Sophia Lafontant is Oxfam America’s lead Haiti organizer, working on policy and advocacy issues with the Haitian diaspora. In her first post about Haiti—hours after the earthquake—she recounted her profound worry as she tried desperately to learn the fate of family members still living in the country.
Before my 25th birthday, I hadn’t been to Haiti since I was a girl in the 1980s. My parents were among the second wave of Haitians that left the country in the decade prior and once the Duvalier regime fell there was enough uncertainty that Haiti became an all but distant memory for them. But I held on to my fond and vivid memories of growing up in my grandmother’s house on Avenue Christophe, in the heart of Port-au-Prince, a few blocks away from the famous Olfoson Hotel which counted Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Mick Jagger as some of its famed international guests during its heyday.
While I lived in Boston, MA, I always had a foot in Haiti. Like most children of the diaspora, I felt the need to embrace both places. In the summer of 2007, I embarked on my first trip back to Haiti: it had been on my mind and it was time to return to the place I now scarcely remembered. I will never forget the blast of heat that rushed over me when we touched down; it was like someone was holding a blow dryer to my face.
It’s difficult to explain why, but Haiti instantly felt like home. The familiar foods, music, language filled with allusions and metaphors, the stream of relatives and family friends that trickle in throughout the day to greet and welcome me; the constant color everywhere—on tap taps, sides of buildings, street art and of course the brightly painted houses. It all beckoned me–with so much beauty it’s hard not to smile still.
A friend once asked me what makes Haiti so different from other Caribbean countries. I paused to think about what answer I would give. My response was “the struggle.” The long struggle. Haiti has had more than its share of pain and tragedy. Whether it’s the subjugation and indignation of slavery, 32 coups in its history, harsh and crippling international sanctions and policies, and tense relations with its neighbor, the Dominican Republic, and seemingly endless battles with mother nature, Haitians miraculously dig deep to find an inner strength that escapes most of us. And it is that spirit and determination to make a way out of no way that I find beautiful and admire so much.
It’s been two years since the devastating earthquake. Despite the inactions or action of those in power, Haitians will continue to pull money together to pay their children’s school fees, continue to ensure that their uniforms are pressed and clean, and continue to hope that tomorrow is better than today. It is that seemingly bottomless well of hope that keeps me at my computer late into the evening some nights. It’s what keeps me on conference calls with allies and cranking out organizing plans. All minuscule in the grand scheme of things, and none of which can be credited with saving lives or adding to the meager incomes of the millions of Haitians that live on two bucks a day.
Still, it’s the very least I can do for a nation that has given me so much—so much laughter, color, and so much love.