Although the whole world is aware of the situation in Haiti since the earthquake on January 12th, what many people had no idea about was how dire things were in the country before the disaster. Haiti was the poorest country in the western hemisphere and now it may hold the world title. It is also only 45 minutes flight from the USA, a sobering fact when you remember how affluent we are.
About 2 years ago a party promoter, entrepreneur and Haitian friend of mine in NYC, who goes by the name of Unik, told me about his charity Edeyo. Unik was born in Haiti and came to the USA over a decade ago and has been a big splash in the fashion/club/party scene ever since. We had become friends over the years and his dedication to Haiti and his people seemed like a story that needed to be told. We planned in 2008 to go to Port Au Prince and report on exactly what we saw, what needed to be done and what was being accomplished.
Edeyo -- which means "Help Them" -- is designed to do exactly that. The foundation is based in Port Au Prince with the fundraising based in NYC and LA. Unik told me how desperate the situation in Haiti was and how he had set up Edeyo as a way to give back and help the country he loved.
As I mentioned the situation in Haiti has been troubled for many years prior to the earthquake with corruption at all levels, a serious drug problem, poverty effecting 95 percent of the population and hunger a constant issue, 50 percent of the population is below the age of 18 and less than 1 in 10,000 has access to a health care physician. In fact between the time I had my first meeting with Unik and we planned our trip to Haiti, riots broke out in Port Au Prince over massive food shortages. The rioters attacked the Presidential Palace, driving a garbage truck through the front gates! The US Embassy warned us not to go to Haiti and postpone our trip so we called a meeting and decided to postpone. However the situation calmed and after speaking with a friend at the World Bank who just returned from Haiti she told me" Nigel the people of Haiti need to be heard please go down and shine a spot light on what's happening there". The US Embassy had closed in Port Au Prince so if anything were to happen we were on our own......we decided to make the trip albeit with a smaller team.
When we flew in to Haiti the first thing we noticed was vast deforestation from the airplane window. On landing you see the United Nations Food depot and their look out tower which consists of 3 storage containers on top of one another with a look out post on top with a ladder leaned up against it for access! Driving from the airport to our hotel we noticed that Port Au Prince had seen better times. The main boom in Haiti had been in the 1970s and there was little new construction. There looked like building construction was going on but in fact it was just housing in various states of collapse. The most striking thing to me was the total chaos that life seemed to entail in the capitol. There were literally people everywhere, in the middle of the streets, in the gutters, in the trash- everywhere. There is little to no employment opportunities and pretty much the entire population is below the poverty line.
As we had only limited time in Haiti it was important for us to visit the School Edeyo had built and the surrounding areas including Cite-Soleil ( the largest slum in Port Au Prince). We wanted to get an accurate picture of what everyday life was like for most people and of course the poorest of people, which meant going to places few camera had ever shot.
Our 3 days consisted of driving the length and breath of Port Au Prince. We were taken to a Voodoo church down a labyrinth of sewage strewn back alleys, to the largest cemetery in the capital where we needed an armed guard for protection, through Cite-Soleil which was beyond horrific, where every building was riddled in bullet holes and children played in the trash, to a cock fight run by gangsters. At the market place in Cite Soleil, there wasn't a single thing for sale that wasn't broken or spoiled. The market of broken and rotten food was perched just above an open sewer, the stench was so bad that I was retching as I walked down the street. At the port there was no one fishing and very few boats, I was given the impression that many of the people in the surrounding slums have little to no knowledge how to do simple things like fish for themselves. There was almost no police presence in Port Au Prince and at many of the places we filmed, we needed to get protection from local warlords and gangsters to obtain access. It's interesting to note, although we didn't visit them, that Haiti has beautiful beaches and countryside that if developed could offer a prosperous tourist industry.
Our last stop was the school, which was literally a rose in a bed of thorns for these destitute children. A small building freshly painted with the sound of singing and instruction wafting out the windows. Of course only a stone's through away the streets were controlled by gangsters and hoodlums. The children who attended were a mixture of orphans and very poor kids ranging from 3 years old to 15 years old. Amazingly enough several could speak English, French and Creole and all were extremely well mannered. They get a rounded meal once a day cooked at the school and get school uniforms helping you to forget at least temporarily of the existence the majority of their peers live.
The Edeyo Foundation's mission has always been to rebuild Haiti from the ground up starting by educating the next generation. Without education the people of Haiti have no way of getting themselves out of poverty. The infrastructure was already in tatters before the earthquake and now is non existent. So the building of schools and hospitals as well as housing is imperative. Many of the children went to the school as it was the only place they were guaranteed a proper meal, the free education was an added bonus that many wont appreciate until their older.
Since the earthquake we have managed to ascertain the safety of the Principal of the Edeyo school ( who is Unik's mother) and several of the teaching staff and children. Sadly there are still over 100 children missing and 10 teachers unaccounted for. The top floor of the school has collapsed and almost certainly the whole building will need to be torn down and rebuilt. The Edeyo Foundation has been working tirelessly to find the missing students and faculty and as a grass roots organization knows exactly how to reach it's people. In the wake of the earthquake they have plans to rebuild the school and build sustainable, economic homes by partnering with habiquad.com
On my first trip to Haiti the one resounding impression I was left with is that the people of Haiti were full of hope and desire for a better life. Perhaps now with all the attention and financial aid the country is getting, Haiti can have a fresh start. There will never be any forgetting what's happened but life in Haiti was extremely tough before the quake, hopefully once the dust settles together with the people of Haiti we can rebuild the second oldest Republic in the western hemisphere. I plan to revisit Haiti with Unik in the coming weeks to report back to you how things have changed and where they seem to be heading. My thoughts and prayers are with my friends in Haiti now.
To learn more about the foundation, make a donation or get involved with Edeyo in rebuilding Haiti visit www.edeyo.org.
To view the film we shot prior to the earthquake please visit blip.tv or watch below: