Haitian ‘grassroots’ organization gets help in T.O.




Haiti’s political leaders continue to fail the country’s besieged people desperate for help and direction in the aftermath of the catastrophic earthquake one year ago that claimed nearly 300,000 lives and a recent outbreak of cholera that has resulted in almost 3,800 deaths, says community worker Rea Dol.

The cofounder and director of the Society of Providence United for the Economic Development of Petion-Ville (SOPUDEP) in Port-Au-Prince was in Toronto last week for a fundraiser at the University of Toronto.

Supported by the Sawatzky Family Foundation of Canada, SOPUDEP is one of the most progressive grassroots social organizations in Haiti.

The ravaged country was plunged into further chaos after the November 28 elections failed to produce a clear winner. Second round presidential and parliamentary elections will not be held until at least next month.

Preliminary results indicate that government-backed candidate Jude Celestin and former senator and first lady Mirlande Manigat are in the runoff. The Organization of American States (OAS), which was asked to review the results after violent protests, found that musician Michel Martelly secured more votes than Celestin and should be in the runoff vote.

Dol said she did not vote in the last election and is appalled at the number and quality of candidates seeking the country’s leadership.

“The reason I did not cast a ballot is because I do not believe that any of the candidates have Haiti at heart and are capable of running the country,” she told Share. “I voted for Jean-Bertrand Aristide and René Préval who has been a big disappointment…In the run-up to the last election, the government used a lot funds that should have gone to the people that are really in need to give to their supporters in exchange for votes.

“There are still about 1.5 million homeless people living in squalor in tents and the country has a serious cholera outbreak. Then again, who cares? A lot of people just want to be president. For what reason? They want the opportunity to get more money for themselves.”

She said the country was divided between Manigat, a 70-year-old law professor whose husband Leslie Manigat was elected in a criticized 1998 election under a military junta that quickly ousted him in a coup, and Martelly heralded as a pioneer of a unique brand of kompas music, a style of Haitian dance music sung in Haitian Creole language.

“With Mirlande, people were saying it’s a woman and maybe she can do something for the country,” Dol said. “She’s a very intelligent and experienced person. But when you look at her husband and what he did in the past, you become suspicious of her.

“On the other hand, Michel is not a politician. I would have thought that if you were going to go down that road since all of the politicians have failed, Wyclef Jean would have been a better choice because he has done more for the country and he has a lot of international connections.”

Jean, who lives in the United States, was barred from running in the presidential election. Haiti’s constitution requires candidates to have lived in the country for five years prior to an election.

SOPUDEP runs a comprehensive school serving Pétionville’s poorest residents. Established in 2002, the school has grown to nearly 550 students, many of whom receive their only regular meal through a hot lunch program.

The school had just closed for the day and Dol was on her way home when the earthquake struck on the afternoon of January 12, 2010.

“Five minutes after we left, I saw houses shaking,” recalled Dol who was in a car with her daughter and sister, a teacher and her youngest brother who was driving. “At first, it did not occur to me what was happening and I pulled out my camera to take pictures. However, when we realized it was an earthquake, we jumped out of the vehicle and started running.

“I remember picking up a young girl who was bleeding profusely from her head and trying to run with her. She was badly wounded and pleaded with us to leave her behind because she could not keep up with us. I did that with a heavy heart because I knew she died right there.”

Dol lost 28 students, two teachers, a cousin and many friends in the earthquake.

Ryan Sawatzky runs his family foundation that was started specifically to support SOPUDEP. He came into contact with the organization while researching human rights.

“In the summer of 2007, I was doing research on the Caribbean for my job and I got sidetracked one night and started looking at the history of the Caribbean, the slave trade and the poverty that exists, and the one that stuck in mind was Haiti which is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere,” said Sawatzky. “I found the history fascinating and the conditions appalling and that was what prompted me to want to find a way to give money to help. I wanted to give funds to an organization, preferably Haitian-founded and run, where I could see the money working directly with the people.

“I came across a website that had been put up by Montreal photojournalist Darren Ell and he was selling photos he took in 2006 and 2007. He was selling the prints online to raise money for a Haitian photojournalist (Wadner Pierre). So I e-mailed Darren asking how he wanted me to send the money and I also explained to him at the same time my desire to find a grassroots organization in Haiti. The first thing he told me was that I should check out SOPUDEP.”

On Dol’s invitation, Sawatzky made his first visit to Haiti three years ago.

“Like every once in a while, you have a need to do something,” he said. This was one of these times and I needed to challenge myself. My only prior experience with a Third World country was the one you see from a bus window from the airport to the all-inclusive resort. It was shocking to me what I saw in Haiti and I knew that I had found my calling.”

Sawatzky said he was also attracted to SOPUDEP by Dol’s incredible passion and drive.

“She’s such an inspiration and you could see that her organization was different from those that are set up by foreigners and mostly do the usual substandard stuff. She’s the voice of the people and they love her.”

Last week’s SOPUDEP fundraiser, which was also presented by the Toronto Haiti Action Committee, was sponsored by Students in Solidarity With Haiti, Ryerson’s Continuing Education Students’ Association and New College Caribbean Studies Program.

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