We just didn’t have the time

This is no longer a valid excuse.  Not an excuse.  Even just a few words can have a big impact, and everyone is capable of bringing a few words of Creole with them to Haiti.  Making the effort to speak Creole in the community that you’re visiting speaks volumes to those around you.

It says: “I’m here for more than just a chance to do something different with my spring break, I’m genuinely interested in what YOU have to offer and the relationships we can build together.”

It says: “What is your name? Because your name is important to me and you don’t have to be an anonymous figure in the picture we take together.  You are not anonymous.”

It says: “I can’t speak perfectly, because yes, there are a lot of differences in where we come from, not the least of which is language, but nevertheless we have something to learn from each other and there is something larger that ties us together.”

And it says: “I’m here because I care, and I care enough to leave Haiti knowing more about it after my trip than I did before.”

Finally, it probably also says: “I don’t take myself too too seriously because I’m willing to make mistakes that we will laugh about together… and not only am I okay with that, but I’m looking forward to laughing with you.”

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 4.10.16 PM

Stay tuned for some upcoming posts concerning: Communication, language, translators, language learning and the like.  If you’re ready to learn just some very basics that will go a long way, check out the video below: it turns out that teaching Creole via YouTube video is almost as much fun as speaking it.

On Feeling Trapped: What Mobility Looks Like In Haiti


I’ve thought a lot recently about feeling trapped.  In Tabarre, we aren’t permitted to walk anywhere.  There are armed guards at the gates to all of the NPH properties, and we have to find a driver and request a ride anytime we want to go somewhere, whether it’s work, mass, or the grocery store.  If the trip is far, the ride can be expensive, and our drivers technically end work at 7 PM, so if we want to go anywhere after that, we know that the drivers—who we see every day, and consider our friends—will have to stay late, after already having usually worked more than 12 hours.  There have also been many manifestations recently because of the gas strikes and the political unrest, so even if we have a car and a driver, the road might be unsafe and impassable.  When you’re used to coming and going at will, walking anywhere you like, and maybe even having your own vehicle, the lack of mobility can start to feel oppressive.  Our community at the villa is relatively small; regardless of how much you like people, it can be challenging to spend the majority of your time for months on end with the same small group of people, day in and day out.  It’s easy to complain about the freedoms and comforts we miss.

However, when I start to feel stressed and overwhelmed by the living conditions here, I have to step back and remind myself that I came here by choice.  I am fortunate to have been welcomed to work and live in Haiti, and I have an education, resources, and a United States passport, which means I have the freedom to leave at will.  All of these things are privileges, and ones that many Haitians do not have.  So maybe I can’t even begin to really comprehend what it is to feel trapped.

by Katie Lawler on January 29, 2015

Be sure to check out Katie’s personal blog @http://katiemarielawler.blogspot.com/ for more regular updates on her life and work at the Saint Damien’s Pediatric Hospital in Tabarre, Haiti.

Conversations on style and shopping second hand: Haiti’s Pepe Trade

Non! Tout rad nou yo dezyèm men.
[No! All our clothes are second hand!]

We were having a conversation about clothing and style in Haiti. She disagreed with me when I said that people here dressed differently compared to my community at home. Standing there in a muted selection of fairly shapeless neutrals I elaborated explaining that women in Haiti seemed to have a different sense of style and fit and an eye for brighter colors and bolder patterns. (In fact, compared to my wardrobe, I think I was arguing that they have more style.) Her main point though was that it couldn’t be that different because all of their clothing is our second hand clothing: rad dezyèm men.


A more common term for the second hand clothing sold by the ti machann running the small shops, stands and displays along the streets of Haiti is pepe. In many ways our rejected clothes are brought to life again by the keen sense for color and style of Haitian consumers. However, while an entire market has been built up around the importation of clothing from American thrift shops and charities, we should be careful not to slip into the idea that what’s no longer wearable for us is somehow “good enough” for Haiti.

Pepe isn’t going away anytime soon, for a populace with limited purchasing power pepe is a market that creates viable options. So stepping away from the pepe for a moment, what was more disturbing to me was the way that my friend insisted that Haiti only ever got America’s hand me downs.

So really, this is more about the idea and less about the clothes; it’s more about the mentality built up around what is acceptable here versus “good enough” there and the way Haiti views the U.S. and the way we view Haiti.

This idea goes way beyond clothing.

For our last night in Port au Prince we stayed with Daniel and Ketya at Trinity Lodge. Through my conversation with Daniel one theme popped up repeatedly: a desire to see things done right. He emphasized the importance of running his business the right way and to the highest standard. He took pride in his staff and the social security benefits that they provided for their employees. He pointed out the air-conditioning available in each room, high speed wifi, hot showers and high quality Haitian food provided for meals. My initial reaction was: “I’m in Haiti, I don’t need all of this”… and then I realized how limited my expectation for Haiti was.

His vision for his business, and Haiti, was to see the way that things are done changed; the idea of “good enough” wasn’t good enough for him. I think it’s time that Haiti be allowed to outgrow our hand me downs.

by Erin Nguyen on February 12, 2015

For more on Haiti’s Pepe trade you should check out the short video below:

What do you talk about in a sandwich shop in Port au Prince?

Walking into the Epidor above the Tabarre Delimart, we began to speculate about what the NY Sandwich might be, or what exactly is the sòs franse, and why would it somehow accompany the NY Sandwich?

I at least, was a bit confused.

Mid way into our conversation, the man in front of us turned around:

“Where are you guys from?”


“New York”.

Man in front of us: “Yeahhhh! It’s been long time since I’ve heard a New York accent! I lived in the city for 8 years!”

(I’m actually from upstate, but there was no reason to be so particular.)

It turns out that while he enjoyed New York and his community in the States, he had come back to Haiti as a businessman who wanted to see growth in local Haitian enterprises, chief among them being his brother’s eco-friendly charcoal company.

This is one of those connections I look back on and feel really good about.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that he was eager to speak English with us, or that he had spent a long stretch of time in the United States, and that we had both studied similar subjects in college: all of these things made it easy to seek out points where our experiences intersected.

The easy back and forth generated by a mutual distaste for New York’s colder weather, interest in literature, and a variety of other small talk items, gave us time to get to another shared interest: chabon vèt.

Chabon vèt literally means: “Green charcoal” and is the type of charcoal that his brother’s company is working to produce and distribute in Haiti.

I already knew a little bit about chabon vèt after stumbling across a few different articles online and seeing it featured in the Bonne Nouvelle video series; it is unique because instead of relying on wood as the raw material, it uses bagas kan (sugar cane waste) which is plentiful in Haiti.

Chabon vèt is also supposed to burn longer and hotter than ordinary charcoal; nevertheless, the man said it’s a hard sell in Haiti.


Well, because it’s not the norm many people are worried about being cheated. Consumer education will be a big part of their efforts moving forward.

And this brings us to the point: community education seems to be a common theme for work in Haiti, but how often do we focus on what we need to learn to be more engaging partners/visitors/volunteers?

As I talk about the “feel good” nature of this connection, I’m very aware that this conversation came about mostly because of this man’s ability to reach out to me, and less so my ability to reach out to him.  I think it’s cool that I randomly new a little bit about chabon vèt, but I recognize how far his mastery of English and knowledge about the U.S. was able to drive our conversation.

By staying up to date on life in Haiti, building on our experiences in the country and working to achieve a greater mastery of Creole, we’re better positioning ourselves to be active and engaging participants in our conversations overseas.

We’re also more likely to be the ones ready and willing to reach out to new people, in the same spirit as this man who took the initiative to reach out to us.

by Erin Nguyen on February 5, 2015

Guest blogger Katie Lawler: Reflection

“Life has no other discipline to impose, if we would but realize it, than to accept life unquestioningly. Everything… we deny, denigrate or despise, serves to defeat us in the end. What seems nasty, painful, evil, can become a source of beauty, joy and strength, if faced with an open mind. Every moment is a golden one for him who has the vision to realize it as such.”

- Henry Miller

After five and a half months in Haiti, I returned home to the states for the first time so that I could spend the holidays with my family. I was sad to leave and miss the NPH festivities with the children, but I missed my family and friends intensely and I needed a break.

I wondered if I would experience reverse culture shock going back to the states—would it be strange to return to a place where things seem so much easier? Would I feel lost and out of place, or outraged at the excess, or angry at what sometimes seems like First World oblivion to the suffering on the rest of the earth…. But I felt none of those things. I felt like I had never left.

One thing I was surprised to feel when I first arrived in Haiti was a lifting of my guilt—I had always felt badly for having so much when others have so little, and for not working more, or harder, or constantly…but being here made it suddenly clear how none of that was my fault. None of us choose where we are born, or why, or how…what we get to choose is what we do with it.

As much as I love Haiti, it was hard to leave my family again and know that I might not see them for another six months. Living in Haiti is hard. The villa was entirely full of visitors when I got back (including five in my own house), and the day after I returned was the fifth anniversary of the earthquake, so it was long and emotional. I was exhausted and overwhelmed and felt like I was walking around in a fog. For some reason, I was also dreading going back to work—I was homesick and anxious, and I wondered if my coworkers would be upset that I had stayed away for longer than I had planned or if I had forgotten all my Creole. I woke up with a sense of sadness and trepidation, and I dragged myself to breakfast and then to the hospital, my apprehension increasing with each passing minute. I forced myself to climb the stairs and round the corner to the NICU, and I slowly turned the knob and slipped inside the unit, quietly shutting the door behind me. Suddenly, the air was filled with shrieks.

“Catherine! Catherine!” My coworkers, jumping up and down, ran to hug me. And to kiss my cheeks. And to ask about my holidays. And to tell me they were worried I wasn’t coming back. At that moment, for the first time since I had been back, I felt my sadness lift and be replaced by a sense of peace and happiness. This was why I came to Haiti. Throughout the struggles and the sorrow, the worries and self-doubt, there is so much beauty and redemption to be found here. I have been privileged to be welcomed here and my only hope is that I can leave having given even a fraction of what I have already received.

by Katie Lawler on January 29, 2015

Be sure to check out Katie’s personal blog @http://katiemarielawler.blogspot.com/ for more regular updates on her life and work at the Saint Damien’s Pediatric Hospital in Tabarre, Haiti.

Feelings of a Foreigner in Haiti: “The Follow Up” Part 2

I know this isn’t a unique situation that I find myself in; many of you have traveled extensively, both to Haiti and other areas of the world, so you already know that even short trips leave you with a lot to think about.

This last visit to Port au Prince was a whirlwind of a trip.

Is everyone familiar with the Creole phrase, “Tèt mwen chaje”? Loosely translated it means: I’ve got a lot on my mind.

You can also use “Tèt chaje” to say things like:

Tèt li chaje: He’s troubled / burdened.
Eske tèt ou chaje? : Are you troubled?
Ala yon tèt chaje!: What a dilemma!

But I digress…

During this initial stage of reflection, I’m still going over a hundred different moments from our week in Port au Prince, and the only thread of consistency that I can find in all of them is the way in which they fall into one of two distinct categories.

1.  There were moments where I felt included, connected to the community and actively engaged with the people around me.

2.  There were moments where I felt distinctly out of place, a foreigner standing in the middle of a world I didn’t really understand.

The moments where I felt connected are easy to feel good about, the moments of disconnect are harder. And yet, in both experiences I can see and feel growth.

Thinking back to my first trip to Haiti, I realize how easy it was to feel on the inside. The experience was new and exciting and people were welcoming and my beginner level Creole allowed me to connect but it also allowed certain conversations to go over my head, conversations that would inevitably challenge the feel good moments I held onto so tightly.

Subsequent visits seem to get harder, and as your Creole gets better you understand more. This is good and bad; the moments of connection are more profound, but the moments of disconnect become more visible and harder to ignore. All of a sudden you realize, for the tables to turn, you’ve got to be in this for the long haul.

And so I’ve started to filter stories through this process; which ones fall into the category of real connection? Which ones are reminders of the many things I still don’t understand? Which are the stories that inevitably blur the line and evoke feelings connected to both feeling on the inside and being on the outside?

One moment that stands out from this last trip was a conversation I had with a staff member at the last guesthouse we visited.

Everyone had moved on from dinner and she was starting on the dishes, I asked where I could put my plate and she told me the counter was fine. Then she asked me where I was from, and (already working through this “feeling on the inside/ being on the outside” complex) I jumped at the opportunity to connect.

I asked if I could help her with the dishes, looking for a reason to stay in the kitchen to talk, and to take part in something so “everyday” that I knew it would make me feel less like the foreigner standing on the outside looking in. She hesitated, asked me if I really wanted to, and shrugged at my response of: “I do them at home, and I’ll feel more at home if I can help out here.”

We talked for half an hour while we moved through plates, cups, and silverware, but as I helped her with the tedious task of rinsing and drying, I realized that really she was the one doing me a favor. By welcoming me into her space and sharing a part of her experience, she gave me the chance to step out of that role of foreigner even if just for a few minutes.

Stewing over that conversation, I’ve questioned whether or not that moment of “feeling on the inside” was a space that I created or a real point of connection; I’ve since decided that the answer is both yes, and no. I know that her everyday reality and mine differ in important ways, but I can also recognize that there’s room for overlap in our experience, and therefore room for authentic connection. Similarly, I think that there are ways that we as foreigners can connect deeply with the communities where we stay in Haiti, but we also have to recognize all of the obstacles that impede our entry into the more intimate spaces of those same communities.

For me at least, I think that’s perhaps one of the greatest challenges to face while working in Haiti.

I wonder if you agree?


by Erin Nguyen on January 22, 2015

So How Was Haiti? The Follow Up.


So, how was Haiti?

During the last seven days I enjoyed conversations that opened doors, and at night I watched the gates to the guest house lock a part of Haiti out in order to keep us safely inside.

From inside the walls of the guest houses I could hear the loud music, animated discussion and constant backdrop of horns honking and dogs barking.  I wondered where the people I met earlier in the day were and what they were doing, and while it was well advised to stay behind the barrier, it served as yet another reminder that I’m still far removed from many of the realities of life here.

It was a good trip.  But good doesn’t mean easy, and this is the first time I’ve decided to write about Haiti while everything is still so close.  I’ve rewritten this post at least 10 times now and the only piece that remains intact (read: undeleted) is this:

In order to stay involved in Haiti, it’s going to mean weathering the moments of frustration and alienation in order to continue to realize more moments of exchange and growth, holding out for each opportunity to begin new relationships and strengthen old ones.

Thank you to all of the people who shared some of their time with us over this last week, because there in lies the real value of this trip, and my motivation to keep sharing moving forward.  N ap pale byento.

by Erin Nguyen on January 16, 2015