On the ground in Haiti: Making community connections

Local warehouse owner describes the perils of owning a business

A Haitian family places an order at one of the warehouses George Farah and his family operate in the Port-au-Prince area.

Black Press reporter Katherine Engqvist followed a team representing the Westshore Rotary Club as they travelled to Haiti to assess the needs of two orphanages. The following is the third installment in a four-part series highlighting some of the people they met with along the way.

The truck pulls up to the gate of the warehouse and is stopped by an armed guard, his rifle casually resting against the length of his leg.

If you didn’t know the compound was there, you’d probably drive right past, as it is shielded by a large cement wall topped with barbed wire. On the other side of the wall lies a nondescript loading dock and a dark building with little brown and black goats guarding the door.

Inside, the air is hot and thick; shelves full of alcohol and other specialty items reach almost to the rafters, while stacks of pasta, machetes and juice line the floor. Further into its depths, past where the public is allowed to venture, sacks of rice, flour and cereal are piled in the dim lighting.

With a combined total of roughly 80 mouths to feed between the Divine Hands and Baby Jesus of Prague orphanages, the list of staple and requested items is quite daunting and more than the small local grocery store can handle. It was by chance a group of Westshore Sunrise Rotary Club volunteers discovered the warehouse on a previous trip, as it is near the previous location of the Divine Hands Orphanage in a suburb of Port-au-Prince. Run by George Farah and his family, the warehouse is a regular stop for the Westshore volunteers when they need to stockpile supplies for the orphanages.

“They have been very good to us,” whispers Rotarian and Langford Fire Chief Bob Beckett, as Farah emerges from behind a counter to greet the group.

Armed with shopping lists, Victoria resident Hilary Groos and Doris Abraham, the director of Divine Hands, venture off with a team of store employees. Farah turns to the remaining members of the group, offering special Haitian coffees for the wait. He leads the way through a side door and out to a table, resting in the shade of a large tree. The thick liquid quickly fills the little cups and is swirled with raw sugar.

While Farah grew up in Haiti, he refers to himself as Syrian. His grandfather was born there but fled in the early 1990s because of war. “When (Syrians) left they would tell them they were on the boat to America.”

But Farah said many ended up in Central and South America. “We have family everywhere. My grandpa chose to come here.”

Now, Farah employees 50 people at the warehouse and his brother operates another near the Baby Jesus of Prague facility. The family also plans to reopen a warehouse in downtown Port-au-Prince that was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake.

Looking back on that devastating event, Farah said, “it was like something incredible. We lost a lot of family.” Normally, they would stay late in the store, preparing bank deposits.

But on the day of the earthquake his father turned to them and decided to go home early. “Five minutes later it fell down,” Farah said. “That was the only day he said ‘let’s go, we’ll count the money later.’”

In the desperation that followed the quake, Farah’s world was turned upside down. “We had to go down with arms and everything, otherwise they’d steal everything.”

His brother took the step of moving his wife and two daughters to Montreal. While Farah’s mother has travelled to Montreal two or three times since, she hasn’t been able to get a Canadian visa recently to go visit.

“They’re making it really hard, I don’t know why,” he said. But getting a visa to enter North American countries isn’t easy and it’s out of reach for many Haitians. “You have to have good work and prove you won’t stay there.”

The average wage in Haiti is between $5 and $8 a day and Farah estimated the country’s unemployment rate to be around 70 per cent. Those figures shocked the group. “How do they survive?” asked Rick Fisher, a Langford resident and owner of Glenwood Meats.

“Haitians are good people. They help each other,” Farah answered. As an example, many Haitians can’t get mortgages to build their homes, which is why a great deal are only partially complete. “If I have a good employee that works, I lend him the money with no interest.”

Farah moved his own wife and three daughters to Miami after his wife and one of his daughters were held for ransom. He shakes his head as he shares the experience, noting they would have been killed if he hadn’t been able to pay. “When we used to be downtown it was very dangerous.” Two of their armed guards were killed during a robbery and his brother was injured. “We’ve been through a lot.”

Farah nods to a black Isuzu parked beside the table. “That’s my car, it’s an armoured car.” He spent $30,000 US outfitting it, but said it was a necessary expense.

He also spends roughly $8,000 US a year on medical insurance. That way if he gets sick or shot, which his brother was once, a plane will come get him and whisk him away for treatment in the States. “There’s no good hospitals here,” he noted. “We have full insurance … It’s the most important thing.” As for his mother, Farah said, “I told her to go get her passport.” That way if she gets sick, he’ll be able to take her to America for treatment.

Asked what it will take for Haiti to change, he paused, then said, “to support a good government.” Many officials are millionaires within six months of being elected, he said. “They have money to do all these things, but they steal the money and build a home in Miami (instead).”

He nods to his own import business. In customs fees alone, he pays at least $20,000 US per container.  “I bring 500 containers a year … (and) there’s a lot of businesses like mine,” he said. “Where is that money, where has it gone?”

Final thoughts on an impactful trip

Sitting in the Vancouver airport, waiting for the fourth and final flight home, the team reminisced about the last several days in Haiti before returning to life in the Capital Region.

“It’s easy to dismiss some of the stuff … but it really starts to add up when you look at everything,” Bob Beckett said. “It’s quite a list actually.”

It all starts with buying a meal for the children and sharing that with them, he said, “and that’s (just) a small thing.”

But as he pointed out, what often has the most impact are the connections made. The more you can create relationships with people there, the more invested you become. Using people in the neighbourhood to help accomplish charitable goals also makes them stakeholders and gives them an interest in the project. “All of those value added pieces are important.”

Saanich Coun. Leif Wergeland added his thoughts to the discussion.

“Going down there gets one excited … It’s very (life) changing,” he said.

While in Haiti, Wergeland travelled to a small medical centre and a school further out in the country. In early October, during Hurricane Matthew, the roofs of three classrooms were blown off. After assessing the damage, he agreed to leave money for the repairs.

“I think of the money I waste in my own life,” he said, shaking his head.

When you go on a trip like this you see a lot of poverty and it starts to have an impact, Wergeland continued. “You’d like to help everyone, but you can’t … If we all do a little, together we’ll do a lot and I think that’s so true.”

Fellow team member Hilary Groos expanded on that thought.

With all of the things that need to be addressed just to meet basic needs, she said, it can become overwhelming quickly. Volunteers need to “focus on what you can do and do it well … I see the possibility,” she added.

Rick Fisher nodded in agreement. “Sometimes you have to divide and conquer.” And while the team accomplished what they wanted, he noted, “there’s just so much more.”

And that thought seems to be what keeps these volunteers – as well as those who have joined them on past trips and those supporting them at home – from walking away. While it’s not an easy thought to process, at some point the end will come. Whether that comes in the next year or five, it will come.

But I have seen firsthand the work this group does. The lasting impact they will leave isn’t just immortalized in a plaque that hangs on the wall of the Baby Jesus of Prague Orphanage, it’s in the hearts of those they have met along the way that continue to pay it forward.

For more information on the Westshore Rotary’s work in Haiti, go to helpforhaiti.ca. Part one of this series features the Divine Hands Orphanage, part two features the Baby Jesus of Prague Orphanage and part three features RCMP officers working in Haiti.

katie@goldstreamgazette.com

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