MOORHEAD — Nestled into a valley in southwestern Haiti is a two-story brick building, untouched by the political violence and recent natural disasters that have left hundreds of thousands of Haitians without homes.
Built primarily with funding from the Fargo-Moorhead area, the 20-acre space will one day be home to a technical school, but necessity turned it into a haven after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck on Aug. 14, said Paul Aladin, who was born in Haiti and is the founder of United Hearts for Haiti, a nonprofit group behind building the school.
Now, the International Red Cross is using the space as a distribution center.
Two days after the earthquake struck, Tropical Storm Grace brought torrential rains and widespread flooding to the area, destroying 61,000 homes, killing at least 2,200 people and leaving 40% of Haiti’s population in dire need, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Further destabilizing the country, the natural disasters followed the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Local gangs roam the country, politicians are corrupt, and some areas like the town of Cavaillon, population 48,687, do not even have a fire brigade, Aladin said.
To an outsider looking in, the economic and political situations in Haiti seem hopeless, he said.
“But I don’t see problems, I see opportunities,” said Aladin, who is also the pastor of the Bridgepointe Community Church of the Nazarene. He splits his time between Moorhead and Cavaillon, a former French colonial town where the schoolhouse is located.
“We the people are here to resolve problems. With solutions, we can bring so much. I see a pile of cars that cannot be fixed. I see garbage in the streets. I see deforestation. I see a bunch of people coming to play basketball," Aladin said. "And for me, all I see are opportunities, and they’re there, we just need the right people.”
Since 2009, Aladin has led United Hearts for Haiti with an original purpose of providing food and aid to Haitians. In 2013, the organization’s vision shifted to focus more on sustaining and training Haitians, to “teach them to fish” instead of giving them a fish, Aladin said.
Most Haitians do not have the opportunity to go to college or learn a craft, he said, adding that he hopes that the technical school will be able to equip students with skills related to welding, sewing, plumbing, electricity and construction in 2022.
With a well for water and generators for electricity, the organization has raised about $25,000 a year mostly from the Fargo-Moorhead area to buy land and build the school.
“Every penny we raised, we put in,” Aladin said.
Not far from the schoolhouse is the Caribbean Sea, laden with lobsters, crab and saltwater fish, he said. The sandy beaches are ripe with mangos, pineapples, coconuts, oranges and bananas, all fruit that the country used to export. Farmers, mostly working by hand, are also experienced with raising sugar cane, but they no longer have a market.
Many of the country’s skilled workers left the war-torn country after political instability continued to hinder the Haitian government’s ability to meet the basic needs of its people, according to Human Rights Watch.
Widespread protests and civil unrest followed the government’s 2018 announcement that it would eliminate subsidies, allowing fuel prices to increase up to 50%.
The unrest and lack of education for many in past decades has deteriorated into gang crime, like the Oct. 16 kidnapping of 17 missionaries by the 400 Mawozo gang. Because of recent violence, Aladin has traveled to Haiti alone, but he plans his routes and security measures before each trip.
“I know the whole country; I preached in many churches. Anywhere I go in this country, I know I am safe and have people who can help,” he said.
When he was a child, “life was better,” but the long-lasting instability has created a gap between his generation and the next, some of whom see no other option than joining a gang to survive.
“Now, it is very difficult to find people who are capable of doing things,” Aladin said.
His plan is to bridge the generational gap and equip locals with skills. He is also seeking local partners to help expand the school and envisions an environment that could not only teach trades, but also train nurses and other specialized skills.
He sees potential in the nearby beach for a resort, a perfect getaway for those tired of long and snowy winters, and he also sees potential to help fill the need for skilled workers in the area.
“The picture most people see on TV is not what Haiti is. It is the people who struggle for a better life,” Aladin said. “I am willing to work with any organization, and they will not regret it. We are capable. We are proving we can accomplish more with less. We just need a stable environment where it’s safe to go.”