Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 19, 1999
Students experience 'simple life'
During 2 weeks in Haiti, they find impoverished people filled with hope
By NH HOANG
WCR Staff Writer
The two-week trip to Haiti was no sunbather's paradise for 17-year-old Isabelle Boisvert.
Sure, she got out of school for 14 days. No math classes to struggle through, no English novel to analyze. But there was no such luxury as beach lounging. Instead she spent that time wading through mud and cradling dying children.
It was hardly a two-week vacation from her schoolwork.
Her first experience in Haiti involved the country's transportation system. She was bused from the country's capital Port-au-Prince to the small village of Baudin. The 200-km trip took about 13 hours.
"The roads aren't paved, it was windy," she said. "The road was so dusty. It was so dusty that when you blew your nose, it would come out black."
In the village, she lived the simple life, sans running water and modern electricity.
It rained for a week and she would reserve the water for washing. She abandoned her daily shower altogether.
The countryside in Haiti was a collective landfill. Garbage was strewn everywhere. Remnants of rotting food and decomposing animals littered the streets. The site was overwhelming, as was the odour, but eventually her sight and smell adjusted.
Seeing the affects of poverty wasn't the biggest culture shock for her. It was after the return home that she most needed to adjust.
"I think I was more in shock when I came back," Boisvert said. "It was different coming back and seeing all that we have. You realized that (Haitians) are really poor, but they're richer than us. They were always laughing and singing."
Boisvert was among a group of 11 students and two teachers from Ecole Maurice-Lavall‚e who travelled to Haiti at the end of March.
The trip was a "missionary awakening," said teacher and organizer Suzanne Foisy-Moquin. The annual trip immerses the Grade 11 religion studies students in a culture they have been learning about through a textbook. It's a two-week hands-on invitation to the realities faced by citizens of underdeveloped countries.
"We want the students to see the people, not just know the statistics," Foisy-Moquin said. "I think that when the students come back, they're aware that there are real people affected, not just numbers."
The students were a visible minority in Haiti, especially in the village of Baudin where they lived and worked. It was not hard to notice a group of Caucasian students mingling in a sea of much darker-skinned Haitians.
When the students arrived, the school children pointed at them and yelled "blanc, blanc", French for white.
"They came up to us and wanted to touch us," said Julia Bresee, 16. "You're noticed everywhere you go."
But the group was not welcomed everywhere. On the beaches, some older Haitians were bitter towards the students, asking them to leave.
"They're an older generation who had bad experiences with white people in the past," Foisy-Moquin said.
The ones who embraced the students did so at first more out of an intimidated admiration than genuine affection.
"They look up to you like you're more superior than they are," Bresee said. "I was feeling guilty about that."
The false admiration is the people's perception that "being white is beautiful - it's better to be white," Bresee said. And that "being white" means having more money.
The students didn't come to Haiti empty-handed. Since October they had raised $17,000 through fundraiser initiatives, part of which included selling more than 300 apple and meat pies at Christmas.
The bulk of the money helped finance the students' travel expenses. The $5,000 donated to the school was used to repair the roof and walls dividing the classrooms.
Students also collected 32 boxes of clothing, medical and school supplies and 10 computers for the village.
The students spent most of their day with the children at a school run by the local parish, Our Lady of Perpetual Help. They taught the children everything from making sock puppets to dancing the Macarena. They even brought a little bit of Canadian culture to the village.
"We taught them to play hockey," Bresee said. "We brought the hockey sticks with us. They had never seen that before."
An eye opener for the students was the visit to Mother Teresa's Home, where they spent the day cuddling and feeding babies as young as one month.
Last year's crew visited the home for a brief moment and complained that they felt like a "tourist in the home," said Foisy-Moquin. "This year, we decided to stay longer, but after a day there, the kids wanted to leave."
The sight of sick and dying children, many orphaned, was too much emotional strain for the students.
"The first child I saw, she had malnutrition," Bresee said. "I thought I was going to break her."
Bresee has seen the faces of sick children before when she visited a relative at the Grey Nuns Hospital. "But they don't have the same looks as these (Haitian) kids. A lot of these kids had no parents, no one to visit them. These kids just wanted to be picked up."
Haitians are not oblivious to their poverty. They know the one-room house in which they live, with its decaying foundation and caving roof, is not standard living conditions.
"There are tool sheds in Canada bigger than their homes," said Agnes Mieklus, 17.
But the children's constant singing and laughing that Meiklus and her fellow classmates heard while in Baudin was a sign of a people with hope.
"I guess they have to rely on something to keep them going," she said.
Bresee added, "They're very spiritual people. They have masses that are two hours long.
"They're so proud. They're proud of what they have and who they are. It makes me think I shouldn't take what I have for granted."