Progress in returning to normal life in Haiti has been painfully slow since the nation was struck by a devastating earthquake last year, as millions of people struggle with dire circumstances—including homelessness and malnutrition—says New Orleans resident Marie-Jose Poux.
But despite material challenges, Haitians remain undaunted by the challenges they face and the people of Haiti remain rich in spirit, she says.
A native of Haiti who was in Port-Au-Prince when the January 2010 earthquake struck, Poux directs the Hope for Haitian Children Foundation, a New Orleans based non-profit that runs an orphanage in the Haitian capital. Thirty-four children live at the home and another forty children from surrounding neighborhoods attend daily classes and are served two meals a day. Many were suffering from malnutrition when they first arrived.
“The children are doing well—they are healthier and they wake up singing and are learning everything,” she says. “They are very grateful for the help that is coming to them.”
The Western Hemisphere’s worst recorded natural disaster, the earthquake left over 300,000 dead and destroyed tens of thousands of homes. Haiti’s plight has a particular resonance in New Orleans, which in addition to its Katrina experience shares a three hundred year old cultural connection to the island nation, from which many of the city’s local traditions and customs sprang. This year, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival will host the largest celebration of Haitian culture in the U.S. since the earthquake, with dozens of celebrated Haitian musicians and artists performing and displaying work.
“Everyone here is excited beyond belief about our celebration of Haiti,” said Asali DeVan, a native of Haiti who now lives in New Orleans and works as a coordinator for the festival. “There will be performances, exhibits, demonstrations, panels, parades and displays all over the Fairgrounds, with activities centered at Congo Square.”
DeVan is one of a number of New Orleanians, including several employees of the festival, who have recently traveled to Port-Au-Prince in preparation for the festival, delivering aid to Poux’s foundation as part of their trip. “Despite their challenges, Haitians are dealing with it all in an undaunted manner, never doubting they will get through it,” said DeVan. “Marie José in particular epitomizes this, going forward and accomplishing her goals with the children she serves without complaint.”
New Orleans reached out to Haiti last year in the wake of the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Among those efforts, Poux helped lead a community-wide donation drive that filled five 40-foot long shipping containers with relief supplies. Thousands of donors, including Haitian-born hip-hop star Wyclef Jean, covered the costs of shipping—$5,000 per container. Poux used the donations to set up three orphanage classrooms, and distributed goods to a number of temporary tent camps.
As national attention in the U.S. shifted to other issues, including the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, rebuilding efforts in Haiti gained little traction. “The people seem tired of negative news about them, without understanding the obstacles the country faces,” said Poux. “They welcome work instead of charity, but Haiti needs political change as well as economic aid for things to get better.”
Poux still faces many challenges in operating her orphanage, Foyer Espoir Pour Les Enfants, located in the Delmas section of the capital. Similar to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, real estate prices have surged in Port-Au-Prince since the earthquake. Rent on the property where Foyer Espoir Pour Les Enfants is housed recently increased by eighty percent. The orphanage also owes $2000 to a nearby children’s hospital for medical services, says Poux. She is searching for a permanent home for the orphanage and hopes to begin fundraising soon.
“We don’t need complicated things—food, propane to cook, school materials, toiletries. But we need a permanent home place to call home,” she says.
Poux will return to New Orleans in April, when she will participate in the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival as a vendor in the Congo Square Marketplace, where she has brought the work of Haitian artists to Jazz Fest audiences for years.