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© 2015 Alexa Winner. All Rights Reserved.

Love it or Haiti it

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To my loyal blog readers, I’d first and foremost like to wish all of you a happy and healthy new year. I have not posted for the past two weeks as I have been traveling in Haiti with an extraordinary foundation called Wings Over Haiti.

Nearly a year ago, one of the most devastating earthquakes in recent history erupted directly in the center of the capital city of Haiti, Port Au Prince. Leaving over 100,000 dead in a matter of minutes, the earthquake injured millions more and continues to devastate the living inhabitants of the city even today, (most recently with the Cholera epidemic). I could go on and on about facts and statistics but I’d prefer you go to CNN.com if that is what you are looking for. What I am here to do is share with you my personal experience in Haiti; perhaps, if nothing else, to offer you incite into the lives of real people whose stories you won’t find on the news or elsewhere on the internet. Love it or Haiti it, the truth must be told and I am proud to be able to share with you a visual voyage of my time in Haiti.

*All images photographed by Alexa Winner (with the exclusion of any photos in which I appear).

Featured in this photo is Wings Over Haiti founder Jonathan Nash Glynn, myself, and volunteer Carina Blon (only 17 by herself!) in the background.

Having been lucky enough to have traveled to some of the most compelling and remote destinations in the world (many of which clearly advise travelers NOT to go to unless absolutely necessary), I truly didn’t think twice about the advisory warnings against going to Haiti. Wings Over Haiti promised to look out for me, so it was an easy decision for me to spend my holiday vacation experience in a third world country. Having also recently been lucky enough to be asked to be a committee member for the Carma Foundation (another foundation committed to helping Haiti), I felt that in my opinion, it would be irresponsible and selfish to represent a foundation and speak about a country having really had no hands on knowledge of what I was putting my name on. To show up to a benefit in a lovely dress is one thing, but to sign your name to something as a featured member of the committee to me means that you must truly understand why, what, and whom you are representing. The answer was clear: if I was to accept this gracious title presented to me on behalf of Danae Cappelletto and Melky Jean (sister to Wyclef), there was no way I WASN’T going to Haiti.

More so than many other countries I have visited, the safety warnings did indeed prove valid as I did find myself, at times, in what one may consider compromising situations. Riding in a “tap tap,” often people on the street such as the gentleman featured above would grab at our legs or cling to the vehicle in hopes of getting a free ride…or at least so I believe those were their only intentions. This didn’t bother me. Wings Over Haiti employs some of the most extraordinary Haitian men in the world. They would, quite literally, put their lives on the line just to protect you. And lets acknowledge the obvious truth here; I’m not naive to the fact that as a tall blond American girl I stick out like a sore thumb and am somewhat of an easy target. Being the thrill seeker I am, the incredible Haitian men I was with would cautiously agree to walk me through some of the most dangerous parts of Port Au Prince so I could get a true glimpse into these people’s lives. Thank goodness my Creole is less than mediocre because I’m sure the men looking after me like Shad St Louis censored some of what was said about me by the locals. However knowing he was there to protect me, I could only help but chuckle when an uproar occurred in a market I passed through when a woman about four times the size of me announced my arrival to the crowd and shouted “who wants to watch me beat the blond girl up!”

I can’t take the market insults, or any other insults I received on the trip personally, because when you see an image like the one featured above, it is easy to understand how despair, depression, fear, and frustration can culminate into hatred for someone such as myself. A year later, Port Au Prince looked to me as if the earthquake had hit yesterday.

Not only had the rubble from the earthquake remained, but additionally trash began to pile on top of the rubble creating what has become in often cases worse of a mess than the day the earthquake happened. What shocked me considerably about this, (cholera, sanitary issues, and other problems aside), was when I learned that many of the bodies that had been trapped in this very rubble still remained, dead and untouched, the legacy of their souls forever lost in a breeding pile of garbage.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the unpaved streets were filled with men and women such as the lady above trying to sell the remains of whatever seemingly random pieces of salvageable products (relatively speaking) that they could find. It is the sadness in this woman’s face, and so many others, that tells me those wooden boxes and empty paint buckets have been sitting there for awhile and aren’t going to be sold any time soon. After all, in a city where the only police I saw were in front of and inside the supermarkets, I don’t believe a broken pot is on the top of these people’s list of things to buy when there is no food to put in the pot in the first place.

 Although commonplace, (a man collecting scraps through piles of garbage), as soon as I saw this man in particular I insisted we stop the vehicle so I could try to get a sense of him. I don’t know what precisely compelled me to do this; was it a conversation I was looking for? Was it a high-five? Was it an empty bottle of Mountain Dew? What I realized eventually was that this figure, and I say the word figure for a reason, drew me in because what I was looking for was his face. Physically speaking he was alive, but in an eerie way, he was almost an identifiable enigma. No matter how hard I looked, how many photos were snapped, I could never find this man’s face. This moment symbolized a lot for me. Not only had he lost his obvious belongings, but he had lost the very thing that enables us to belong; his face.

 I call this photo the smashed cake because to me, it looks like a perfectly delicate birthday cake that I envision some child smashing their head into (Okay, maybe I may have done that once). What this picture is in fact is the remains of the palace where the governor lived right in the heart of the city. The entire palace has been looted, and even the whereabouts of the governor himself are a mystery to anyone you ask.

With such chaos, corruption, and uncertainty, it’s easy to understand why you’d not only want to flick off someone taking your photo, but deeper than that, why you’d want to flick off the world.

 On Christmas day, we invited all of the children that attended the Wings Over Haiti school along with their parents to meet us at a building to have a special lunch and dinner with us and for the children to receive gifts. When most of us think of Christmas, we envision Christmas trees, lights, JOY, perhaps even snow. Snow aside for obvious reasons, lights aside for electricity issues, and Christmas trees aside for exportation complications, I was certainly expecting the joy to still remain on a Christmas day in Haiti. Instead, we found ourselves in one of the most awkward situations I think any one of us had ever felt on a Christmas day. For upwards of three hours, the parents and children blankly stared at us as if it were a classroom and they were seated in detention. I had expected everyone would be mingling and dancing and curious to open presents, but instead, those first few hours felt more like we were holding them hostage than we were celebrating one of the most blessed days of the year. Did someone forget to tell them it was Christmas?

 In response to the above question, the answer was no. They clearly knew it was Christmas as many of the parents had dressed their children up in their finest attire. This little girl, who I simply could not stop myself from photographing over and over again, was, in a weird paradox, the most beautifully dressed yet seemingly the most shell shocked and unhappy, remaining the entire day with the exact same face as if she was a deer in headlights.

When we presented the children with their gifts (albeit wrapped in small black garbage bags) I was also shocked at the fact that none of them were immediately responsive to opening what was handed to them. Did they not understand it was a present? Did I not understand how to approach the situation? To me, being handed a gift is so joyful, and to be blunt, fairly obvious that it is what’s inside that matters, not the outer wrapping (you can analogize that statement if you so choose). The gifts we gave them however (and let me add that it was translated to them in Creole that the were indeed gifts) simply remained in most of the children’s laps until it finally became clear that perhaps the reason they weren’t opening the gifts was that maybe, just maybe, they had never received a Christmas gift before. Practically child by child, we had to instruct them and often unwrap the presents for them so they could enjoy the stuffed animals, books, and chocolate treats that we had stuffed inside.

 Sensing we had to change the tone of the day, we decided that we would turn the music up a bit louder and try to get everyone to join us in dancing. For whatever reason, I was asked to be the first to start dancing in a room full of people sitting in confusion. Sure, I can feign my way dancing through nightclubs in New York, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a white girl like myself possesses very little in the way of dance moves, particularly in a crowd of people who are known for their inherent rhythm and dance to begin with. Embarrassment aside, I tried my best to shake my stiff hips and lanky arms to the sound of muffled Christmas music and soon enough (thank god) we began a NON-DANCE REQUIRED conga line that ended up changing the entire vibe of the day. Suddenly the children were smiling, the parents were giggling, and we must have conga’d around the same small room for a solid two hours.

 Although easily one of the shyest of the bunch, this particular student had the most beautiful radiance to her – as if she was angel in starched white clothes that had somehow fallen into a world in which I couldn’t perceive that she belonged. Not to say that any of these children belonged in this situation, but there was something about this child, something inexplicable; an aura she possessed that spread itself across the room. It is something I cannot define, but this girl almost felt like a movie star; mysterious, reserved, untouchable…inexplicably beautiful.

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 While much of our days were spent helping rebuild the children’s school and playing outdoors with the children (they too were on holiday, but to put things back into perspective for a brief second, winter holiday doesn’t mean vacationing in St. Barths, winter holiday simply means an absence of homework. The kids still showed up at the school, although unrequired, nearly everyday). Personally I wanted to interact with all of the children, whether they were students of Wings Over Haiti or not. A  child is a child, and if they want to laugh and play, who am I to pick and choose? As such, I asked that we visit some of the refugee camps. While the adults were significantly more guarded and uninviting, the children would often run up to me, sometimes in overwhelming crowds, eager to have their photo taken or touch my hair or show me their dolls.

Lost in a sea of happiness.
The girls trying to braid my hair like theirs. For some reason I just can’t pull off the cornrow…

  So why, you may ask, have I chosen to put this picture consecutively after the picture above? The answer may shock you but what you are seeing right here is a bucket of baked clay; clay to fill the stomachs of those very girls in the picture before. Like a placebo effect, their stomachs are tricked into feeling full from the clay as a means of replacing the food of which they can’t afford.

Bunnies, swans, pigeons, guinea pigs and even a small cat, in my ignorance I thought I had stumbled upon a touching, albeit fairly disturbing, roadside pet store. “How lovely” I thought, until I realized these animals weren’t to be taken home to be loved, they were to be taken home to be fried for dinner.

 With all the malnutrition and mysterious concoctions being passed around, in addition to legitimate illnesses and extreme pain (both physical and emotional) combined with a system that provides little to no health care, and forget about even trying to find a counselor or therapist, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that it is common place to find pharmacists drug dealers your average joe selling bulk quantities of mysterious pills on street corners as nonchalantly as if they were selling bananas. It is difficult to say whether these pills are what they claim they to be (although if I were a betting man I think I’d surely put down my money in confidence that these pills were either completely synthetic, containing 20% of the actual medicine they claim to be, or strictly generic at best, and I too believe that is a stretch). In a private discussion with a Haitian woman involved with Wings Over Haiti, I heard directly from the horses mouth so to speak that these pills will do one of two things; make you more ill than you were to begin with, or do absolutely nothing as they are often made of chalk and other non-effective materials that can be casted into the shape of a pill.

 With all the barriers that are preventing these people from getting the help they need, it is no wonder that it is sometimes just easier to sit down and give up than to try and trudge ahead when your efforts may seemingly feel fruitless. The man in the picture above was sitting outside of a Church, not unusual given that someone who appears to be in as much duress as he is may turn to the Church for comfort. Interestingly enough however, as soon as I approached the Church to enter they immediately slammed the doors on my face and locked me out. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the whole premise of a Church to be accepting of everyone? I’ll do my best to avoid right now sharing my own personal feelings on politics and religion, but for me personally, this felt incredibly disheartening. I genuinely wanted to see the Church. I had absolutely no intention of taking pictures inside, yet for one of the first times in my life, I really began to understand what it feels like to be discriminated against. You can hear stories from friends of other ethnicities who have been discriminated against, but until you actually feel it for yourself firsthand, you truly don’t know how bad it hurts.

Some of my fondest memories in Haiti were the times I spent with a girl name Katiana. Katiana was deaf and mute, and no one quite knew where her parents were. Although I was warned that she had a temper and to be careful around her, Katiana and I connected in some special way that she felt it her duty to protect me, and in some odd way, I too began to feel a duty to protect her. Although she could not speak to me, or hear what I would say to her, she took to me like a sister and I developed a genuine love for this touching young girl. Despite my trying to refuse, Katiana would always insist on grabbing my bag and carrying it for me, on trying to move me out of the sun and into the shade, on slapping my skin to kill the mosquitoes that were about to bite me; truly going out of her way to do anything she could to protect me. Of all the people I met, Katiana felt most like a sister to me because I truly believe she and I connected on a level that doesn’t require speech or sound, it requires love and compassion; something most people get too confused or frustrated by to bother wasting their time with. Because I allotted Katiana the time and treated her as equal to the other children, I realized she had an amazing fascination with photography, often taking my camera and snapping hundreds of photos. In turn, I made a promise to find a way to send Katiana a camera of her own, because as I have experienced with Katiana and other disabled children, when you actually take the time to interact with them and figure out what interests them and what can make them feel special and unique, it is then when they begin to gain a self confidence, motivation and pride that they are able to do something or have something that no one else can. If Stevie Wonder can play the piano blind, then I have every faith in the world that Katiana could be the next Annie Leibowitz.

Now it wouldn’t be a fashion blog if there wasn’t a little fashion involved, and to tell you the truth, this incidence happened completely unintentionally. One day I was carrying my bag around and inside I had a copy of Vogue and W magazine. Katiana opened my bag to see the magazines and before I knew it, all the children from the village had gathered in completely and utter awe catching glimpses of Elizabeth Hurley seductively holding a Dior bag and Karlie Kloss bending in fascinating positions in balloon pants. It was as if I had opened Pandora’s box. The children couldn’t keep their eyes off the magazine pages and I eventually had to succumb to discarding my reading material because I don’t believe I had ever seen such excitement in any children’s eyes before.

*Side note to Ms. Wintour: Perhaps there is indeed a market for Vogue Haiti…

There is an old saying that when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. Artist Celeur Jean Herard took that expression to heart. Herard will have his own separate blog because his artwork is truly too compelling to only show one piece, but in summary, Herard has made a living off of creating sculptures from garbage and rubble he finds through his scavenging. And yes, the skull above is real, and one of many disturbing yet fascinating ways Herard has taken what would otherwise be garbage and turned it into art.

Artist Celeur Jean Herard’s younger cousin: Living in a studio as eerie as Herard’s, it’s no wonder this little cutie has mastered the tough guy pose at such a young age.

One of the most joyful days for the children, parents, volunteers and teachers at Wings Over Haiti was report card day. Every child was called up to the front of the room, one by one, parent in hand, and given special honors for their own individual accomplishments. The joy on the mothers faces, to see their children not only in school but actually succeeding, brought tears to many people’s eyes.

I also have to give mad style props to another student from Wings Over Haiti. On report card day, this girl rocked her sunglasses with such pride and pazzaz while walking up to receive her grades from the teachers. She didn’t even so much as take the glasses of when she received her marks and handshakes, she rocked the stage with such confidence that we all were in stitches laughing.

Another student receiving accolades for her outstanding academic success from one of the heads of Wings Over Haiti, Shad St Louis.

Wings Over Haiti’s fundamental goal is to build a quality school that can provide it’s students with the best opportunities that we can possibly give them. In the above picture you may see us quite literally moving through the forest carrying supplies by hand, but Wings Over Haiti is already in motion to develop an advanced art and math program, build a basketball and tennis court, create a playground based off of solar energy, and that’s only where the list begins.

As Hillary Clinton once said, “it takes a village to raise a child.” That statement couldn’t be more true and applicable to Wings Over Haiti. And even in our village, the littlest members want to help too.

It’s an image like this with of one of our students that shows her understanding smile and knowing eyes that there is indeed something greater out there for her, that perhaps she can prevail through all the suffering. And for every child with that look in their eyes, we must not give up on them and keep their smiles growing.

For more information on Wings Over Haiti and opportunities to donate and receive newsletters, please visit www.wingsoverhaiti.org

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© 2015 Alexa Winner. All Rights Reserved.