Even though they are thousands of miles apart, Haiti sometimes reminds me of growing up in Galway

Even though they are thousands of miles apart, Haiti sometimes reminds me of growing up in Galway

By Ailish O’Reilly  Galway Advertiser, Thu, Aug 24, 2017

Ailish pictured overseeing the programmesAilish pictured overseeing the programmes


You either love or hate Haiti, and I loved it from the first trip. My life has changed in so many ways since moving there. My first experience of Haiti was in 2009, when I travelled as part of a group of Irish volunteers with Haven, an Irish NGO working on the ground in Haiti. As part of the trip, we visited a town called Ouanaminthe in the north east of Haiti, where we spent a week working and upgrading buildings.

In some ways, the family network and sense of community reminded me of the 1980s, when growing up at home in Loughatorick in East Galway.It didn’t, however, prepare me for the poverty I witnessed first-hand. We arrived overland from the Dominican Republic and crossed the border around 7pm as night fell.

There was almost no electricity to light any of the surrounding area, and all we could see near the roadside were tin shacks or dilapidated shops and houses. There were people everywhere along the route, with no access to clean water, no toilets, and sleeping on mattresses on dirt floors. After the initial shock, I started to see beyond the poverty to the families in Haiti who have the same priorities as us: food and water; a nice, safe place to live; health; and an education for their children.

Spending time with the people there left a big impression on me.My fourth trip to Haiti came in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake at Léogâne. This visit reaffirmed the positive impact that Haven was having in Haiti. From that time on, I thought that maybe I could play a bigger part.Following this trip, I returned to Galway and left my job in the medical devices industry. I undertook a Masters in Development at the University of Limerick, and headed back to Haiti in 2012, volunteering in community projects before joining Camara Education.

In January 2016, I embraced the familiar red Haven t-shirt as the Programmes Manager. My primary role now focuses on Haven’s training and business development programmes. I work on the small island of Île à Vache, living just a two minute walk from the small village of Madame Bernard. The island lies off the south coast of Haiti with a population of around 12,500 people.

Lack of electricity determines the day

Most people have no electricity, and the daylight hours between 6am to 8pm still govern our day. I work alongside fellow Irishman Damien Meaney, Haven’s Country Director, and the rest of the team, who are from Haiti. Every aspect of our daily routine is integrated with the local way of life. It is very important to immerse with the local community, so I have worked hard to learn how to speak Creole, the local language.

Similar to growing up in East Galway, most people on the island know me by first name. Even though it is thousands of miles away, the parallels are strong. Founded in 2008, Haven works to empower the people of Haiti to build sustainable livelihoods and to live free from poverty, focusing on delivering clean water and sanitation, training and education, and shelter.

Our established Christine Farm and agricultural training teaches farmers new techniques and opens access to seeds, tools and resources, so they can grow crops that will feed their families and sell on the market. Our Vocational Training programme offers market-driven training to vulnerable young women in Port au Prince, supporting them to secure steady jobs and to enjoy a valued role in society.

These and the many other projects we run equip people with the skills to overcome poverty and the challenges they face, including natural disasters, most recently Hurricane Matthew. On Sunday, October 2, 2016 we heard that a Category 4 hurricane had veered north and was now on a direct path for Île à Vache. It hit the following night; the noise of the wind was like nothing I’ve heard before, and rain that hit was nothing I have ever experienced. It was deeply unnerving to hear the scream of the roofs of houses lifting off and disappearing into the storm.

Many families were living in grass huts, or cahutes, across the island. My neighbours had to evacuate their homes in the middle of the night, and we had 17 people packed into my little house. In the morning, the island looked like an apocalypse had hit. Roofs, doors, and walls were blown away or collapsed. People had lost their homes, but luckily not their lives, which was all they could be grateful for in those first hours.

Our team moved into emergency response mode, concentrating on preventing the spread of cholera and starvation, which at the time were the greatest threats to local people. In the immediate aftermath, Haven was the lead agency on the ground on Île à Vache, and worked with the local Mayor and the Civil Defence to get supplies out to the island.

Half a million meals

The response of the Irish public was, as always, amazing. As a result, in the first month after Hurricane Matthew, we supplied 500,000 meals; 60,000 aquatabs; 40,000 sachets of water; 5000 bottles of water; 1,100 tarpaulins in some of the worst affected communities.A month later, Haven turned to recovery, looking for ways to help all the people we work with to restart their livelihoods. In everything we do, our role is a supportive one, empowering people in Haiti to achieve their full potential.

This case was no different.Using materials we supplied and skills they’d learned in our training, local farmers began replanting their farms and gardens; fishermen repaired their boats; families rebuilt their homes. People on the island could see that we were reaffirming our commitment to stay with their communities, and the hope we all needed swelled from that.

After a busy productive and emotional ten months since the hurricane, I’m currently home in Ireland for holidays, catching up with family and friends, celebrating my daughter’s birthday, and even watching a few GAA games!While I’m back, I’ll be working closely with the Haven team in Ireland. We are forming a new enterprise programme by integrating our training and livelihoods development for a stronger, broader impact. On Île à Vache, we have already supported 38 local people to set up their own businesses, and we plan to increase this significantly.

As Haven’s ten year anniversary approaches, now is a good time for our team to reflect on what has been accomplished and look ahead to what the next ten years will bring. Haven instils hope and empowers people in Haiti to create bright futures for their families, and I look forward to continuing my journey in Haiti with the Haven team.

To donate €2 to Haven’s relief effort in Haiti, text HAITI to 50300.?€2 Keyword: Text costs €2. Haven will receive a minimum of €1.63. Service Provider: LIKECHARITY. Helpline: 076 6805278.


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