Crafting Hope in Haiti
It’s hard to see an article with “Haiti” in the title and not immediately think of the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake.
While life has forever changed in Haiti, there are some constants. One of these is Haitian Artisans for Peace International (HAPI), a United Methodist Women-supported project that was founded in 2007 as a fair trade artisan co-op focused on women’s economic empowerment. HAPI’s work extends into the community through community-based health care and programs for children and youth.
HAPI is located in Mizak, a rugged mountainous region on the Southern Peninsula of Haiti. Paul Prevost, former mayor of Mizak and HAPI co-founder, introduced me to an artisan cooperative on a visit to Haiti. It was not a sustainable business model, but the women earned a paycheck and had the dignity of their work.
The effects were transformational. Children were in school. Women were respected at home and in the community. They didn’t have to travel long distances on risky and costly public transportation to sell products in dangerous urban areas. The women were happy.
When I was leaving the co-op, I observed people lining up in front of a sign announcing a faith-based feeding program. Mr. Prevost said, “Every time I see that sign, I feel shame. The missionaries in our community want us to live, but they don’t equip us to grow.”
Mr. Prevost’s insight planted the seed for HAPI in my mind.
Dominique Verenite is a HAPI artisan and also coordinator of children and youth ministries. She appreciates the opportunities at HAPI: “Work is a liberty, and God created everyone for some kind of work.”
Ms. Verenite is also part of a group of musical artisans, UJECE!. “When we get together to sing, all our troubles disappear, and we create something beautiful. As soon as we open our mouths to praise God, none of our daily problems matter as our souls find peace through the music.”
HAPI builds covenantal relationships that emphasize the development of local leadership between North American and indigenous partners. The leadership in turn implements and sustains a growing number of programs that promote creativity, economic empowerment, gender equality and holistic health. HAPI’s work with women artisans is key to addressing poverty in communities, lifting up women and their families.
Haitian women: ‘usable and abusable’
Neither nature nor nurture has been kind to Haiti, particularly its women and girls. Women are frequent targets of violence. Seven out of 10 have been a victim of violence, primarily sexual assault.
The majority of an estimated 300,000 Haitian children working as domestic slaves, restaveks, are girls.
Some religious leaders legitimize discrimination against women by excising biblical references out of their contexts to teach that women are inferior to men.
Fewer females graduate from high school, are multi-lingual, hold a driver’s license or are employed compared with their male counterparts.
To change how Haitian men feel toward women is a tremendous challenge. “The greatest difficulty Haitian women face is being perceived by men as usable and abusable,” said Terry Rey, assistant professor of African and Caribbean religions at Florida International University in Miami, Fla.
Artisan Leonne Ridore’s husband once held traditional views of a woman’s role. He did not see the value of a woman going off to work, and instead believed Ms. Ridore should stay home. But he changed his mind when he slipped in a muddy field and severed his wrist on his machete. Ms. Ridore had just received her first paycheck from HAPI, which enabled them to pay for the transportation to rush him to the hospital.
“If I had not gotten there as soon as I did, I would have bled to death,” Mr. Ridore said, as he exposed the scar on his wrist. “Now I am happy HAPI is in the community.”
Women are the poto mitan or center post of their families and communities.
They are the water-bearers, the childbearers and ultimately — the hope-bearers. This is in spite of still dominant abusive attitudes and actions against women.
Nicole Phytrion exudes determination and entrepreneurial spirit. Her lack of formal education and the harsh realities of life as a woman in the remote community of Mizak do not deter her. She requires only opportunity.
Ms. Phytrion’s embroidery skills qualified her for an artisan position with HAPI. Her ability to work for HAPI marked a turning point in her life: “Now I am advancing in my life and so are my children.”
Ms. Phytrion requested a payroll advance from HAPI to purchase three solar ovens from a seminar sponsored by HAPI and the Haiti Solar Oven Project (HSOP), a program supported by the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries. She now earns a steady income selling bread, cake and pasteurized water. She pays tuition for all three of her children to go to school and has enrolled herself in a professional center to learn new skills to expand her business opportunities.
“With the money I invest in my children’s school, and the money from HAPI and my market work, I have a savings investment,” Ms. Phytrion said.
Opportunity does not come easy. On a typical day, Ms. Phytrion rises at 4 a.m. Her house does not have electricity or water. The spring closest to her house is dry. She and her daughters walk further down the mountain to find water, which they carry back up the steep slopes.
Each daughter has one school uniform, which they hand-scrub the day before and hang on a bush to dry. Ms. Phytrion fills the charcoal iron with hot coal and carefully presses the uniforms while the girls braid one another’s hair.
Ms. Phytrion’s house is remote. She and the girls begin their long walks to school and to the artisan coop. She walks nearly two hours before beginning six hours of embroidery work. At the end of the day she rushes out the co-op door and hurries to catch late afternoon classes at the professional school, arriving home at 7 p.m.
Two thousand miles away, Debbie Smith of Covenant United Methodist
Church in Fort Wayne, Ind., organizes incoming HAPI inventory for order fulfillment, shipping and distribution.
“It’s a family affair,” Ms. Smith said. “My husband, Eric, photographs products for the website. My son, Aaron, helped us move into our current office space, and my daughter, Sarah, pitches in at the office and with assembly.”
Ms. Smith also coordinates volunteer teams to assemble and package HAPI products: “HAPI has created a bond of friendship among our volunteers that spans age and gender. Our best ironer is a man!”
Avis Boatwright, a member of United Methodist Women at Covenant United Methodist Church, recently moved into a retirement community. She was offered an assembly opportunity sewing HAPI embroideries onto a cloth backing for quilt square packaging.
“I thought I’d never have an opportunity to sew again,” Ms. Boatwright said. “Just when I thought my life was of no purpose, HAPI has given me a purpose.”
HAPI is providing opportunities for meaningful work in Haiti and the United States. Women share experiences — although in different places — of solidarity.
Judi Kruis, a member of HAPI’s board of directors and an artist who assists with product and website development, said: “Being a part of HAPI’s work in Haiti and seeing the growth and provision God is making reaffirms that taking action in faith allows God to do immeasurably more than we ever thought or imagined.”
Lorelei VerLee, HAPI’s director of marketing, finds gratification in the transformation of the artisans’ lives. “Early on, a young widow named Navive Louis arrived for work each day with her eyes downcast. She rarely spoke.”
Ms. Louis had been disowned by her husband’s family after his death and struggled to feed their seven children. Then she started earning an income by working at the co-op. “The next time I visited, I couldn’t believe the difference in Navive,” Ms. VerLee said. “She ran to me with her arms outspread and gave me a big hug. She had a radiance about her.”
Many homes in Mizak were damaged or destroyed by the earthquake. While the death toll was low, families are suffering from the loss of family members or friends.
Port-au-Prince relatives, whose income from city jobs would be sent back to Mizak, have returned home to Mizak jobless, traumatized, and seeking food, shelter and nurture from a population where 70 percent survive on $1 a day.
The needs of traumatized children are a priority for HAPI in the aftermath of the earthquake. Fifteen-year-old Teddhy of Port-au-Prince vocalizes his fear that “youth my age will be the lost generation of Haiti.”
To address the trauma in the community, HAPI is working with OperationSAFE
(OpSAFE), an organization focused on the emotional recovery of children following natural disasters. OpSAFE developed curriculum for trauma- intervention with children in response to the 2008 China earthquake.
Jonathan Wilson, founder of Op-SAFE, commented on the unique challenges to the OpSAFE camp in Mizak saying, “In China we were bringing volunteers from areas outside the disaster zone. In Mizak, we were training volunteers who were suffering from their own trauma. It was very difficult to deal with emotional needs when basic needs are not being met.
“Usually, in a disaster aftermath, the basic human survival needs of water, food, shelter and medicine are mostly in place within the first month. By the second month, the focus should shift to recovery,” Mr. Wilson said. “This was not the case in Mizak, and I dare say, most of Haiti.”
HAPI’s community-based health care is also part of earthquake relief efforts. Two of three springs that provide water to Mizak were dry throughout February and March. HAPI medical teams in Mizak encountered numerous cases of severe dehydration and noted an increase in hypertension related to dehydration.
OpSAFE leaders taught children basic hygiene practices like washing their hands and proper dental care. However, workers had to be paid to walk long distances in mountain terrain to haul water for the demonstration; where would these children access water at home?
HAPI artisans hope for a different future for Haiti, beginning at home. Nearly all report their homes as destroyed. In reality, the spectrum of destruction ranks from houses that have sustained various degrees of cosmetic damage to those with structurally unsound walls to those that are a pile of rubble.
Some houses are too small to support the Port-au-Prince relatives who have relocated. Regardless of actual damage, the perceived damage is that their homes are unsafe and inadequate.
This general sense of dis-ease with structural integrity extends to other spaces, including the HAPI co-op building. Since the earthquake, HAPI artisans sing and stitch outdoors beneath the shade cast by blue tarps flapping in the breeze. They are grateful for the opportunity to work and earn incomes for their families. They hope that orders will continue.
The United Methodist Church’s Communities of Shalom program has joined with HAPI to create HAPI Communities of Shalom. This is “a designated zone of safety, security, peace, help, hope, empowerment and all that we mean when we use the term Shalom,” elaborated Michael Christensen, director of Communities of Shalom at Drew University in Madison, N.J.
This recent designation recognizes all the work HAPI has already done and continues to do, which reflects its understanding of what real community is. Partnership, solidarity and the wellbeing of all members of a community signify the Shalom that’s present at HAPI.
Valerie Mossman-Celestin is the volunteer U.S. executive director for Haitian Artisans for Peace International (HAPI). She co-founded HAPI in 2007 with Paul Prevost and the help of seed monies from a United Methodist Women grant.