Some Americans won’t leave smoldering nation
By Tim Collie
PORT-AU-PRINCE · Keith Flanagan has lived and worked in Haiti since 1986. At a time when many Americans are fleeing this strife-torn nation, he is digging in and planning to stay. He just welcomed his youngest son back from the United States last week for a three-year job in tropical horticulture in Haiti's remote countryside.
Flanagan has witnessed the collapse of one 30-year dictatorship, the election of the first democratic president in the nation's history, a military coup d'etat and a U.S. invasion of the island nation.
Now, he's looking at a possible civil war. But he isn't even thinking about leaving.
"When people ask me if I'm ever coming home, I tell them I'll be back when all of Haiti's problems are solved," chuckles Flanagan, who speaks Creole with an Oklahoma drawl. "And since things have only gotten worse here over the last few years, I don't think I'm going to be going home for a long time.
"But what would I be doing back in the United States anyway," adds the 55-year-old livestock veterinarian. "Treating somebody's poodle?"
Haiti has a way of bypassing the brain and going straight to the heart, say many who live here. How else to explain why Americans who could make lucrative livings in the United States choose to spend years dealing with this country's immense poverty, its myriad failed governments and a complex culture that's an intriguing mix of French, Caribbean and African influences.
"It's hard to explain to people because if you don't have experience in the place it can seem very complex, very depressing and hopeless," says Terry Snow, a minister who has lived in the western Haiti city of St. Marc for nine years and recently brokered a cease-fire between anti-government rebels and local militants who support embattled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
"But it's not that complex at all after a while. It's just different, the way people think here," says Snow, who with his wife has raised five children in Haiti, the last born in a peasant's tin-roof seaside shanty. "Once you understand how they think, you find so much beauty. But Haiti is really unique in the Western Hemisphere."
Foreign diplomats estimate as many as 20,000 Americans live in Haiti. Many, perhaps most, are still here despite the waves of foreigners who have fled the violent anti-government rebellion that has gripped Haiti over the last three weeks, claiming more than 80 lives and spreading to more than a dozen cities and towns.
The vast majority of Americans here work for religious and international charities. A substantial numbers of Americans also run small businesses that give them enough to live on and employ local residents. Others operate small charities that, in many cases, represent the bedrock of social and educational networks here.
"Who else is going to do this work if not us?" says Patrick Moynihan, who runs a school that gives gifted children from the worst slums in Haiti an elite private education. "We're not going to shut down unless its impossible for the children to come to the school. And I'm not leaving. We're educating the next generation of Haitian leaders -- people who'll be in position to run this country in 10, 15 years. You don't just stop doing that."
Carole Stufflebeam recently decided to stay in Haiti after completing what she had expected to be a one-year stint running a small school, Notre Maison, for 30 handicapped orphans in the city's capital. If she were to leave, the school would close down because there is no government agency or Haitian charity that could handle the children.
Many of the children, who have cerebral palsy and other severe neurological problems, might end up on the street, were she to leave. "I hear that question a lot -- when are you going to leave? -- and I really hate it," says Stufflebeam. "We'll leave when the Lord tells us to. We'll know. For the most part, most of the people I know are staying unless their missions ask them to leave.
"The need is so great here for many of these children. The biggest problem is often just getting a doctor here who is qualified to do the surgery that can help many of them. But I cannot think of leaving now, especially at a time like this. Who else would come?"
Glenna Stinson first came to Haiti in 1989 after becoming involved with an alternative church that specializes in global environmental concerns. She runs an Internet café in the middle-class town of Petionville, just outside Port-au-Prince, and has raised two daughters here.
"All of my family and friends think we're under siege here. It's hard to convey to people that there's a life here, that Haitians are a genuinely peaceful and passive people," says Stinson. "Especially when they see these sensational images of people running around with guns."
Like many others, she acknowleges experiencing "surreal moments" of living here.
It's a place where a militant gunman at a barricade may pause to inform you that your car tires need air, then guide you to a roadside stand where you'll find a pump. A place where stunningly beautiful rainforests thrive just a few miles from eroded deserts carpeted with cacti and cracked earth, caused by Haiti's severe environmental problems. And a place that is home to a seemingly endless supply of odd characters: The young man who stands outside the city jail with a thick resume advertising himself as the country's next president; and the numerous would-be novelists who, for want of a decent publishing house, push their thick French-language manuscripts on passersby.
"I've had more surreal moments in Haiti than I've ever had anywhere else," says Stinson, who, in the midst of the country's current troubles, is trying to set up an environmental institute to combat the deforestation and erosion that has crippled its countryside. "Maybe it's the mystical element of the culture, the religious elements, its history. Maybe it's just the people.
"Even traveling in the countryside, which is so devastated, yet in many places so beautiful, you feel this immense passion," adds Stinson, who was raised in the Midwest. "There's such a strength in human nature here, and there's also a naivete and innocence. Haitians are very open at every level."
Stinson is currently involved in a plan to bring lumber and wood to Haiti to help take the pressure off forests that have nearly been eradicated by peasants chopping trees to make charcoal -- one of the few cash crops Haitians can count on.
Flanagan, meanwhile, finds that every trip home to Oklahoma only leaves him eager to return to Haiti with a greater resolve to have an impact here. He is currently working on a project that aims to eradicate hog cholera, but his real desire is to develop a fuel source from paper compost that will also help spare the environment. But he's the first to admit that it's a huge undertaking, the kind that you can only find in a place like Haiti.
"The needs for someone with my skills, veterinary skills, are so great here," he says. "But that also leads you to so many issues that are connected -- issues like roads, education, the lack of farm credit. It just never ends but it's also ultimately rewarding. You feel you're making a difference at some level."
Tim Collie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4375.
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