By: Aaron Miller  | 

15 Students in Haiti: A Break Well Spent

Along with fourteen other disparate and diverse Yeshiva University students, I embarked on a journey to the Caribbean Islands on January 11, 2015 that would forever impact my life. We went on a mission to Haiti thinking we were going to impact the lives of Haitians in a meaningful way. However, what soon became clear, the trip was a profound internal, reflective experience to contemplate our own lives and how we play a role in the global picture. As much as we helped the community of Zoranje to plant trees, the experience implanted an indelible idea of the impact of a meaningful act.

The trip consisted of many different occasions to interact with different parts of Haiti that were profoundly affected by the earthquake. However, as our tour guide Jean Cyril Pressoir always stressed, the earthquake merely exacerbated already existing issues. With a lack of dependable infrastructure and poor governance, the future of the country lies in the hands of those who embody the dictum of Chazal, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either." Every person we met with, interestingly nearly all women, impressed our group with their ingenuity and perseverance despite lacking a proper partner in the government.

One such character was Loune Viand. After the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, amidst complete panic and disarray in the country, twenty-four children were abandoned in the general hospital in Port-au-Prince. Loune saw these children not as part of a saddening statistic but rather as individuals who needed a home and affection. Acting out of pure selflessness and idealism, Loune founded Zanmi Beni, a children’s village providing every child with the “support necessary to reach his or her full potential in a safe, stable and loving environment.”

After the initial awkwardness of trying to figure out how to communicate given the language barrier, we all found our niche with the children at Zanmi Beni, either playing ball or, like myself, trying to conduct a conversation in the French that resided in the recesses of my brain. I had the privilege of speaking to a girl named Sheila about life there and the incredible love she felt from Loune and the staff. During the conversation, Sheila left me dumbfounded and profoundly changed. She said, “My mother is dead, my father is dead, mais je suis contente [I am happy].” Sheila’s simple words spoke to the power of the individual. When everything from an external perspective looked so bleak and hopeless, an individual has the power to transform a life.

Another impactful experience in Haiti was volunteering in an elementary school in Zoranje called Ecole Nouvelle. The YU students split up into groups and led different activities with students in the school. The three groups consisted of creating model volcanoes, constructing marshmallow bridges, and creative dance. The school represents a unique approach to education in Haiti, trying to implement a model school that they hope will inspire other schools to follow in their footsteps. The school rigorously trains their teachers and expects strict obedience from their pupils. Watching the students observe the simple chemical reaction between vinegar and baking soda, their excitement for education was palpable. In our debriefing sessions, it was a common refrain of the YU students to comment that we should learn about how incredibly lucky we are to have had such incredible, formative education.

Over a period of three days, we partnered with high school students in the school to plant trees, to provide minimal shade in the community. After winning a national science competition, and with the help of the NGO Prodev, the students had everything they needed to plant the trees, except 15 American students plus staff to help them plant them. Although most of us had never wielded a pickax, most not only learned how but also thoroughly enjoyed their experience. The local Haitians frequently stopped by to observe the unusual sight of Americans performing manual labor and to laugh at our inadequacies. Although we left the site with two trees in the ground and over twenty holes primed for the trees, the group enjoyed meaningful cultural exchanges with the students and the community members. I think more than we planted trees we planted seeds within ourselves that cross-cultural communication is meaningful and beneficial. There is more to learn beyond the walls of our daled amot.

Overall, the service mission raised important questions of how do we relate to the rest of the world as Orthodox Jews. What is our role as global citizens? These powerful questions were made that much more tangible during the mission in Haiti. I think that more than I got answers to these questions, it provided me with a sense of the incredible potential of an individual to make a difference.