A visit to Haiti, the western hemisphere’s poorest country, will cause sensory overload: the blistering heat; the sight of colorfully decorated buses called “tap-taps”; the peddlers walking along the sides of the streets carrying wares on their heads, or stationed along the road with candles glowing in the dark (there were no streetlights); the smell of smoke made by burning charcoal and burning garbage; the incredible mountains; the incessant sound of horns honking, and colorful hand painted billboards seemingly everywhere. All of that in just the first hour.
The Republic of Haiti is located in the western one-third of the Island of Hispaniola. It is about the size of the State of Maryland and has a population of about nine million. Only a short plane ride from the States, the hunger, mortality and unemployment rates are staggering. By way of comparison, the U.S. unemployment rate in this historically bad economy is under 10% while in Haiti, it exceeds 65%.
This is a country, first sighted by Columbus in December, 1492, exploited for its gold and other natural resources. Within 50 years, the indigenous Amero-Indian population, the Arawaks and Tainos, were killed off by the cruelty of the Spaniards and disease. With no work force to harvest the land, African slaves were imported. (The National Museum has depictions and relics of the slave trade, which appear remarkably similar to those of the U.S.). The Spaniards ultimately ceded control to the French who continued the exploitation until January, 1801 when the slave population won its war of independence over Napoleon’s France. Since then, Haiti has suffered a series of failed and oftentimes brutal leaderships. This has left the country in a state of disrepair in which its population fends for itself to survive. There is a level of stability at present, under the leadership of its President Renee Preval and with the involvement of United Nations peacekeeping forces throughout the Country. Former President Bill Clinton has been appointed as Special Envoy by the U.N. to Haiti. It is hoped that his high profile will bring awareness to Haiti and its plight.
The YMCA d’Haiti
It is within this background and history that the YMCA d’Haiti exists, with its mission to bring education, moral awareness, unity, responsibility and leadership to the Haitian youth. The task was to conduct a two week soccer camp, bringing select players together from the three separate communities of Port-au-Prince, Kenscoff and Camp Perrin and to create the first ever YMCA d’Haiti national team. We arrived on July 11, 2009 in Port-au-Prince and reunited with our host and CEO of the Haiti “Y”, Gwenael Apollon, a Canadian born Haitian immigrant who returned to Haiti in spite of its dire situation. It was his dream to have a national team and his planning which brought it all together.
After a night of leisure at his beautiful home, we met up with the Kenscoff and Port-au-Prince players and boarded two buses, stuffed with people, soccer equipment, food and mattresses and commenced our 120 mile southwest journey to Camp Perrin. We were fortunate that our trip only took 7 hours and our bus only broke down once. Along the way, we encountered the breathtaking beauty of the place: soaring mountains, lush tropic greenery and the clear blue Caribbean Sea. We also encountered its ugliness: trash lined roads, shelled out buildings, abandoned vehicles, denuded forests, and a true sense of poverty.
We finally reached our destination and settled in at a house belonging to Gwenael’s wife’s family. Within a few hours, the house was transformed into a sort of base camp for the next week. A canopy stretched out over the veranda and all of the mattresses laid down to create a rather large outdoor bedroom. Soccer balls were pumped full of air. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were cooked on an open charcoal pit. There was no running water at the house. Instead, everyone got their bathing and toilet water from a large outdoor water tank until it ran empty after a few days. Fortunately, there was a nearby irrigation canal with cold flowing water where the group bathed every day. Camp ran from Monday through Thursday with a long, four hour morning session, a two hour lunch break followed by two more hours of practice in the afternoon. Water never tasted so good and only came from a bottle. The local guys from Camp Perrin walked to the field each day. The rest took a daily, bumpy bus ride. This was an intense week of conditioning and practice. By Thursday, the first effort at choosing an “A” team was made. The final day in Camp Perrin was tournament day. A local club team was invited and three YMCA teams played. It was a great success with no team losing to the invited team and the “A” team losing a close one to Camp Perrin YMCA.
Week one was over and it was time to return back through Port-au-Prince and then back “up the hill” to the Town of Kenscoff. This 140 mile trip, door to door, took twelve hours. The bus broke down a few times and had to be repaired by a mechanic. The bus was repaired in an open market place with thousands of people selling everything from live chickens to coffins.
Unlike the first, blistering hot week in Camp Perrin, it is cool and sometimes cold in the Kenscoff mountains. The players trained on a field which belonged to former dictator, Baby Doc Duvalier. The field is at an elevation of 8,000 feet and has spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. Next to the fields are the graffiti ridden ruins of his home. After Duvalier’s forced departure, his property was vandalized, gutted and looted. The Haitians call it “Dechoukage” – meaning to destroy something by taking its roots out.
Camp continued as it did the first week. More meals to feed the “army”, more bus trips to practice and more time for everyone to understand and accept each other. The kids from the three towns were as foreign to each other as the Americans were to all of them. Along the way, they were lectured by local leaders on environmental and moral responsibility and on the law. They came out of it all with a sense of pride, hope and accomplishment.
Camp ended with another successful tournament. The national team suited up in their red and blue uniforms (donated by the Ridgewood YMCA), representing the colors of the Haitian National Flag and swept to victory. That night, the players, coaches and staff attended an awards ceremony and all received medals. My partner, Tom Wells, and Rick Claydon flew down for the tournament and the ceremony representing the Ridgewood YMCA World Service Committee and the Wells Mountain Foundation that had underwritten the camp and the final night’s ceremony. For practically everyone there, it was the first time they had been honored in such a way or in any way at all. I was able to deliver a speech in Creole. It was a very special night. For two weeks, the players of the YMCA had an opportunity to remove themselves from their daily drudgery and despair. Instead, they got to share their own cultures and take in the camaraderie and unity that seems to be in short supply. They came out of it with hope and good memories and importantly, an understanding of the YMCA’s value in their lives. Gwenael continues to have ambitions to expand the YMCA’s reach in Haiti and to continue the soccer program. Rumor is a lawyer from Paramus, and hopefully others will be there next July.
James J. Delia is a Partner at WJ&L and practices in our Land Use and Real Estate areas.