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#3245: Haitian diaspora returning to Haiti for service (fwd)

From: David Diggs <dadiggs@bellatlantic.net>

Many people on this list are Haitians who for one reason or another have
lived or are living outside of Haiti. My question is primarily to you. The
organization I work with is thinking about initiating a new program that
would create opportunities for Haitians or people with Haitian roots to
return to Haiti for the purpose of learning, reconnecting, and serving.  You
would help us enormously if you could help us think about the advantages and
dangers of such an initiative.

Let me first put my questions in some context: I'm a US citizen who had the
privilege of living and working in Haiti for nearly ten years. Beyond
Borders, the organization I'm still working with, promotes literacy,
education reform, and teacher training in Haiti through its partner there,
Fondasyon LimyŤ Lavi. We also have an unorthodox volunteer program for
non-Haitians that we call the Apprenticeship in Shared Living (ASL). Most
apprentices are young, single, college graduates. After providing an
orientation in the US, we place the apprentice with a host family in a rural
Haitian community. They live and learn among the people for 18 to 24 months.
(We work carefully to select and then prepare the family and community for
this new creature coming to live with them.) The apprentices learn Creole by
immersion, build relationships within the community, try to begin to
understand the local culture, and slowly identify something positive
happening in the community that they want be a part of, offering their
skills but not taking over or starting anything new. The apprentice receives
health insurance, a small stipend, a little money each month we put aside in
savings to cushion their return home, and maybe money to help them continue
to pay school loans. The host family receives a little money each month to
provide food and lodging. The average cost of the program per participant is
about $12,000 per year. We ask the apprentice to help us raise funds for our
work through their network of friends and family.

Our primary goal with this program is not service. Rather it is learning. We
want the apprentice to learn from the community. (And there are many, many
things they will learn that will change them for the better for the rest of
their lives.) We want the apprentice to be able to understand his or her own
culture better through this experience. The fish doesn't know what water is
until it is removed from the water. Likewise, no one can really know just
one culture. We need some point of reference outside our culture to be able
to see it critically. ASL provides this opportunity.

We also hope that in some small way the community will learn through the ASL
experience, come to understand itself better by seeing itself through the
eyes of this outsider who is struggling to understand them and belong to
them, who wants to speak their language, who affirms their way of life by
trying to be a part of it. We hope that they will move a little further past
some of the stereotypes they may have internalized about themselves and
their culture. We hope, too, that in this process the apprentice asks
questions that provoke reflection within the community. We try not to have a
romanticized view of Haitian culture, too. As with any culture, there are
things that need to change. Ideally any change would be based on reflection
and choice rather than something subversively or overtly imposed from the

Judged from what we've heard through evaluations we have conducted with
apprentices and host families and communities, the ASL program has been a
great success. The program is still very small, though we are working to
expand it.

As I said, our primary objective with this program has been learning. It is
essentially a cultural exchange program with a service component included.
To date we have never had a Haitian from the Diaspora sign up for this
program. This is not at all surprising. The program is not really designed
for someone returning to Haiti.

My question is this: Would it be of value to organize opportunities for
Haitians in the 10th department (especially Haitian university students or
graduates) to return to Haiti for a similar (or different) sort of
experience. We understand that the starting point would be very different
depending largely upon how long any particular participant has been away
from Haiti. For a second generation Haitian who has never lived in Haiti,
the starting point will be closer to that of the total foreigner. In
general, I'd think that the possibility for a Haitian participant to be of
real service in the community, offering skills for particular projects, etc.
will be greater. Presumably they will already speak Creole with at least
some proficiency. They may be able to put their skills to almost immediate
use. (For example, we've thought of trying to provide internship/volunteer
opportunities in the literacy or education programs we fund for Haitian
American college students or graduates who want to become teachers. We've
felt they may be able to help provide teacher training which is sorely

At the same time, we know there will be risks to such an initiative. For
example, there are views, often very negative views, of the Diaspora who
return to Haiti. (Of course, a lot of the criticism is based, I think, on
Haitians who return to Haiti and openly look down on their compatriots who
have not had the opportunity to live abroad. We would certainly want to make
sure that participants in this program would have the maturity to fight
against this sort of arrogance in themselves.) I'm sure there are other
risks, too.

In any case, we would greatly value any reflections on this possible
venture. Does it make any sense at all? Are there Haitians who would want to
take advantage of this sort of opportunity? What approach makes the most
sense? What should our objectives be? What should we try to avoid? How would
one get started? Are there others who have attempted the same sort of thing
we should know about?

David Diggs
Beyond Borders
Tel. & Fax: 202-686-2088