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Idealistic volunteers

makalaforster's picture

My junior year of high school I became a volunteer member of an organization called Helping Hands Noramise (HHN), which was founded after the earthquake in 2010 that devastated most of Haiti. HHN was founded by a Haitian woman who was living in my community at the time, named Rosedanie. She put together a group of 10 volunteers, half were students from the high school, to fundraise and collect donations (money, school supplies, art supplies, medical supplies) that we then proceeded to bring as offerings to the people of a city in northern Haiti, called Limbé. With our multitude of suitcases and bursting with enthusiasm to provide our assistance, our good intentions were quickly curtailed when we landed in Limbé. At the time, I was overwhelmed by my disappointment that I was often viewed as nothing more than an ATM machine, and that my little Creole was laughed at. There were so many positive aspects of the trip, such as building a school garden, working alongside local residents to clean the streets of trash, and providing materials for a cholera education campaign. 

But I couldn't help but wonder if these feelings were one-sided. I had a challenging experience, and yet wonderful at the same time ... but then returned home to an entirely different reality than Limbé. When I wasn't englufed in a feeling of fascination and enjoying the pure novelty of a new experience, I was tired and conflicted: what are we doing that is going to last? why should these people listen to the 'moun blan' / white person? When we walked down the neighborhood street that we stayed in, the first few days people stopped, stared, and children pointed and whispered.  

We did our best to learn Haitian Creole, and connect with the community members on a more personal level, but in the end we were only there for two weeks - not enough time to create a lasting friendship. However, our efforts were partially lasting, as the center we established provided a space for the artists of the community and other community leaders to come together and plan and discuss their visions for bettering their shared community. 

This was one of many experiences that made me look back at my own community. By keeping one hand outreached to other communities, I can keep my other hand involved in my own community and the issues we face. Looking back, I realize how I did not know how to express the issues of ethnicity in relation to power. My perspective now accounts for a conflicting understanding of international work. Today I see humanitarian aid as perpetuating neocolonialism in many circumstances, but that does not give me any answer in relation to the concepts of solidarity that I also believe are necessary for international and national collaboration.