Monday, August 29, 2011

Minister of Foreign Affairs!  An unendorsed conditional proffer

In the mean time, my relations with John Joseph Joel grew stronger.  We often met at the Head Quarter to exchange ideas on several topics especially on possible Operation Hope projects mainly in Cite Soleil where I had the opportunity to meet his wonderful wife, children and family members.  We spent many great times on the water front, swimming, eating sea food and a variety of great dishes prepared by our welcome committee, as we discuss his political future and mine as a possible nominee for the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs for which I was not too sure of.  He continues to persuade me to accept his proposition which was in essence well received according to him by some other key members of the government and especially the South Department Senator Yvon Buissereth whom also became a good friend of mine. 
John showed immense interest in Operation Hope and the possibility to become on his request a founding member.  In core, he helped in the last stride to secure our legal status published in “Le Moniteur”, Haiti’s official Government publication in February2007.  It was not too long before he began to explain to me the advantages that we can enjoy as owners and or founding members of a NGO.  He and the president he explained have major plans to raise funds that could really advance the cause of this organization.  Instead of a founding member, I proposed to nominate him as a member of the Administrative Counsel to which he unenthusiastically agreed.  In the interim, President Préval designated Jacques Edouard Alexis as his Prime Minister who was ratified by the Parliament without major obstacles.   Soon afterwards, the selection and nomination of Cabinet members began.   John arranged a meeting between President René Préval and I where we met briefly in New York and where I was introduced for the first time to the Haitian Ambassador Raymond Joseph.  I found the John apparently became more involved politically and will not meet with me as often as we used to, something I clearly understood but was perplexed as far as why I never got any feedback on his original proposal.  I left it as that, since I was not too politically predisposed.  I only hoped that John and I will meet one day to shed some light on the matter if warranted.  My friend, John Joseph Joel was later contentiously elected Senator of the West Department in November 2009.
Our Head Quarter at Morne à Bateau

In search of stability, we found an abandoned home with water front that seemed to meet Operation Hope needs.   We contacted the local authorities and after their legal search, found and declared that the house was indeed abandoned and represented a danger for the community.  Leasing it to us was to be a gain for this community at risk.  We were given a price and were told to pay the taxes in arrears and all future real estate’s taxes for which we agreed.  The Mayor and his director wrote us a ten year lease with an option to renew the lease or to buy.  We were authorized to make all necessary renovations as we saw fit.   

On May 7 2005, the contract was signed between I, Operation Hope official representative and the Mayor’s office.  We moved in and soon our Head Quarter became the center of interest to the young children and teenagers of the area and a center to mediate and encourage better relations between the Police, the MINUSTAH and the people. 
We spent a great deal of money in the renovation of the home and the yard and soon were able to accommodate our visiting medical and teacher volunteers.  For three years we made a difference in that community with organized soccer tournaments, on site medical clinics and mobile clinics, dry and hot food distribution, donations of goods, teenage counseling, etc… until the day we were summoned by the owners of the property for illegal possession.  I truly thought this was a joke, a bad dream that I unfortunately lived for the next three months.

The Government, being duly represented by the Mayor and his staff, fraudulently mislead us, issued us a contract and the same to two other victims like us for the same property, was unable to counter suit the real owners.  We unfortunately could not fight this losing battle when our true ally we thought to be the Government, was actually the accomplice in malicious actions against the people committed to help it accomplish its real mission.  With sadness regrettably, we had to be literally evicted in search of a new Head Quarter, victims of the undeserved spiteful actions of the Haitian Government representatives in the commune of Gressier.   

Friday, August 26, 2011

Meeting the Gang Leaders

The following day was an exceptionally unusual day as I recognized the difference it made to sleep, eat and live with a people whom so many misunderstand.  It was survival to them as usual, despite their life uncertainties.  The merchants selling their goods, their smiles and their resignation to their stagnant condition were and everlasting canvas forever engraved in my heart. 

I spent most of the day meeting different people, different organizations and groups.  They all had one thing in common, a chance to live a normal life put in one word; change, something they feel seems to shy away from them every single day of their lives.  I called for a meeting with the gang leaders looking for an opportunity to speak to them in an attempt to understand their quandary, or the reasons for their actions.  In the mean times, I was in company of a few Lieutenants and found most of them to be very informative and talented.  One especially with the name of Shaba I stumbled on was a great rapper and composer.  He had a few tales of his own and a few encounters face to face with the “MINUSTAH”, he described to be purely inexplicable to be alive today.  He demonstrated his talents with two members of his group.  Shaba mainly kept us company during our stay in the city.  About five o’clock,   I was visited by at least three of the gang leaders with the exception of the notorious “Amaral the head leader of unified gangs of Cite Soleil who wanted me to meet him on his turf, which I gladly accepted.  Just before dusk we drove to a quartier called Belekou where I saw two men playing cards assisted or guarded by about six others.   One of them I assumed to be the main leader, greeted me with a “Sat Pase?” (What’s up?).  “Wait a few minutes while I finish this game” he smoothly said.  Don’t worry I replied, I am at home as I started to tour the area accompanied by a few of his Lieutenants.   There was a “Gaguerre” (Rooster arena) which I ascertained to be his favorite pass time.
He came and shook my hand and asked me to follow him upstairs in a two story building where I found an office with a desk and three chairs.  He jokingly asked my reluctant volunteers to leave us alone as they had nothing to worry.   We talked about everything and nothing just to break an ostensibly apprehension between the two of us.  “I congratulate you for your courage to come here” he said to me with a slight grin on his face.  I replied that I congratulate him as well to receive me as his guest.  So I said, what got you into this life?  “A long tale that I probably will explain to you next time we meet.  For now it is just circumstantial where it has become a way of life”.  “What I need from you”, he said, “is very simple, I heard about you and the work you are doing here and I hope you can help me.  You see, I have this computer here and would love to use it but have no electrical power here.  Can you get me a small inverter and two batteries; in addition we need a guitar for our band and soccer uniforms for our team?”   I was basically mystified by his request and surely did not know what to expect.  To me that was really a small and innocent request for which I had no difficulty saying yes. 
We departed from each other as if we had known each other for a while.  He and his Lieutenants accompanied us to our van.  We drove back to the hotel where different groups of people were awaiting us for more meetings, with a strange feeling of accomplishment but yet unconvinced as I did not find his true motivation for his abduct and scare tactics actions.  The rest was left to my imagination.
A day later, I received a visit at the Hotel from John Joseph Joel and Rene Monplaisir who both showed some interest in my work.  John was at his home turf. We met in my hotel room where he said was his favorite when he stays here.  We spent the whole evening talking, had a few drinks and a meal.  John spoke highly of his political and friendly relation with Rene Garcia Preval recently reelected and soon to be inaugurated as the next President of the Republic of Haiti.  He also made some interesting proposals one of which to propose me as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, that he said he will discuss with the president at the appropriate time.  I was a bit bewildered but confident to accept if that nomination should become a reality as it will help me speed up and advance Operation Hope cause on behalf of the deprived and forgotten children…   This meeting was to become the beginning of a longtime friendly relationship I thought.      
Why Financial Support was never sought for Operation Hope.
In 1997, about the same time we obtained our legal status in the United States, the euphoria to help Aristide and the “Lavalas” movement was feverish and addictive.  Certainly, as someone who wished for a better Haiti, I was caught in the fever to facilitate and made all my motor coaches available to all Haitians and friends of Haitians wishing to be of assistance to Haiti’s fragile onset of democracy.  It was during that year I met Bechelet a handicap Lavalas activist.  Bechelet and I became good friends and sometimes referred to each other as brothers.
As excited as we were, we began a fundraising activity in New York that was immediately stopped to the news that Haitians in the name of the Lavalas movement were collecting money for deprived children of Haiti and were using the collected funds for their personal gain.  I and Operation Board members did not hesitate a moment and were very confident in the decision for fear of name slandering and bad reputation.  In addition our bureaucratic experience in search for our legal status in Haiti was discouraging and surprisingly long.  Our conviction to serve the needy helped us fight a ten year old ceremonial battle before the issuance of our legal status in 2007.  And lately with our experience in Cite Soleil, we were convinced to stay anonymous in the NGO world but for how long?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Two hours in captivity

On a Friday afternoon, three loyal Operation Hope volunteers decided to accompany me to the “forbidden city” so I called it, driving a 14 passenger 1986 Ford van, beige with clear windows.  A section of the National Route # 1 was psychologically blocked within the limits of Cite Soleil .  All traffic from the Northern part of the country will detour towards the Airport and traffic from the Southern part to Delmas area and Route Neuf was impracticable.  For those who lived this time, it was virtually a war zone.  I could not stop noticing the gun shot holes in the fragile constructions as we entered the city.  Within minutes, we were stopped by a group of armed people I referred to as youngsters in disguised, dressed to panic those quick to react to this apparent reality they learned to adopt as theirs.  
Very quickly, we were asked to get out and to follow them in what later I come to believe was a class room in a non identified abandoned school with one access door and a window.  I do not recall how many they were but there could have been at least fifteen.  Not a single time we were shoveled or pushed but their demeanor was intimidating and mine to them was more questionable as I was very calm and relaxed.  I have been in Cite Soleil before; I could not possibly be seen as a stranger.  Certainly one of them must have seen me before or heard of me.   We were controllably positioned in the room away from the door and the window while we were temporally put on trial, with questions coming from all angles of the room.  I was very poised in answering them as I try to keep a photographic memory of each one of them but yet soon realized my first mistake, when I identified myself as a member of a Non Government Organization (NGO).  I had to quickly ask them to see me simply as an individual who has embarked in a quest to help my fellow Haitians and that I have not been or the organization I represent, enjoying the privilege of Non Government Organizations. 
They were very anti-Non Government Organization as they explained to me how they have been exploited by the NGO’s throughout the years.  The NGO’s as they explained, have come and gone, at least forty of them taking pictures of their trifle life condition and engaging in never ending ridiculous projects.   They raised millions of dollars and had done nothing for this community.  

We were interrogated for about two hours when finally after a few phone calls I assume to be made to their leaders, we were asked to go away and to their surprise, I stated that I had no plan to leave the City now and had plan to stay overnight which was nothing but an impulse answer to further enter the life of the fearful.   
With full knowledge of my intents, they escorted us in different blocks referred to as “quartiers” and for the first time I was exposed to worse I have ever seen before in all my trips to the city.  I could not hide my tearful eyes from them or from my volunteers.  The scenes were unbearable; I was mad of myself, mad at our government and mad at the world.  Some of them, they reported, were victims of random bullets from the “MINUSTAH” the UN Peace Corps occupying the country, a term I do not use lightly under the realization that they lost their purpose as a PEACE CORPS as they killed women and children at random.  

We were later taken to the only hotel then, where I spent my first night in the city with gun shots echoed from everywhere throughout the night.

Cite Soleil, my experience

During the first year of Operation Hope obtaining its legal status in January 1997, I decided to work  in a community fear by many known as “Cite Soleil”  and often referred to as the largest slam in the western hemisphere.  It was a surprise to me to realize that right here, at the welcome shore of our nation Capital, over flown daily by commercial, military and private airplanes, men, women and children were living in such unhealthy conditions, without basic sanitation, potable water and shelter, oblivious to all.  It was then I also realized why this community was easily and often manipulated by the government.  However, beyond all of this, if anyone could take the time to live one day in these people’s life, they would soon come to grips with how beautiful, jovial and kind they are. Their only blunder is their striking poverty which is nothing in comparison to the unutterable conditions they are living. 
By the year 2004, political uprisings shocked the nation and “Cite Soleil” once again became the international focus with armed gang activities that made it an area most terrified by all and more than ever stigmatized.   It was a time I should have stayed away but chose not to.  I wanted to know the truth about the people of Cite Soleil.  Was it the 300,000 inhabitants living there or was it a small number of a hand full of fearful criminals to be apprehensive of?  I had to de-stigmatize this community, the image and the reports had a devastating effect on the country that I could not continue to bear.

The Foundation

Operation Hope For Children of Haiti a non for profit organization with a 501 ( c ) ( 3) status was created on January 10, 1997 in the US and soon began to be a trusted Non Governmental Organization (NGO) in the US and in Haiti. However for reasons we will find out later, it took us ten years of bureaucratic hooplas before we were given our legal status in Haiti with the official publication in “Le Moniteur” on February 12, 2007.
During the first ten years, without public or private support, Operation Hope helped thousands of people and did the unimaginable tasks the Board didn’t plan for such as; “The Gift of Heart Program” in association with the Freeport “Rotary Club International, "Saving Fabiola" a young girl with a two gunshot wound in the head and “Saving” many other victims during the unceasing uprisings in the country (I should give credit to Glen and Debbie Lahey from Kidesplore and Sharrye more from Airline Ambassador for their support in saving Fabiola}, the installation of water pumps in the Artibonite regions, Food distribution throughout the country, distribution of soccer balls and equipment in Cite Soleil, Grande Ravine, Bel Air, Gressier, Ti Tanyen and other deprived communities, distribution of medication and medical supplies as well as launching a Mobile Clinic Campaign throughout the country, something I felt was most needed in the far to reach areas where the natives have absolutely no access to health care unless they travel for hours if not days without guaranty that they will even find a Nurse Aid to cater to their medical need.
I sometimes wondered how in the world I managed to continue doing what others see as the impossible.   As much as I started to see, smell and hear the deprived and forgotten children, as much I began to become conscious that children are a complex machine.  One cannot help a child just by feeding him or just by clothing him… there are so much more components involved like shelter and why not their own parents…  So it has become a real task with absolutely no financial support, whether from the Us Government or Haitian Government (That, must be a joke or maybe not) or even from the private sector?  For all that there could be real reasons however, Operation Hope never waver and will continue its bequest despite all the challenges.  

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Awaken, the beginning

How this entire life changing course began, is pure unavoidable accident, destined to change one’s life to what I was later referred to as the: “The Restless Visionary”.
It all started on a hot summer 1994 on a business trip to Haiti, with a vision to launch a modern public transportation system in Port-au-Prince.  During a road survey in the down town area by the Iron Market on Grand Rue, I was moved by a scene apparently I never saw before; a child searching a pile of garbage for food.  I was haunted by that sight and could not get my mind of that young man who at times was closed to be camouflaged in this refuse if it was not for his big sad red eyes which at times would indicate the presence of this forgotten young human being while silently crying for help.  I am sure I have seen this before…
As a young Haitian, born and raised in Port-au-Prince, I must have seen this landscape many times and like many other Haitians living abroad, it seemed that i had subconsciously and completely detached myself from the past and wished to erase those memories painted with different social or political experiences that had become my reasons to be blind and senseless to my homeland. 
As I pondered to forget those big eyes in this deep hungry hollow face, I began to see in ways I never seen before, I began to smell these streets and more importantly, I began to hear the cries of the forgotten.  All my senses were now awaken and immediately began to have a different optic of Haiti.