Despite a vibrancy and zest for life that permeates Haitian culture, far too often Haiti is simply known as the poorest country in the western hemisphere. La Gonave, the nearly 300 square mile island that lies 13 miles off its coast, is often forgotten and conjures little to mind other than desperate poverty. Though the island became a refuge as people fled Port-Au-Prince following the 2010 earthquake, it was out of desperation: survival here depends on small-scale agriculture, remittances from abroad, and relief. There is the sense that the island has been overlooked by the rest of the country, and parents desperate to provide better opportunities for their families are forced to send children away to urban areas, unaware that one in six girls and one in ten boys will become enslaved in what is known as the restavek system.
With support from Beyond Borders’ Model Communities Initiative, a mindset shift is slowly taking hold. “Education is a Conversation” curriculum guides community members through weekly meetings as participants come to terms with the risks and realities confronting children and begin to organize and take action. As Frejuste Olimène recalls, “I saw the images in the book we studied and I read the stories of abuse that children who are sent away face. That’s when I went to bring my daughter home.” What had once seemed normal — for parents to send children away to live with others in hopes that they will fare better — became something that was unthinkable for the community. With persistence and a great deal of help from the new Tikoma Community Child Protection Brigade, Frejuste traveled to the capital and eventually found her daughter Natacha. Though the family exploiting her did not want to let her go, Frejuste persisted, emboldened by her new knowledge that it was both her right and responsibility to take Nathacha back home. She succeeded and, with community support, was able to enroll Nathacha in school.
With twenty years of experience in Haiti, Beyond Borders has demonstrated that this model can be adapted and replicated all across the country. By building the capacity of communities to overcome distrust and work together, training them to build vibrant and nurturing schools, investing in their ability to create sustainable livelihoods for the poorest, and equipping them to end violence against women and girls, not only are communities empowered to keep and better care for their most vulnerable children, but its members become servant leaders who care for their community and strive to create a place where everyone can thrive. Gradually the dispossessed in La Gonave are awakening to the hope and power that is available to them as they realize their own worth, connection, and purpose in community, becoming an inspiration for Haiti and a demonstration of what is possible when the spirit of a community is roused and they lead themselves.