On February 2, 2010 I embarked on a trip to photograph devastation created by the January 12 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Though created by nature, what I found was reminiscent of a war zone. The earthquake took away what little the Haitian people had, leaving them displaced with only their survival skills to guide them.
My journey began by taking two flights on Spirit Airlines from LaGuardia Airport to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, followed by a six-hour ride through the countryside in an old pickup truck. The car ride was calm and scenic, passing through small towns and farmland. Once at the Haitian border you could feel the tension and desperation in the air. The dusty checkpoints and offices were filled with aggressive con artists posing as border workers who preyed on aid workers and journalists. Military convoys backed up traffic for miles.
I arrived three weeks after the first quake and aid had just started to come into Port-au-Prince at a steady rate. The problem is that there is no real governmental plan on how to cope with the situation. Architecturally speaking, Port-au-Prince is structurally unsafe. Buildings continued to collapse, causing additional casualties. Unsanitary conditions on the streets were causing disease to spread. There was a much-needed United Nations and U.S. military presence in the country, mainly to control food distribution. The Haitian police are mobilized, but overwhelmed by the severity of the situation, and often make decisions that harm their people.
A major problem facing Haiti is how to organize the placement of orphans left behind by the quake. Before the quake, there were 380,000 orphans in this country of 9 million. Since the disaster this number has increased to an undetermined amount. Due to the country's poverty, orphaned children tend to suffer from malnutrition and scant medical care. Medical practice is considered a business, and health insurance is nonexistent. A parent or guardian dying from the harsh realities that plague Haiti such as violence or disease generally causes children's abandonment. Other parents feel they have no choice but to abandon their children for financial reasons.
Prior to leaving for Haiti I arranged to stay on the grounds of a group home for orphaned children, located in Thomassin, a section of the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville, run by Longchamp Charities. This was possible through the help of friends and contacts. Two women, Marjorie Longchamp and Beatrice Brice, work together to keep all aspects of the operation running. Both were born in Haiti, but Longchamp immigrated to the U.S. as a youngster and now works as director of catering and special events for Elite Caterers, which is based in the Empire State Building. Longchamp provides a large portion of the funding through her earnings from the catering business, and spends her spare time co-managing the charity from New York.
Longchamp’s journey to becoming founder of the charity began as a girl growing up in Port-au-Prince. She came from a more fortunate middle-class family, but witnessing the hardships and strife of her nation made a lasting impression. “Although I was still young when I left Haiti, I was old enough to understand the distressed conditions that others my age remained in," Longchamp told me recently. "Upon leaving, I promised my mother that I would one day give back to the country she was born in." Her family later immigrated to Brooklyn.
There is a deep connection between Haiti and Brooklyn. Estimates vary, but approximately 142,000 Haitians live in all of New York City, with 87,000 in Brooklyn – a number expected to swell in the earthquake's wake. As a young adult, Longchamp made several trips to see family in Haiti. She was appalled to see children begging for food and eating out of landfills on a daily basis. Witnessing these scenes made her mission clear: The time for her to give back had come, and Longchamp Charities was started in 1985.
Beatrice Brice, who resides in the Thomassin section of Petionville, is no stranger to hardship. She survived a kidnapping, incurring a gunshot wound in the process, and has had many health problems since then – but continues to pursue her goal of helping the children of Haiti. In the Thomassin community she is known as Bebe and the children call her Mommy. A well-known philanthropist and humanitarian, she contributes funding and runs all on-site operations. The facilities are maintained with a small but dedicated staff.
Brice and Longchamp each raised one biological child, who have since grown to adulthood. Their motherly instinct have also grown into a passion to include many of the orphaned children of Haiti. The two met in Haiti after realizing they had similar goals. Brice had been providing food and shelter to destitute children and families for years. Longchamp finally found a dedicated individual to share in her dream. They combined resources and the charity flourished with the advent of God’s Angels of Hope Group Home, founded in 2001.
Since the beginning of Brice and Longchamp’s partnership a decade ago, they have set up four main programs. God’s Angels of Hope is a group home operating in Thomassin that provides meals, clothing, education and a nurturing environment to 78 destitute children. Taina’s Hope Scholarship program supports 450 orphaned children from kindergarten through college, covering tuition, books and uniforms. Taina’s Hope Childhood Literacy Program targets children 5 to 15 years old whose parents can’t afford the cost of schooling, teaching reading and writing classes as well as basic arithmetic. Taina’s Hope Family Outreach and Feeding Program offers the families of children enrolled in the scholarship program with monthly food supplies and support. The entire organization is called Taina's Hope, after the indigenous Taino people of Haiti.
The children at the group home range in age from newborn to 16 years. The charity takes in as many displaced children as possible, providing them with food, shelter and education. The key goal is to provide a stable environment in an otherwise unforgiving country. Through this stability the children may grow to become productive people with achievable hopes and dreams.
At this juncture only 42 of the 78 children involved with the group home have been accounted for. The remaining 36 are displaced somewhere in Port-au-Prince, or possibly deceased. Brice has been searching the streets in the hope of locating the missing children. One main goal is to rebuild a large portion of the group home that was damaged during the earthquake. Two of their sponsored group homes sustained unrepairable damage. Schools that many of the children attended face upwards of $50,000 in repairs. In addition to seeking donations, the charity also welcomes volunteers to come and work.
Environmentally and culturally, Haiti was meant to be one of the most beautiful places on earth, but somewhere down the road it was ravaged by outside forces and eventually internal corruption. In documenting the destruction of Port-au-Prince, it was sometimes difficult to remain optimistic about the future of Haiti. While photographing in a terminally ill ward of a makeshift hospital, I encountered a mother and two newborn twins. I shot one frame – and then one of the infants smiled at me. I thought to myself, what courage, and felt a representation of Haitian strength right from birth. I see those qualities in the work of Longchamp and Brice. Visiting the group home was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise hopeless situation.
Photographer Michael Hicks lives in Brooklyn Heights.