Aslan is the co-founder of the Empower Haiti Together. She and her co-founders Sam Merizema and Ludger Nau are working to promote sustainable and empowering partnerships that allow Haitians to create the change they desire. Aslan will be joining us tomorrow as a guest blogger, but we wanted to give everyone a proper introduction!
(Pictured below from left to right: Aslan, Sam, and Ludger)
1. Aslan, how did you first become involved in Haiti? What inspired you to begin Empower Haiti Together?
I first traveled to Haiti in March 2010 to provide medical care as a nurse, but soon became frustrated with taking care of essentially the same people every time.
We were pulling the sick people out of the raging waters, but ignoring the fact that we were sending them on their way to walk across a broken bridge, only to fall in and need rescuing again.
I also began to question the fact that by volunteering for free, we were making it very difficult for Haitian doctors and nurses to find work, because who can compete with free? In my quandary, I found myself going back to grad school at Oregon State to get my masters of public health in international health to learn how I could be doing something much more upstream, sustainable, and impactful in Haiti. Throughout my journeys to Haiti, I met Sam & Ludger, who share the same passions and desires for Haiti. We started out going to communities and doing empowerment evaluations to determine what the people living there felt like were their biggest concerns, how they wanted to prioritize those concerns through a simplified voting process with stickers, and finally, how they wanted to approach addressing those concerns.
Our role has always been to first listen, and then partner with those communities and individuals to help bring about the changes they desire.
We are helping to provide opportunities instead of handouts. What started out as a few friends doing community work in Haiti in August 2014 turned into a few friends doing community work in Haiti with a name, Empower Haiti Together, in Feb. 2015. 😉
2. Can you tell us a little bit about your fellow co-founders Sam & Ludger? How has working with them helped shape your understanding of Haiti?
Sam & Ludger are both Haitian friends I met over the years. When I first met Sam in 2011, he was living in a tent camp in Fond Parisien with his parents and 5 siblings. He taught himself English and began working as a translator at the mission he was living at, providing financially for his entire family. I met Ludger in 2013 at a bar/resto inside the American Airlines gate area in Port-au-Prince after missing my flight due to horrible “blokis”. I was told that I might not get off the island for another week because the flights were all full. I was frustrated and downhearted. I wandered upstairs to get something to eat and drink, and Ludger was there taking my order. He asked why I looked sad, so I told him about my morning.
He chatted me up, cheered me up, and talked with his friends at the airlines, getting me a seat on the next flight out! And if that wasn’t enough, when his mom dropped off some lunch for him, he insisted on sharing it with me. I have found some of the kindest strangers in the world in Haiti, but they never stay strangers for long.
The friendships I’ve formed with Sam and Ludger have helped me understand Haiti on a much deeper level. They speak Kreyol with me to help me keep up on my language skills, and often kick me out of the car to go order the food saying, “Ou ka fe li!” Haiti has taught me so many life lessons, and many I’ve learned along side these two. The three of us have shared some crazy adventures together, especially with our first group of students that came with us to experience Haiti from Oregon State University this June. There’s a whole new batch of Haiti lovers in Oregon now! 🙂
3. Any funny moments on the Empower Haiti Together team that came out of a language misunderstanding?
After visiting the breathtaking Citadel LaFerriere and Sans Souci, Sam was explaining to us that Sans Souci means no worries…hakuna matata…but he said that it also means no…and he took a finger and wiped it over his eyebrow. “Oh, no sweat…no worries. I get it!”. “No,” he said, “It means no EYEBROWS.” We all had the biggest laugh about that, because I’d certainly be worried if I had no eyebrows!
4. You’ve had a chance to visit quite a few places in Haiti – can you tell us about one spot that really stands out?
Lovers Island is a little “dot island”, as I call it, off of Isle a Vache on Haiti’s southern coast. It’s a little sandbar with no trees, or any vegetation to speak of, surrounded by the most incredible green-blue crystal clear waters I’ve ever seen. You have to keep pinching yourself to be sure this is real life. You can contact me to be connected to our friend and boat driver, Jean, who can show you this gem.
5. Quick! You only get one more meal in Haiti! What would you order and where would you eat it?
Anything with pikliz!! I seriously cry inside if someone is out of pikliz. I have jars of it I’ve made at home. At home, and apple a day keeps the doctor away, but in Haiti it’s gotta be pikliz! I swear the white vinegar helps keep my gut healthy when I’m in Haiti! 😉
Interview by Erin Nguyen on September 16, 2015