Ten years ago this month I completed the first great adventure of my life: designing and supervising the construction of two buildings in Grand Goave, Haiti following the 2010 earthquake that devastated that country. My work on the Mission of Hope School and Be Like Brit orphanage were the epitome of my architectural career, fusing built form and community need in a more potent way than in any previous projects. My time in Haiti brought me a fresh, humbled, view of our reason for existing on this earth, slowed me down, and created important connections that remain dear to me today.
No matter how we might otherwise prefer, when we reach out to fellow humans in distress, the person who can extend themselves almost always benefits more than the person they try to lift up. Perhaps this is because the challenges of the needy are more complex than we suppose. Perhaps it’s because economics and politics are so complicated. Perhaps it’s because despite best intentions, the gratification of giving exceeds the humility of receiving. That the giver so often falls short of alleviating the plight of the receiver does not mean that we should not attend to fellows in distress. Rather it means we should accept that the fruits of our labor may be less, sometimes much less, than we desire.
After the Haiti earthquake, the world showered the impoverished nation with attention, relief supplies, and money. Billions of dollars in humanitarian assistance. My own contributions created two sturdy reinforced concrete buildings in a community that had none. The school is a place where hundreds of children learn; the orphanage a place where dozens of children live; and each provide community-wide refuges from the tropical storms that so often batter Haiti. However, any objective analysis of the hundreds of thousands of dollars these two projects consumed would show that money could have better addressed more fundamental Haitian needs like safe drinking water or sanitation. Alas, it is much easier to raise money for an orphanage and a school than a septic system.
Ten years on I can reflect how my time in Haiti changed my life, positively, forever. Unfortunately, I can’t report that the decade produced similar positive change there. Recent articles in The New York Times (11/27/2022: Link) and The Boston Globe (12/23/2022: Link) report a country racked by political instability, gang violence, economic deprivation, and rampant disease. Today, Haiti is more unstable than at any time since the earth rumbled, yet this time round, there is little international will to intervene. In fact, the international community is pretty much washing our hands of the mess.
What that means for Mission of Hope is that the lifeblood of their operation is gone; Haiti is too dangerous to bring in missionaries. Mission of Hope continues to provide basic services and education in Grand Goave, but their direction of growth is actually in the Dominican Republic, where a flood of Haitian emigree’s has created refugee ghettos in need of services in a place where Mission of Hope can safely bring volunteers.
Meanwhile, some of Be Like Brit’s orphans are nearly grown, yet despite having many educational and health advantages, they have no place to graduate to, in a country with virtually no economic promise.
I am still in touch with several people affiliated with Mission of Hope; I still work with Renee and Lex and Gama and other central characters from Architecture by Moonlight on projects that maybe, someday, will become reality. I refuse to despair about Haiti, because one thing I learned from The Magic Island is the persistence of hope. Hope conquers all. And so I am happy to report that Dieurie, one of the boys I have sponsored for all of these years, is still making his way through school, and should actually graduate in two years’ time. Meanwhile, his younger brother, the mischievous Dieunison, who conquered my heart as a six-year-old, has been in and out of all kinds of trouble but at this moment is reunited with his brother and hopefully seeking a solid path to manhood.
I can’t say that Dieunison or Dieurie or Haiti as a whole are where I hoped they would be when I left ten years ago. But it’s not my position to pass judgment on any individual or nation. I must be content in believing that I made the place a little bit better, even if it seems I was the one who came out with the better deal.