travel to the southeast coast of Haiti to visit Amurtel’s school in Anse a Pitre and offer a yoga program to some members of the Self-Help women’s group and their teen daughters in Banaan. Getting there proved to be quite the ordeal. Both of Amurtel’s vehicles- the decrepit pickup truck and the twenty-five year old SUV had driven their final miles, so off to Avis rent a truck, for an exasperating three hour experience I will not put you through. Suffice it to say that raising funds for a new vehicle is a top priority.

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The noise and bustle of life in the children’s home was a stark contrast to the peace and serenity of life at the school in Anse a Pitre. We set up our mosquito tents on the rooftop in the cool evening air and are thankful for the amazing stars at the end of a long day’s drive.

The morning greets us with a spectacular sunrise and peaceful meditation. I miss the sound of children’s voices, but the village children soon begin to appear, as early as 7 am for some, on a Saturday morning no less. They have been told about the three travelling yoginis and patiently wait for us to begin our class. By now we have figured out what works with our translation difficulties and the variety of ages and we invite them to ‘go to the zoo’ – one they must create for themselves. We start off with a few standard yoga animal poses – and let the children take over. And take over they did! I’m sure it will remain one of the most fun and silliest yoga classes I experience in my life. I think my favorite was the frog dog.

Our visit to Haiti ended with a powerful visit to a women’s Self-Help group in Banaan. Funded for three years, Didi and Joni were recently told the funding had run out and they would have to close down the program. “That’s not going to happen” they tell me, “this program is too important and too successful for us to shut it down”. The women live in a village without running water, without electricity, without access to medical care, but with more spirit and determination than could be imagined. Each of the women had to save twelve cents a week to participate in the group, and had to show up each week. If one was short, the others stepped in and supported her, knowing they may need that same assistance. The group met to discuss their priorities, and over time set a goal to create a weekly market in their town, so they wouldn’t have to make the long trek across the border to the Dominica Republic to sell, or deal with the harsh racism they face there each week. The local market was a dream that took two years to realize, and was achieved through cooperation and collaboration. They have now set their sights on bringing running water to the village, and to staff the government medical clinic which sits empty next to their meeting hall.   Now all Joni and Didi need to do is find funding for the community organizers have agreed to, along with funds for a vehicle, and the teen girls program, and the tutors for the older children, and the… … The list is long and daunting, but Amurtel seems to take the challenge of keeping these programs in stride.

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I do want to end with a word of caution to anyone who is considering volunteering for one of Amurtel’s many worthwhile projects – be it for a five day visit like mine, or a year-long internship. You may leave and return home, but the experience will never leave you. Each morning now when I sing, I am joined by my memories of those sixteen precious voices.   And already I am planning my reunion.

Patty lives in Warren, VT where she teaches yoga.

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