Looking for Hope in Haiti

haiti gerald oriol with jaime haiti panye lape participants

Friday, October 13th, 2023

I arrived at Boston Logan International Airport as dozens of passengers from the Miami flight filed into the baggage claim area. While waiting for Gérald Oriol, Jr. to emerge, I recalled the eight years we had worked together. From 2011 to 2016 and 2017 to 2020, Oriol served as Haiti’s Secretary of State for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities, the country’s highest ranking government official working on behalf of an estimated one million persons with disabilities. While heading the public bureau commonly known as BSEIPH, Oriol oversaw the opening of several new departmental offices, helped draft and enact new laws to advance the rights of persons with disabilities, and led efforts to mainstream the inclusion agenda throughout the Government of Haiti.

During his time in office, Oriol, who has spinal muscular atrophy, was believed to be the most severely disabled high-ranking government official in the world. I served as a pro bono advisor to Oriol and profiled him four times for ABILITY Magazine. But now, due to political instability and escalating gang violence, it had been more than seven years since I traveled to Haiti and nearly six years since I had last seen Oriol in-person, when he received an honorary Doctorate of Public Service at Texas Christian University.

haiti adaptive equipment for iom project

Oriol stepped away from public service in March 2020, just months before a group of mercenaries, mostly Colombians, stormed the residence of President Jovenel Moise and brutally murdered the head of state. Following the assassination, chaos ensued in the country as kidnappings and gang violence escalated in the capital. Three years later, the case is finally seeing some arrests, including a former Haitian Senator. Two other suspects—a Haitian-Chilean businessman and a retired Colombian Army officer—have been sentenced to life in prison by a Federal Court in Miami. Nine other suspects await trial in the US and dozens remain incarcerated in Haiti for alleged involvement in the plot. Despite progress in the case, the control of gangs in and around Port-au-Prince has increased. The World Food Programme, the UN’s food agency, estimates over 200,000 people are displaced and “almost half of the country faces acute levels of food insecurity.” After leaving office in 2020, Oriol initially served as a consultant for a US-based non-profit before resuming his work with Fondation J’Aime Haïti [I love Haiti Foundation], the Haitian non-profit he co-founded in 2006, to support disadvantaged youth and persons with disabilities. This was his first trip outside of Haiti in five years.

haiti food distribution project

As the last few passengers filtered into baggage claim, my friend finally appeared, pushed by Degonza, his personal assistant in Haiti for nearly forty years. After exchanging hugs and pleasantries the three of us immediately headed north to Danvers, Massachusetts. In 2020, Oriol’s wheelchair was stolen from the back of his pickup truck at a dangerous intersection. He reverted to a very basic model that was not adapted to his needs. It was wrecking his body. The chair was such a poor fit that he could only sit in it for an hour or two at a time without feeling pain, and sores had formed on his body. Since the physiotherapist Oriol normally consulted had left the country due to security concerns, Oriol reached out to Janet O’Flynn, a friend and Dean of FSRL, the rehabilitation facility at the Episcopal University of Haiti. O’Flynn helped arrange for Oriol to visit with two occupational therapists in Danvers, for an evaluation of his body and to receive recommendations for a new wheelchair that would allow him to sit more comfortably and for longer periods of time.

We were greeted warmly in Danvers by occupational therapists, Merry Kaulbach and Mary Jo Wagner, and wheelchair designer Phil Moran. Kaulbach and Wagner had traveled to Haiti five times since 2017, to establish a wheelchair clinic for Zanmi Beni and St. Vincent’s Center for Children with Disabilities, two well-known institutions supporting persons with disabilities in Port-au-Prince. Moran offered technical expertise for their project, Wheelchair Works for Haiti, which provided the clinic in Haiti with tools, supplies and parts, to custom-fit chairs for children and adults served by the two institutions. Kaulbach and Wagner had also taught on a voluntary basis at FSRL, which is located in Leogane, the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake.

haiti gerald oriol watching practice

During our after-hours appointment in Danvers, Kaulbach and Wagner asked Oriol numerous questions about his home life, modes of transit, and work requirements, to better understand his needs. Oriol’s scoliosis had advanced considerably since I last saw him, and the significant curvature in his spine was causing pressure in various parts of his body. Kaulbach and Wagner examined Oriol and showed him different positions for resting that could alleviate some of the tension in his body.

After spending nearly three hours with us, Kaulbach and Wagner identified and fitted for Oriol, a lightweight Quickie wheelchair with a Vicar cushion to reduce pelvic obliquity and pressure. Moran designed a padded platform for the chair, to support Oriol’s crossed legs, a feature that would allow him to sit comfortably for hours at a time. The chair’s padding would also help alleviate the body sores caused by his old chair.

Following the appointment, we continued north to my home city of Manchester, New Hampshire. On the drive, I asked Oriol about the food distribution work Fondation J’Aime Haïti (FJAH) was doing with Food for the Poor (FFTP), the south Florida based NGO. Oriol has served as a board member for Food for the Poor Haiti since 2021 and his foundation collaborates with FFTP to distribute food, including rice, beans, mackerel, and cornmeal, to disadvantaged communities in the Port-au-Prince area. FJAH periodically receives bulk shipments from FFTP and separates the food into smaller rations that they distribute to several communities. The last distribution impacted an estimated 1,209 direct and indirect beneficiaries.

After a long day of travel, we finally arrived at the hotel and enjoyed a longstanding tradition from our years of work together—pizza, one of Oriol’s favorite dishes.

Saturday, October 14th, 2023

We started the morning at my office on the campus of Southern New Hampshire University where I serve as Director of International Student Services. On my office wall, there’s a large picture of Oriol sitting in his wheelchair, staring across the water off the southern coast of Haiti. I took the photo of him in 2014 when we visited Jacmel to see the new departmental office BSEIPH was about to open in the southern coastal city. Now, he was sitting across the desk from me in New Hampshire.

Oriol wanted to talk about basketball. Despite the ongoing violence in the capital, Oriol’s foundation chose to restart its basketball program, Panye Lapè, which roughly translates into “peace hoops.” Since April of 2023, FJAH was running a youth basketball training program at three different locations, two in Canape-Vert and one in Bourdon. The program serves 106 boys and girls who meet twice per week to practice skills and play games. Panye Lapè receives sponsorship from the Horwitz Family Memorial Foundation, which provides funding, and the Caribbean Bottling Company, which supplies beverages for the participants. Foundation Sogebank, the social arm of one of the largest commercial banks in Haiti, is also a partner and recently provided funding to organize a local basketball tournament among participants in the program. One of the courts is located in an area so inaccessible that Oriol has to be carried on a stretcher in order to watch the children practice and play games.

haiti gerald oriol giving the trophy to winning team

Oriol hoped to grow the Panye Lapè program and wanted to discuss how we might reach out to current and former NBA, WNBA and NCAA players or coaches for technical support and promotion of the program on their social media sites. Basketball represents the second most popular sport in Haiti behind soccer. There have even been well-known players of Haitian heritage in the professional ranks, including Marie Ferdinand-Harris, Samuel Dalembert, and Mario Elie.

While the Panye Lapè program did not specifically serve youth with disabilities, Oriol felt the basketball program was an effective community-building initiative that offered young people in Port-au-Prince the opportunity to build their skills in a safe environment while fostering a sense of belonging. It also provided an alternative to the gangs that had destabilized the country.

I asked Oriol why he chose to restart the basketball program when gang violence was rampant in the capital. He replied, “I felt confident the game could contribute to the buildup of self-confidence and teamwork. That it would help the youth learn how to manage stress and develop a good attitude in the face of victory and defeat. All these skills and attitudes are important for the children, personally, but also collectively, as we work together for a better tomorrow.”

Following our meeting, we toured the grounds of Southern New Hampshire University. It was homecoming weekend and hundreds of people were on campus for a variety of activities. For the remainder of the day, my friend Lisa and I accompanied Gérald and Degonza on a sight-seeing tour of Manchester and the New Hampshire seacoast before returning to the hotel for another pizza and more conversation.

Sunday, October 15th, 2023

On Sunday morning, we returned to campus to discuss two projects Oriol’s foundation completed with the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Both projects aimed to serve persons displaced by gang-related activity in the capital, particularly persons with disabilities who faced even greater vulnerability amidst the violence. In the first project, IOM tasked Fondation J’Aime Haïti with conducting censuses at four communities, including La Piste, a community that started as a camp for persons displaced by the 2010 earthquake. I had discussed La Piste in a 2012 article for Ability because, at the time, the camp included a high percentage of persons with disabilities. Now, more than a decade later, IOM wanted Oriol’s foundation to help identify persons with disabilities who were facing violence in their communities. The reality of the violence hit home when the census work at La Piste was interrupted one day due to heavy gunfire. Once FJAH identified community members with disabilities, they offered them business training, COVID-19 awareness sessions, and adaptive equipment such as wheelchairs, crutches, and white canes. In the second project with IOM, FJAH provided adaptive equipment and mental health support to about 200 persons with disabilities facing possible relocation due to natural and manmade disasters.

haiti gerald oriol in danvers

Following our meeting, we decided to spend our final afternoon together at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It had been twelve years since Oriol spent time on the campus, completing his Master of Liberal Arts degree at the prestigious university. His time at Harvard as a Haitian student with disabilities proved, once again, there was no place on the planet that my friend could not go once he set his mind to it. As we visited the various buildings Oriol spent time in as a student, we discussed the possibility of a Kenyan-led multinational security force deploying to Haiti. The move appeared imminent even though it was being delayed by the High Court of Kenya. Haiti has a long history of foreign interventions, and while most Haitians were in favor of an international force to help restore law and order in the capital, there was also a sense of trepidation.

Always the optimist, Oriol pointed to signs of hope in Haiti like the women’s soccer team, which made its first World Cup appearance in Australia during the summer. Although the team lost to England, China and Denmark by close margins, the squad impressed in its debut on the game’s largest stage and won many new fans. Oriol also mentioned the irrigation canal Haitians were attempting to construct on the Massacre River, along the shared border with the Dominican Republic. The DR’s government condemned the project and even temporarily closed its border with Haiti, a move that rallied the country in support of its farmers who were fighting to save their drought-stricken fields.

After posing for a photograph beside the founder’s statue in Harvard Yard, Oriol weighed in on the dispute. “Haiti’s response to the canal shows that if people feel connected to a cause, they will take collective action for the benefit of the country. This is cause for hope.”

by James English

James English works at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, NH. His novel, First With Guns was recently released by TCU Press.

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