Nerlande Antoine, 24, and Bebe Lubin, 21, were already living in an orphanage in Port-au-Prince when the 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti in January of 2010.
Several buildings collapsed in the compound and injured children, but none was killed.
The young Haitians see themselves as the lucky ones. Despite the three years that have passed and all the aid, across Haiti, people still live in ramshackle, slum-style homes and tents, or without any shelter at all. There is little food or clean water and little work.
Nerlande and Bebe had been safe within the high walls of the Renmen Orphanage, where they lived with some 50 other girls and young women. There they were loved and well taken care of in their surrogate family. In fact, they rarely left the compound.
Now, with the help of a dedicated group of Flagstaff volunteers and donors, the pair started school at Northern Arizona University last month along with 19,000 other students.
LED BY ORTHOPEDIC SURGEON
Since the earthquake, Flagstaff has provided a small army of volunteers to the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Helping lead those volunteers is orthopedic surgeon John Durham, vice president of the Northern Arizona Volunteer Medical Corps.
Six weeks after the earthquake, Durham says there were 40 volunteers from Flagstaff in Port-au-Prince working in a tent hospital. They’re still going and have sent 250 volunteers in the years since.
Durham says that our mountain town is number four in international cities sending volunteers to Haitian hospitals, falling behind New York City, Miami, Florida and Calgary, Alberta. And our dollars have been some help, too, thanks to fundraisers organized by NAVMC at the Orpheum Theater and an annual golf tournament.
“We go down on our own nickel. That’s the appeal of the organization,” Durham said, adding that his only cost is a tax accountant. “We’ve got no overhead.”
This weekend, NAVMC hopes to raise a large sum of money in its second annual golf tournament, which is already sold out. Last year, Durham says his group raised $60,000 during the golf tournament. Of those funds, $30,000 was used to build a large fence around the Renmen Orphanage. The remainder was spent on feeding and educating the orphans, who receive two meals a day.
“The kids need some protection,” Durham said. “We’re talking about 50 girls running around in an exposed environment.”
Sex trafficking and forced labor are real concerns in the country, where the U.S. State Department estimates that there are 150,000 to 500,000 restaveks, the term for children doing forced into domestic work.
So is theft. Last week, someone climbed the fence and stole the orphanage’s water pump.
DIRECT AID TO ORPHANAGE
But with Renmen, as well as the other orphanage sponsored by NAVMC, New Life, the nonprofit knows exactly where its money is going. Durham says his group wanted to fundraise after the earthquake, but was concerned about what would happen if they collected large sums of money in Flagstaff and gave it to a group like the Red Cross.
Instead, they went to Haiti themselves and found orphanages that they could get behind.
When the medical volunteers got involved with Renmen, the orphanage was cooking for 65 on a single Bunsen burner stove. The electricity was spotty, the security was lacking and the playground flooded every time it rained. NAVMC remedied that with a 10-burner stove, generator, drainage system and large wall built by volunteers and local labor.
The kids at Renmen leave the compound only under the escort of their “mommy,” a Haitian-American named Florence Thybulle. She turned her house into an orphanage 20 years ago and has been taking care of children and young adults ever since with the help of money from family and friends.
“I didn’t have a mom since I was 6 years old. I just know Florence,” Nerlande said.
Bebe, whom Thybulle took in at age 13, agreed.
“We call her mom because when we were little girls she took care of us. We all live like family.”
INTENSIVE ENGLISH FIRST
Thybulle will fly into Flagstaff today to attend the golf tournament and check in on the two young women she helped raise.
Nerlande has now spent much of the past year in Flagstaff, but for Bebe, the start of the school year represents her first time out of Haiti and away from the comfort of her Renmen family. Coming to America has been a great transition for them both.
The Haitian students will complete NAU’s Program in Intensive English and then begin their studies as undergraduates.
Sitting in Durham’s high-end home north of the hospital with Durham’s wife, Lisa Jobin, the students are wide-eyed with bright smiles. But they come across as shy in conversation, like any traveler to a new country still learning confidence in the language.
They say they love Haiti and don’t want people to see their country in a negative light. They both love and deeply miss their homeland.
“The transition from Haiti to Flagstaff — orphanage living in a room with 30 other girls to having their own room, leaving behind friends and family, 100-degree temps with 100 percent humidity, to monsoons and cold temps, as well as becoming independent adults — carries stresses that you and I cannot even imagine,” Durham said.
To them, the NAU campus seems bigger than all of Haiti, they say.
VOCATIONAL TRAINING, TOO
Both have access to a large support network and are succeeding so far in their homework and studies. Nerlande is staying with Durham and his family and Bebe is staying with another family of NAVMC volunteers. Their success in their studies will be crucial to their futures, as they both must complete the Program in Intensive English before they can move on to their majors at NAU.
Now, the other students at the orphanage say that they want to go on to college, too.
And NAVMC has been able to provide money for vocational training for some of the children. There are five currently receiving post-high school training. There are students in communications, computer science, and hotel and restaurant management.
“What we’re trying to do is find a way for these kids to get out and get employed,” Durham said.
And for the few they can help, it’s working.
Haiti hopes to rebuild a tourism economy and HRM training is a good bet for young people looking for jobs. One young woman they sponsored has completed a six-month program and is already employed at a hotel. Another student is working in radio.
“We’re starting to see not only that they’re going to school, but that they’re getting jobs and it’s actually working,” Durham said.
HOSPITALITY AND MEDICINE
Nerlande will major in HRM and hopes to open her own restaurant in Haiti serving her country’s staples — fried foods like plantains and spicy chicken. She’d like to use some of the money to support her family at Renmen, she says.
Bebe will have a much longer educational path, but she also hopes to help her country. She will pursue a premedical undergraduate degree and study to be a doctor, like Durham.
And for the Durham family, already home to two 21-year-old sons, their connection to Haiti will be strengthened next month when they take custody of Annabelle Durham, a 4-year-old girl the couple formally adopted last week. The adoption is a culmination of a dozen visits by Jobin and two years worth of paperwork and clearing hurdles.