Answering the call to make our world a better place.

Posts tagged “Haiti


Bobbette Buster, a mentor and friend, has just published her first book, Do Story: How to tell your story so the world listensI’m honored that a part of my story is captured so gracefully in her book, even if I choked and couldn’t tell it for myself. Seeing this moment of my life in print, and with such good company, has given me a small dose of courage to share another story that I also haven’t been able to tell, until now.


I’m holding three children, all at once, in my arms. Each clinging to me with vice grip strength that seems impossible for their tiny, malnourished bodies. Two more little ones sit at my feet and hold on to my legs, and the older girls fuss around me, braiding my hair and touching my pale, freckled arms. One little girl, Betina, holds my gaze with her huge, sad eyes and searches my face for answers that I know I will never be able to give her. Her head is disproportionately larger than her tiny body. I feel myself on the verge of breaking down when someone on my team, far more experienced than I, begins blasting music on her cell phone. The kids perk up and everyone goes crazy, singing and dancing  the “Waka Waka” – a fabulously catchy song by Shakira. We play it over and over endlessly and it’s a welcome distraction for everyone.

The Baby Orphanage, as it’s called, had around fifteen children before the earthquake, and now there are over thirty, with new arrivals coming every week. It’s nearly impossible for the staff to know if a child is an actual orphan, or if the parents simply can not care for them anymore, which is a gut-wrenching thought, given the conditions at the orphanage. They have no access to clean water. The kids all have parasites, which give them distended bellies and awful stomach pains. They often get just one meal a day, a portion of gloppy porridge served on an old frisbee or in a tin cup. Meal time is controlled chaos. There are no high-chairs or even a dining table, so when the toddlers are handed their portion, they scatter about the yard, some gobbling quickly as possible, others running off to various corners to guard their small meal. Betina insists I feed her, guiding the spoon with her little hand firmly on mine, her eyes staring at me the entire time. A scrawny boy, suffering badly from ringworm, is desperately trying to scramble his way up onto my lap. Betina takes my hand and offers him her spoonful. I am stunned by her generosity, and  give her big hug and kiss on the cheek.  She doesn’t smile- not one tiny bit- but her big, sad eyes grow wider and brighten a little. It seems that Betina, like all the kids at the orphanage, is most hungry for love and affection.

I think about the training we received prior to entering the small orphanage, and keep reminding myself of the instructions. 

Don’t hold on to any one child for more than a few minutes. Try to move around and give your attention to as many kids as possible. Whatever you do, don’t fall apart in front of the kids

After a few moments, I take a deep breath and, literally, pry Betina and other kids off my lap and gently set them on the ground. Betina tries again and again to attach herself to me, until one of the staff pulls her away. I venture back into the baby room, scanning the rows and rows of cribs, and what we jokingly call “baby cages”. Some of the babies are screaming and some are motionless, eyes open, staring blankly into space. I scoop three new little ones for a cuddle until it’s time to start the process of detaching six tiny octopus arms all over again.


Five moths later, I find myself in Ofunato, Japan, working with the same volunteer organization as in Haiti.  The scope and power of the tsunami is unfathomable. Everything is smashed into bits, except when, randomly and inexplicably, it isn’t. A massive boat was flung from the sea, and crashed into the second story of a house, hundreds of feet from the coastline. My team is assigned to help a man trying to salvage his home, or so we think. The wood work was incredible, and we strip away the flooded drywall and insulation down to the studs. We work together all day, and in the afternoon, a nephew arrives. He tells us the home actually belonged to the man’s twin brother and his wife. They, along with the man’s father, were lost in the tsunami. The nephew shares how the man had built the house with his own hands, as a wedding present to his brother. Japan is a rich nation, but there’s no comparing human suffering and tragedy. I think of the survivors grace and dignity and tell myself; whatever you do, don’t fall apart.

The town loudspeaker signals the end of the day by playing “Yesterday” by John Lennon.

We stack our tools in the wheelbarrow and the man profusely thanks us, bowing, pressing candy and sweets into our hands.


Later that night, I fall apart.

Open Letter to Hockey Legend Don Cherry

Dear Mr. Cherry,

You recently tweeted your objection over the aid money Canada sends to Haiti and posed the question, “shouldn’t charity begin at home?” Well, as a Habitat for Humanity Global Village team leader, I get that question all the time and- this may surprise- I agree with you. Times are tough. In addition to Canada’s health care challenges you mention in your tweets, Habitat for Humanity Canada states over 1.3 million Canadian families struggle to get by without a safe, decent and affordable place to live. Why should we send money or volunteers off to help fix other people’s problems, when we have problems to deal with at home?

The question then becomes, where does “home” begin and end?

The slight difference is that I believe Haiti is part of our home and we are just as connected to the Haitian people as we are to our First Nation neighbors or even our own nuclear families, therefore our imperative is to provide humanitarian aid and help alleviate suffering where ever it occurs, without regard to geography or even political differences.

I know you have a generous heart, Mr. Cherry, and have made a continual practice of supporting worthy causes – without seeking any publicity – but your uncharitable comments on Twitter influence your 124,000+ followers, then further reach their followers when they retweet your comments, and so on. This effect is called “going viral” and, suddenly, a single tweet can reach potentially millions of people around the globe. It’s fair to challenge how aid is disbursed, to demand accountability from the government on both sides, to question results, seek transparency and have clarity around long-term planning, but humanitarian aid and post-disaster recovery are not so simple that we can parachute in, after the worst earthquake in Haiti’s history, drop off a few tents, some bottled water and call it a day.

What many people don’t know is the humanitarian crisis is ongoing in Haiti, now at the third anniversary of the earthquake, intense hurricanes, flooding and what’s become the world’s largest cholera epidemic (which has already killed some 8,000 people in addition to the more than 230,000 who perished in the earthquake) but also from decades of desperate poverty, lack of basic healthcare, massive unemployment, illiteracy, political turmoil and environmental disasters. Haiti is literally the poorest country in the world– yet you can depart Montreal around 8am and get to the capital, Port-au-Prince, before lunch time, in less time than it takes to fly from Toronto to Vancouver. Is that close enough to be considered “home”?

You also might not know that Canadian businesses (along with the US and other developed nations) are profiting from Haiti’s recovery. Before the earthquake, Canadian companies Bank of Nova Scotia, Air Canada and Gildan Activewear Inc., and others had successful operations in Haiti. Today, while Haitian people live with open sewers and malnutrition, Canadian companies are “Seizing Global Advantage” in Haiti’s infrastructure and reconstruction projects, while lining up agriculture, food & beverage, information & communications technologies, service industries and capital investments. Haiti is being called a bonanza for foreign mining companies.

“Canadian explorer Majescor owns permits to explore 450 square kilometers. Last August its stock doubled in a single day after it a reported a high level of gold in some drill samples from Haiti’s northern coast. Canada’s Eurasian Minerals owns permits to 1,770 square kilometers—about 6 percent of Haiti’s entire land mass.” – Jacob Kushner, author of “Haiti’s Gold Rush”

I’m not saying this is a bad thing. On the contrary, if Canadian business invest in Haiti, they will need to hire and train skilled workers. Economic development and education are key for Haiti to lead itself out of poverty and it’s the best way to break the cycle of aid dependence. It is concerning to many, however, that Haitian people be paid a fair wage and natural resources are managed for sustainability and provide equitable returns. It’s a sad fact that desperate, uneducated people have sold their land and given up their rights. The challenges Haiti faces are complex and messy, but the people have dreams of a better future and they are willing to work hard to improve their lives, given the opportunity. When we know better, we must do better. This is why it’s crucial that Canada never turn it’s back on Haiti’s recovery.

Mr. Cherry, I’d like to offer you a trade. Call it a scouting trip for potential. I’ll come work with you on a Habitat for Humanity build in Toronto (or anywhere in Canada), if you’ll join me in building houses and hope in Haiti. You can see for yourself the real impact of aid money and what a safe, simple decent home can mean to a family facing extreme poverty. You often say that you think of yourself as a construction worker, not an entertainer. Well, no construction skills are needed to join a Habitat for Humanity build team, just an open heart and willingness to work hard. After all, doesn’t charity begin at home?

With warm regards and all the best for a great NHL season,

DJ Forza

Habitat for Humanity Volunteer

Cuba Libre (Part 1)

This week, the US economic embargo on Cuba hit 50 years. Without going too deep into the politics of this clearly failed foreign policy, I thought it was a good time to share how my decision to change my career track to full-time humanitarian work led to my interest in the plight of the Cuban people and how it became the focus of my doctoral research in diplomacy.

What does a country girl from Seattle know about Cuba? 

Nothing. Zip. Zero. Nada.

Actually, I’ve always been fascinated with Cuba. Maybe it was a result of growing up as a child of the cold war era, or maybe it was the numerous  pop culture references to the “Forbidden Island” that caught my adventurer’s spirit, or maybe there is a connection that I haven’t discovered yet- but something has called me to learn all I can about Cuba and, hopefully help (in some small way) to end the unjust, unethical and immoral policy that has contributed to much suffering of the Cuban people.

Close…But No Cigar

I first tried to visit Cuba in 2001. It didn’t go well. My boyfriend and I were “detained”  upon arrival and held at the Havana International Airport for 24 hours. The guards were not unkind, but they were not friendly either. They wore camouflage soldier’s uniforms and carried AK-47s. It was frightening at first, but luckily I had brought two suitcases of children’s medicine and a case of shampoo, soap and hotel shoe-shine kits that we traded for toilet paper, bottled water and snacks. Despite being held, no one took anything away from us- word got out and the guards, janitors, and airport staff lined up, everyone waited in turn and politely thanked us, especially for the baby aspirin and cold medicine. The shoe-shine kits were very popular with our guards, but no one could tell us why we weren’t allowed to pass through customs. We tried everything; offering thousands of dollars in bribes, pleading, tears, etc…but in the end, they put us on a plane back to the Bahamas. We met some other people who were also detained and being sent back, and they speculated it was because of 9/11 and Castro’s plan to finally align with the USA (by randomly refusing entry to US citizens?) and against terrorist states. We’ll never know for sure, but the experience made me even more determined to return and explore Cuba.

Doctors Without…Democracy?

In 2010, I took time off work to travel to Leogane, Haiti to volunteer for earthquake and hurricane relief at the start of the cholera epidemic. It was an intense experience, to say the least, and lead me to consider what more I could and should do as a human on this planet. I looked at all of the international relief agencies and was surprised to learn that Cuba, whom I knew was suffering economically in the wake collapse of the Soviet Union, had immediately sent dozens volunteer doctors (in addition to the 300+ medical personnel already on the ground prior to the earthquake) and were considered by many in the international community as the unsung heroes of Haiti’s relief efforts.  Castro’s “Doctor Diplomacy” strategy (well-intentioned? propaganda machine?) was intriguing and reignited my interest in Cuba.

The Proposal

After I returned from Haiti, I co-led a Habitat for Humanity Global Village build to Jordan, and on New Year’s Day 2011, I walked though the rose-red city of Petra with several close friends; reflecting on the work we had just completed and what goals we would set for the coming year. Something clicked in my heart and I knew I had to find the right way (for me) to change my career path and my life.

After much due diligence and late night essay writing, I ecstatically reviewed my acceptance letter from the program of my choice and read my PhD research proposal feedback. I was excited to read that my proposed area of research “Use and Leverage of International Volunteers in the Diplomatic Process” was well received by the acceptance committee. They said this was an under-studied topic and  “favorable potential for original contribution is high” Woo-HOO! I was so excited, but then read further to see the feedback was quite strong in recommending I narrow my focus to a specific region or sector. I immediately thought about Cuba and wanted to focus my research on (if? how?) international volunteers were being used/leveraged in the absence of a formal diplomatic relationship with the USA. So many questions, so much to learn…I revamped my proposal and set about visiting Cuba (gulp!) to establish academic contacts and scope out the volunteer landscape.


Yep, I finally made it in to Havana and beyond! In Part 2, I’ll share some of my favorite photographs and early research on volunteering and diplomacy links between the USA and Cuba. I’d love to know…what are your thoughts on the embargo, Cuba and the (potentially) unconstitutional law to block legal to visits of US citizens to Cuba?

Havana Crumbles. Havana Shines.


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