Staying grounded in Haiti: How do you do it?

Recalling my time in Haiti tends to go something like this:

I think back on mornings spent navigating traffic on a busy street, and a conversation in a crowded muggy kitchen, voices carrying the dinner hour well beyond nightfall, I remember my salty hair being yanked and pulled into a handful of messy braids by the kids on the beach, and that talk with a young guy at the top of La Citadelle Laferrière about what’s next, and what it’s like to make the climb to the top each and every day of his summer break to greet the visitors who come to marvel at the towering structure …

And then I wonder what opportunities await the girls who did my hair, it was a school day and they weren’t in school, or all the faces we passed on Delmas 33, and then how the conversation at the dinner table was brought to silence as one man shook his head, and exhaled: “Tèt chaje…” As if to say, What’re you gonna do? What can you do? Before I know it, I’m slowly submerging beneath an onslaught of big, tangled, and messy hypothetical next steps – for me, for you, for organizations and governments, for communities and leaders.  As the lens zooms out, away from those specific moments, nothing seems straightforward at all.

But if I go back to those distinct memories?

They come alive with a sort of clarity that temporarily stills the overwhelming incursion: Memories grounded and based in the reality of a moment in time, recollections of singular stories where I’m surrounded by individual people carrying out their lives and a minute when we overlapped.  And I want more moments like those.

Finding the right focus in Haiti is my biggest challenge.  Those specific memories are my anchors, my reference points in a world that constantly resets the focal length for my perspective.

Somewhere in there there’s a balance between looking at the big picture, and enjoying and serving the people around you today. A point of equilibrium between “living in the moment” and looking towards the future, struggling to see how we can make it better.

I guess it’s easier for me to look at things close up, where I can see real differences being made – but what about you?  Where do you set your focal length?

Written by Erin Nguyen on May 21, 2015

A Call For Entries! (And a snapshot from the busy streets of Port au Prince)

I looked down at the grey powder slowly engulfing my shoes; no doubt by the end of the day I’d be washing it off of my face, out of my eyes and nose and ears, but right now it was still early and the dust had barely progressed beyond the rubber of my soles. The sun felt far off, and the humidity hovered in the sunlight but was only slowly beginning to creep into the cool spaces of the shade.

Even though the streets had been awake for a while now, the morning energy created a sort of calm that went with the cool left over from the night before. Standing on the corner, waiting to load onto the Taptap, I took notice of the people already inside, their clothing still stiff from the wash, unsoftened by the large swaths of perspiration yet to come. Large black SUVs and small beat up cars moved past us, honking lazily, waiting for their turn in the giant game of Tetris being played out in the intersection ahead. A few motos kicked up dust, their engines whirring as they weaved in and out of the moving pieces; still more lined the side of the road, their owners balanced with one foot on the ground and the other kicked up on the front peg, ready for us to abandon the crowded Taptap for the open air and convenience of a moto ride.

As the man on the end of the Taptap helped pull me up onto the bench beside him, I looked out onto the bustling street and congested intersection, and I couldn’t help but think that there was a structure, and some sort of ironic grace, to it all.

Written by Erin Nguyen on May 14, 2015
Adapted from a journal entry written in Port au Prince, Haiti January 2015

And now, an announcement:

We’re opening the blog up for our first ever Reader Feature!  We’re looking for snapshots: 150 – 250 words that describe an image that stands out to you from your experience in Haiti, just like the one above.

You can send your entry to

Entries must be submitted by June 1, 2015 at midnight to be considered.

 Please understand that by submitting your entry to the email address above you are granting us full permission to post your work to the HaitiHub blog in our upcoming feature. 

Finding Community Where You Work In Haiti

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I think that we have a need to be “on the inside”: to be in community with those around us.  At its root, to be in community is to share something in common with another group of people, and that something has to be enough to overcome any number of obstacles and differences.

For foreigners working or living in Haiti, determining how you fit into the community where you work is a seemingly inevitable identity crisis that we all face at one time or another.

You work together everyday, you have common goals – aren’t those similarities enough?

Sometimes, sometimes, you experience that sense of belonging.  And yet, all too often, you’re forced to recognize how your differences separate you from being fully integrated into this new community you’ve made home.

Still, I think it’s important that we recognize and remember how often our lives and experiences put us “on the outside” in Haiti. We can’t run away from that. It serves as a reminder that as we continue to work and build alongside Haitian communities, ownership over these spaces ultimately and rightfully belongs to them.

I guess, part of what I’m saying is that our work in Haiti can’t be about us. And that is so – very – hard. (Because we want our work to be validated, to be recognized, our efforts and sacrifices to be rewarded, and our place in the community and the contributions we’ve made to be acknowledged.)

It’s not a bad thing to become emotionally attached to the people, the project, the outcome of that project, and the futures of all those involved. To make a change you have to care – but I think our success (and staying-power) depends upon our ability to somehow separate our motivation from our desire to feel accepted and included.

One last thought: Meaningful relationships are a very real outcome of the work we do, and those friendships are the origin of the community that we seek – even a few solid friendships are in and of themselves a worthy reward.

P.S. Speaking Creole definitely helps!

A question for the Expats and long-term volunteers: Where do you find the strongest source of community in Haiti? What has it taken for you to feel at home there?

by Erin Nguyen on May 7, 2015

Movement is Life: Establishing Sustainable Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation Services in Haiti

Introducing our newest Guestblogger & One of the Co-founders of STAND: The Haiti Project

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1.  How did you first get involved in Haiti?
The older I’ve become, the less I want to just be a tourist. I love to interact, to learn, to be engaged. But it feels better to me when I can give something back. It is a privilege bigger than we perceive to simply have the ability, the permission, to travel. That is hard to appreciate until you have met amazing people around the world who do not have the ability to even leave their city, who have never seen the ocean that exists a mere 50km away, whose government will not issue them a passport for fear that they will not return. I am a privileged person; so I should not only appreciate this, but also use it to positively affect others.
My involvement in Haiti specifically was a perfect mix of chance and timing. An opportunity arose and I jumped in with both feet! After four treatment trips to Haiti, four of us decided to start a new organization: STAND (Sustainable Therapy And New Development). We truly believe that building an effective rehabilitation profession in Haiti is the sustainable answer to Haiti’s lack of care, so now we are working hard to make this a reality.
2.  What drew you to Haiti?
I have always loved being a PT, really working with people, getting to know more than their injury, being able to affect them both physically and psychologically is so interesting and amazing. But I know that there is more out there. Human ‘health’ is a very broad topic and one that interests me immensely. So many factors, likely more than we will ever realize exist, can contribute to how a person feels and how they spend their life. Being and feeling healthy can vary between people, cultures, populations, age…. etc.
Working in Haiti has given me a new perspective on my skills as a physical therapist and has made me want to get better and learn more.Treating people who have never had access to Westernized health care, ever, reminds me of the true breadth of my knowledge and skills. That statement sounds a bit egotistical, but really it’s a reflection of the fact that I am used to working in a society and culture that has access not only to medical care, but also information. In Haiti, I am the doctor, the nurse, the PT. All I have are my hands and my brain. For many people, I am the last stop, the only stop, so I want to be good, as good as I can be.
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3.  Can you describe the work that STAND is doing in Haiti?  
Boy can I ever!
There are two main goals that STAND is focused on: providing rehabilitative care to those with pain and disability in Haiti AND creating Haitian specialists that can provide the same care, eventually rendering volunteer physical therapists in Haiti unnecessary.
The volunteer groups are generally comprised of physical therapists, prosthetists, and orthotists. We treat patients in Port-de-Paix (NW Haiti) from dawn to dusk. Our team addresses orthopedic issues (eg. chronic spine pain), neurological injuries (stroke or spinal cord injury), and pediatric cases; we treat chronic non-healing wounds and build arms and legs for amputees. While we can’t help everyone who walks through the door, we give everything we can to every case, whether it be tap-tap accident or shark attack. The crazy things we have seen while treating in Haiti is a book waiting to be written. Perhaps that can be my next project once rehab medicine is established in Haiti! ;)
4.  What prompted the creation of STAND’s motto, “Movement is life”?
I wish I could say it was a stroke of genius, but it actually felt more blasé in the moment! While creating the donations page for STAND’s new website, we came up with the phrase ‘Movement is life.’ We were wanting something short and sweet, something to really tug at the heart strings, and that’s what we came up with. But the more we said it out loud, the more we realized how true it rang; not only to Haiti’s situation, but to humanity.
In the states, when you have pain or are injured, there are support structures: health care, insurance, disability pay, family to reach out to… If you can’t work, there are systems in place; if you can’t walk, you can take mass transit or use your smartphone to get work done. In Haiti, if you can’t walk, you’ve lost your independence and your participation in society. If you can’t work, your family will likely go hungry. Movement… is life!
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5.  In addition to the medical services you provide, STAND also offers a training program for future medical professionals. Why do you think that training is such an important part of the work that you do?  
Providing care for the people of Port-de-Paix for a few weeks out of the year is helpful and important and meaningful, but it’s just a big band-aid that covers a wound that just won’t heal. We put it on every time we go, but it keeps falling off after we leave and the wound stays infected and never heals.
The people of Haiti cannot (and will not always!) rely on the kindness of medical practitioners abroad volunteering their time to provide specialty care and services. NGOs lose funding, people get busy, organizational founders get burnt out. Volunteerism and accepting the assistance of strangers are not sustainable solutions for Haiti, nor are they what Haitians would tell you they want.
The people of Haiti are intelligent and ingenuitive. They have the wits and will, they only lack the access to information. So that’s what we aim to provide. With the help of a few established PT schools, we are currently devising a curriculum, specific to our years of treating patients in Haiti, that will be taught to those living in Port-de-Paix. At first, volunteers from abroad will not only treat during their time in Haiti, but also help us to teach. Eventually, Haitian therapists will take over the clinics that STAND establishes, as well as the educational aspect, supplying the people of Port-de-Paix with consistent access to treatment.
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Want to learn more about STAND: The Haiti Project and the work they’re doing in Port Paix?  Visit their website at, like them on Facebook, or follow them @STANDHaiti!
And don’t forget to stay tuned for more posts from Morgan!

Reflections: Returning Home After Haiti

“What is demanded of man is not…to endure the meaningless of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms.”

– Viktor E. Frankl

I left Haiti abruptly last month for personal reasons; although everything is fine, thankfully, after having a need to step away, I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to gain some perspective again. Haiti, for me, has been the highest of highs and the lowest of lows…somewhere that I’ve found truth and beauty that I haven’t known in years, but also somewhere where—my idealism and eternal hope notwithstanding—the realities of a life and culture I am only beginning to understand sometimes brought me to my knees….

Every time one of my friends from work or the villa sends me a message asking how I am and when I’m coming back and saying that they miss me, my heart breaks a little bit…I love living in Haiti for so many reasons, and every day I have moments where I want to go back. I miss the many wonderful friends I made there from all over the world. I miss mass at St. Philomena in the morning, with the sun slowly climbing the chapel wall and Father Rick’s gorgeous baritone reverberating throughout the space. I miss my nurses in the NICU, and their affection; I know for a lot of Americans who are used to boundaries and personal space, the hand-holding, hugging, and kissing that’s the norm in Haiti is, as best, surprising, and at worst, cringe-worthy, but I adored it…. I miss the sweet kids at FWAL and the crazy hairdos they gave me. I miss saying something and realizing that I’ve just inadvertently mixed four (Kreyol, French, English, Italian) languages. I miss the excitement, and the passion, and the inspiration that I felt when I first got to Haiti. I miss the mangos.

That being said, I am not sad to have left Haiti because I know it’s not a goodbye, just a, “See you later,”…. Haiti is a part of my heart, and the things that I saw and felt and experienced there could fill a lifetime, one that I wish everybody could have the privilege to experience. It’s hard to articulate in writing without using platitudes, and I know whatever I say will be inadequate to describe this incredible place. My only hope is that the time that I spent there, and what I’ve been able to share about it, has shined a little light on this small part of the earth and the work that’s being done there, and maybe lit a small flame of compassion in the hearts of some others.

To hear some of the beautiful music that we often sang at mass, please visit: or choose a song in the player below.

by Katie Lawler on April 23, 2015

Be sure to check out Katie’s personal blog @ for more stories from her life and work at the Saint Damien’s Pediatric Hospital in Tabarre, Haiti.

How to deal with hurt-feelings in the “Helping hurts” conversation

How many of you have heard of the Norway based aid group SAIH – The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund?

As an organization they help support 40 local organizations in six countries in Latin America and southern Africa.

However, you’re more likely to recognize SAIH as the group behind the Rusty Radiator awards, and many of you are also likely familiar with their spin-off org Radi-Aid’s satirical videos such as “Africa for Norway.” Never seen it? You should check it out.  Then take a minute to scroll through the comment section on YouTube (risky business, as always.) Reactions can generally be categorized in one of two ways:

First, there’s humor.  People recognize the simple truth behind these videos: stereotypes harm dignity.  Plus, the self-ironic, satirical, and overdramatized style of the films makes them funny. So why not laugh? (Really, they are pretty funny.)

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Well, sometime’s it’s hard to laugh when you are the object of satire.  That doesn’t necessarily feel great, especially when you’ve put so much into trying to help.

[It’s easy to not try, and fail – then you just don’t care.  But to work hard, and then be told that your efforts are seriously flawed?  That hurts.]

And so, not surprisingly, this was the second reaction: hurt.  Several viewers angrily responded by throwing their hands up in the air: “Well fine!  I just won’t sponsor those kids any more!” (One of the milder responses.)

I think that anybody involved in aid work who is also a part of the conversation on foreign aid’s shortcomings probably feels a little bit of both, humor and hurt.  Despite all of the effort, it feels like you just can’t win.

Systemically it’s easy to see how, overall, the mechanisms of direct-aid harm communities; how “helping hurts”, and how what began as good intentions cause dependency.

Furthermore, it’s easy to analyze a system to say “this system is broken, and these changes should be made.” With a system we can be logical, calculated, and removed. It’s a lot harder (and arguably inappropriate?) to treat people the same way.

Is there any question then as to why the system is still broken?

The system is a system made up of people.  So why doesn’t the system work?  Because pride gets in the way.  Because greed – yes.  Because ideologies and trust don’t evolve overnight.  Because everything is a pile of spaghetti and by pulling on one noodle, you unintentionally move 10 others; what helps here hurts there.  And finally, because the number of people caught up in the mechanism of foreign aid are too many to leave behind in the name of instantaneous change, and so change on the ground is necessarily delayed from change in philosophical circles.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Radi-Aid’s videos, we can’t just laugh them off; but we also shouldn’t succumb to our hurt-feelings.  We have to pick up the conversation where the videos leave off.

[See Radi-Aid’s list of demands below – I think they’re the kind of changes we can implement right away.]

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Systems are frustrating, there’s no doubt, but we keep going and we change what we can. Changing the way we handle stereotypes is a good start, both individually and in the organizations where we work.

Individually, overcoming stereotypes changes the way we approach the people in the communities where we work; it means that we see them as innately capable, intellectually competitive partners, and we recognize that under-resourced does not mean inept.

As an organization, it means changing the way we portray underprivileged people in our fundraising campaigns and media.  It means that we show our supporters progress and the resources our partners possess, instead of constantly bombarding them with images of dependency, and everything that we perceive to be wrong in an area.

Let’s start there, let’s hold each other accountable, and let’s continue the conversation.

What changes are you ready to make?

Kenbe la zanmi m!

Another funny / maybe not quite so funny / will probably make you laugh video below:

by Erin Nguyen on April 16, 2015

Why Hiring a Translator Isn’t a Free Pass for your Organization

Translator’s serve a critical role in facilitating conversation between people who speak different languages, absolutely. But do we really recognize the full scope of a translator’s responsibilities?

Having a solid command of multiple languages is hard enough, but in order to be truly effective, a translator is also responsible for bridging the gaps between two different cultures:

Translation that leads to meaningful conversation requires the translator to be highly adept at the art of interpretation: listening to what one side has to say and then conveying it in a way that has the highest impact on the person sitting across the table (most likely in a language that is secondary to them, Woah!)

This requires strong cultural fluency as well as linguistic mastery on the part of the translator.

Imagine a Haitian translator trying to explain the following phrase to an American audience:

Rayi chen di dan li blan. = Hate the dog, but say his teeth are white.
[Whether you like someone or not, you have to recognize their good qualities even amidst the bad.]

Or better yet, imagine an American translator trying to translate the following for his English speaking colleagues:

M voye dlo m pa mouye pesònn. = I throw water but I don’t get anybody wet.
[I’m talking generally, I’m not trying to offend anyone.]

Even if he succeeds in translating the words, with the pace of regular conversation, the meaning is probably lost.

And so the common phrase “lost in translation” exists for a reason: many translators are not adequately equipped to handle cultural differences in addition to linguistic ones, and many things are just not that simple to translate.

So what’s the solution to reducing how much is “lost in translation”?

Men anpil, chay pa lou. Many hands make the load lighter.

The more people you have involved in the conversation who have a working knowledge of both languages and both cultures, the better the communication between parties.

So, believe it or not, hiring a translator does not give you a free pass to forego learning a foreign language.

If you’re passionate about working in Haiti, and you plan to stick around, your conversations (even those aided by the presence of a translator) will go much further if you study the language and make the effort to learn more about the culture yourself.

Kreyol pale, kreyol konprann.

by Erin Nguyen on April 9, 2015

Fun Fact:  Do you know the technical difference between a translator and an interpreter?  While many refer to any professional that helps people communicate between languages as a a translator (like we did above), a translator actually only translates written communication, while an interpreter is responsible for helping translate verbal communication.