On the first leg of our flight to Haiti, a woman announced to me that she was returning home after eight years, overjoyed yet simultaneously somehow dazed. In the same breath, however, as she rattled off all the places she was going to visit (in a sputtering frenzy of spit projectiles landing somewhere between my left cheek and my lower eyelid, taking my mind back to the childhood mantra “say it, don’t spray it!”), her eyes cast down and her tempo slowed as she uttered the words, “…but my country has been devastated far too many times. There is a God, and I know God is watching. Better times are coming our way. Or at least we pray.” While there was hope in that voice, it seemed buried under a reservoir of deep, seemingly insurmountable, despair. But God was there, watching, and taking stock.
As I stood gazing at the people waiting for our connecting flight in Miami, that sense of anticipating seemed ever-present. Everyone there looked exhausted and resigned, either beaten up by the brutality of the early flights, or by challenges that appeared to be met by further challenges. The poorest country in both the northern and western hemispheres, it seems Haiti has been waiting far too long. Too long for a moment of serenity, a moment to catch its breath. But God, of course, is watching.
And then Yusufali showed up; I had never met him before. As he approached the gate in shorts, t-shirt and backpack, there was a certain energy he seemed to carry about him – a purposeful urgency in his step, like much had to be done and invariably there was just not enough time to do it all. On the first impression, Yusufali looked decidedly much younger, more health-conscious than I imagined, without pretenses or airs. His wit was sharp, and he was hilarious. This was going to be an interesting trip, to say the least.
As we began our descent into the local airport, the opulence of Miami transformed into the tin shacks and shanty towns that dotted the naturally breathtaking and jagged landscape of Cap Haitien. Flanked by mountains and the Atlantic, geographically, Cap Haitien is arguably unrivaled in beauty. However, approaching terra firma, something tips in the balance – the beauty from above, from a distance, becomes illusory to the realities on the ground as we fly just above before a smooth landing onto the runway. Disembarking the flight, I feel I have landed somewhere in Africa, perhaps Zanzibar or Songea.
Outside, I was immediately struck by the sights and sounds of this vibrant city. As we dodged motorbikes, stalled buses, oncoming traffic, students, pushcarts, a variety of vendors, and unavoidable potholes, it was clear that this city miraculously worked. “Patience” and “Virtue” were plastered on the sides of buildings; customized pickup trucks boldly emblazoned in vibrant colors with the words “GOD,” “Jesus” and artistic images of the Virgin Mary served as a testament to something greater. God was clearly engrained in the national consciousness, because He made it all work.
Ebrahim, our local guide and Yusufali’s contact in Haiti, was accompanying us from the airport to our hotel. I overheard him telling Yusufali that his expecting wife had lost her baby. As I got to know Ebrahim over the next few days, his sincerity shone through, as did the fact that he wore his heart on his sleeve. I was struck, however, by the void of sentiment or emotion in Ebrahim’s voice when he spoke about losing a child. I found this strange, but perhaps it is indicative of the immunity that lies in the face of constant devastation. This time it was the shattered hopes of a child, another time it may have been the devastation wreaked on by poverty, ill-health, or natural disaster. Ebrahim was, as all of us are, seeking to etch out the best version of himself, but the deck of cards seemed disproportionately stacked against him. What separated me from Ebrahim? Mostly circumstance. I had the good fortune of being born in a place and time, which Ebrahim did not. We were no different, neither more deserving than the other. The disparity seemed unfair, unreasonable.
The streets of Cap Haitien were chaotic. People zigzagged in front of cars, and we clearly stuck out as foreigners. People stared at us and held that stare. As we weaved in and out of traffic, trash lay strewn on both sides of the street, almost ushering us into the city. Plastic bottles, containers, caps – a biodegradable nightmare. Driving at the water’s edge, we could see each wave pull back some of the trash from the shores. I think it was Sohail who mentioned at a later point that he hoped the fish we had been enjoying for dinner came from waters that were much further out.
After a hefty climb, on foot, we reached our hotel, perched upon one of the hills surrounding Cap Haitien. The view of the bay and the city below was breathtaking. Our room, however, was not; one room with a large bed and a makeshift bunk bed – for the four of us. The one disconcerting fact was that the bathroom had no door and this was problematic with four adult males sharing a room. Sohail and I appeared to be most concerned about this issue, but we figured out a clever way of ensuring the room was vacated by the others before either of us needed to use the bathroom. First world problems, clearly. And something I felt ashamed about, having just seen the deep poverty that lay at the foot of our hotel.
Turned out, it was February 14. Yes, Valentine’s Day. And instead of being with wives, or intended Valentines’, the four of us found ourselves sharing a room without a bathroom door in Haiti. Kinda like a honeymoon suite without the honeymoon. And without anyone I’d want to go on a honeymoon with. Life has a way of unfolding in the most unexpected ways. After freshening up, we met Ebrahim and a friend of his, Rizwan. Before venturing out for dinner, the six of us sat to discuss the plan for the next day. Yusufali highlighted that Comfort Aid’s central purpose was upliftment through education. Haiti needed upliftment. And in tandem, it certainly needed education.
Dinner was uneventful, except for the slightly awkward glances our table of six received from passersby with Valentine dates in tow. A brisk walk after dinner, dodging the open sewers amidst a slight hue of light illuminating part of our route, and a trek back up the hill to the hotel served as a good workout before turning in for the night. Looking up, the stars shone brighter here than back home. The air was cleaner. The sky clearer. The city glittered below to the beat of drums and music.
I woke up the next morning, jumped in the shower and headed downstairs for breakfast. We had a big day ahead of us. I thought I was early, but as I entered the courtyard, I saw a sweat-drenched Yusufali completing the final set of 2000+ jump rope skips. He had been up for at least a couple of hours, not going back to sleep after fajr. Note to self, be more active, I thought. Talk about having the wind knocked out of your sails.
We prayed the afternoon prayer at Ebrahim’s house and then headed out to meet with the community members he had gathered together. The overwhelming response from the community members was gratitude – to us for visiting them, for taking their concerns to heart, and their situation so seriously. They were mostly in their 20’s, maybe 30’s. Yusufali explained CAI’s focus on education and then fielded any questions. Each of the guys shared deeply personal stories; this was not an arms-length discussion, everyone was all in, and already emotionally invested. They were reaching out for a metaphorical lifeline, and that too, with all their heart. Yusufali, seasoned at this kind of work, assured them that he was there to help them advance theirs and their children’s well-being and prosperity, that he would walk with them so long as they were willing to bear their share of the burden. They assured him that they were. He pointed out that the “ball was in their court” and they first needed to get organized as a legal entity. If they took the first step to show their commitment, CAI would remain unfaltering in its very own. Some had tears in their eyes; others were quietly listening, all were overcome by CAI’s generosity. Ebrahim was beaming with pride. And a delicious lunch of perfectly seasoned and crispy goat with rice and beans and plantains, although much later than expected, was served – family style, in a large thaali, for all to dig in with their bare hands. The community members once again expressed gratitude to CAI for sponsoring the lunch.
Our final morning began with Ebrahim showing up just after fajr. We were to depart for the airport around 11 am, a good five hours still to go, and so we decided to embark on a hike. Going up the mountain, we were greeted by children going to school, vendors selling breakfast items. And garbage, of course. A lot of garbage piled up on the side of the narrow passage, across the beach, in between the crags that our feet got stuck in as we ascended the hike. Everything glistened in the early morning light. The earth, the water, the tin roofs, the sky. All that glitters is gold, I thought. Everything for a few moments seemed perfectly in tandem, in total harmony. We reached a clearing, the mountain plateaued, and the entrance of a fortress emerged. As we approached, Ebrahim asked that we do so with respect as we were entering hallowed ground – the home of 21 spirits. Gingerly walking through the entryway, I noticed what appeared to be incense burning and a small fire of burning paper. An ode to the spirits perhaps. As Ebrahim entered, his commanding voice called out “Assalam-u-Alaikum,” the customary Muslim greeting, one which he used to greet the spirits. It echoed, reverberating across the open space and what seemed like between time as well, bouncing off the walls, in deep respect and deference to the spirits that resided there. He continued to speak to the spirits, in a tone of great reverence. Awe, respect, fear, pleading, conviction, resignation, and hope converged in the singularity of Ebrahim’s booming voice. It was hope that stood out most boldly in my mind.
A few hours later, we bid Ebrahim farewell at the airport. In those couple of days, I learned a tremendous amount from him. Through the rough and tumble of his experiences, Ebrahim still maintained a refreshing innocence and sincerity, which pervaded everything he did. And perhaps that is why he believed, with all his being, that repeatedly reaching out to an institution many miles away could change the situation for him, his family, his community, and perhaps even his country.
That institution was CAI, and through Ebrahim’s persistence, and CAI’s dedication to aiding those most vulnerable, he and Yusufali did meet on the shores of Haiti. And at that moment, everything that glittered was indeed gold. And the hope that lay in the reverential pleadings with the 21 spirits perhaps coalescing into meaningful fruition. Because, it is hope that embodies the heart of Haiti – through faith in the unknown, in something greater, and for the sake of ourselves and perhaps our sanity. Because there is a God, and I know God is watching.