Haiti should be a paradise on Earth. Tropical air breathes down from its mountains, rustling the chorus of coconut palms into a gentle surrender of their harvest. Its bountiful coastline offers up a gallery of fish, their chargrilled scent meandering through the placid streets. Voices waft in friendly rhythms.
But you don’t need to explore too far to see that this is far from a paradise.
Daily life here can feel like a momentary interruption in an unabating journey towards devastation. The 2010 earthquake brought Haiti to its feet and to the conscience of the world, but it had been under the grip of destruction for years before. Politics here can, and often does, spill into bloodshed, staining that which it is supposed to serve. Remnants of communities long beyond breaking point cling to existence - smells of putrid, fermented garbage line the outer banks of walkways and streets. In a country that can’t even keep itself clean, what hope does education have?
This is the Haiti that my father remembers. He came from Borgne - aptly pronounced by the locals as “Oh Boy” - a small, indistinguishable town on the north coast. Back then there were no public schools, so if you wanted an education, you had to pay for it. Thus schooling was reduced to the privileged pursuit of the wealthy and the well-connected. If you were neither, you went nowhere.
My grandfather, Rollin, got himself ‘connected’, and in doing so got his son - my father - into a school. It meant a four hour trip over deadly mountain terrain; it meant sending their little boy away to live in the big city of strangers; it meant scraping together every last penny they ever had. When school fees were late, my father would be thrown to the streets, left to wander around in the hope that the money would soon be on its way. It always arrived, and he was allowed back in, in the end.
But ask my father what he remembers, and you’ll hear nothing of the hardship and the struggle. Instead, he’ll speak of luck, of being the only one of his friends that got the chance of school. He’ll speak of opportunity, of progress, of the start point to the rest of his life.
My father completed high school at the very top of his class, but graduated into the merciless dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier. His education had taught him how to read, and that had given him the freedom to think. But Duvalier’s Haiti was not a place for free-thinkers. So in October 1980, my father, along with 132 other Haitian men and women, boarded a boat, heading somewhere in the loose direction of America. They were running away, of course, but my father never described it as an escape. Survival, he would always tell me, should never simply be the absence of fear, but the presence of hope. His hope, as he lay upon that rickety boat, was to live the life of the educated man he had become.
The boat trudged along for eight days, small and overloaded, alone amongst the bullying seas. The exiles survived on slim rations of uncooked rice and sips of water. Finally, Cuba; and for some, far enough, as they scuttled from the shore into the secrecy of a new life. But my father had bigger dreams; 14 days later, they landed in Florida.
A year later, my mother made the same journey. Hers was a quest of a different kind; a single minded mission to secure for her 18-month son the education that she had been denied. She was only 19. She left alone - her baby was to follow weeks later. It took them 17 years of battling the system before they were reunited. The education she had risked her life to get him, gone. But she had succeeded. My sister and I are her proof of that. I am a lawyer, and Patricia will soon graduate with her Master of Arts.
When we were children, my father would take my sister and I to the public library every Saturday. Come rain or shine, he made sure we got a chance to get to read as many books as possible. And my mother would often come home burdened with secondhand books she’d bought from the local thrift store or garage sales. To this day, I have kept them all, an enduring reminder of the world that opens up when you learn to read. Perhaps it is with our father’s words ringing in our ears - of the power of education to change the world - that we have both found ourselves working for Pearson.
My parents’ stories seem so far removed from the life I’ve enjoyed as a first-generation American, that to describe myself as a child of refugees feels odd. Yet that is exactly what I am. I am the children of those risking their lives, right at this moment, attempting the perilous crossing from North Africa to Europe. I am the children of Syria, torn from their homes and their classrooms by war. And I am the proof, that education is both the means and the motivation that can make the difference.
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