Haiti: A deeper definition of beauty

Last month, Jeannine Adelphin arrived at a meeting in Port-au-Prince wearing a simple plastic tiara and her usual radiant smile. The previous night she had been crowned Miss Disabled Haiti 2010 on national live TV.

Jeannine Adelphin
Jeannine Adelphin was recently crowned Miss Disabled Haiti 2010.
Photo: Aaron Tate/CWS.

By Aaron Tate/CWS

Last month, Jeannine Adelphin arrived at a meeting in Port-au-Prince wearing a simple plastic tiara and her usual radiant smile. The previous night she had been crowned Miss Disabled Haiti 2010 on national live TV. Jeannine, whose arms are small due to a birth defect, competed against nine other women with disabilities, in evening gown and talent portions, where she recited poetry in her impeccable French. The other people at the meeting, all beneficiaries of a CWS-sponsored program for people with disabilities, were excited and proud to have seen their friend, and someone like them, on TV and recognized for her talent, and her beauty.

It's an example of how, despite the earthquake or perhaps because of it, a small movement is growing that establishes the value of persons with disabilities, empowers them to participate in Haitian society, and even deepens the very definition of beauty and humanity. It's a movement that Church World Service is actively involved in, in collaboration with long-time CWS partner Service Chretien d'Haiti.

In Haiti, it is common to think that individuals are disabled due to supernatural forces, either as punishment for a sin that they, or their family, committed or as a result of a curse inflicted by another person. Like the Haitian culture itself, these ideas are shaped by a mix of Christianity and voodoo that emphasizes the root causes of things in the world, and emphasizes supernatural over natural causes. Pastors with whom CWS partners in Haiti report that vast numbers of people in their Christian churches believe that the earthquake itself was a curse from God.

So, it is not surprising that disabled people in Haiti are hidden in the family homes, and not invited out even to church, as families seek to hide what they are ashamed of.

And when 300 people with disabilities are invited to a church for a celebration event, for some it is their first invitation to a place of worship. The group sings songs, hears powerful speeches, and enjoys performances from people like them. One young woman performed a song at a celebration after recounting to the group that her church had not allowed her to perform in the choir because her wheelchair did not fit in with the uniform church choir look.

When Service Chretien d'Haiti staff visit people with disabilities in their homes, apartments or tents, this is typically the first time they have received this sort of visit.

The beauty pageant itself was organized by the Secretary of State for the Integration of Disabled People, one sector of the Haitian government that, despite having little budget and borrowing office space, has shown strong leadership in the midst of crisis. The department, headed by long-time activist Dr. Michel Pean (who is blind), has collaborated well with international organizations, including participating in distribution of CWS Kits to people with disabilities soon after the earthquake. At the same time, Dr. Pean hosts special events and advocates to make Haitian society more accessible and open.

Most of the organizations for disabled in Haiti today focus on physical rehabilitation for those made disabled in the earthquake. Church World Service is the only international organization in Haiti focusing on churches, to integrate and empower people with disabilities. It all started in 2006 when Noel Fernandez, a blind pastor from CWS partner the Cuban Council of Churches visited Haiti and realized the needs in the disabled community there. So, he trained and sent a missionary couple to Haiti, and they joined forces with CWS partner Service Chretien d'Haiti.

Ezequiel Batista, the Cuban missionary, became an apostle for people with disabilities, traveling to churches around Port-au-Prince, preaching the need for them to open their doors to people with disabilities. At the same time, he gathered a group of 12 volunteer "monitors" from the churches, and they went out into the communities to meet people with disabilities. Over the years, hundreds of people with disabilities were touched by the program.

In the days after the earthquake, monitors reported that people with disabilities were struggling to get aid and assistance: When people rush to line up for food, it is inevitable that the person on crutches gets there last. So, CWS worked with Service Chretien d'Haiti to develop a program to give emergency cash, psychosocial support, counseling and micro-business support to these individuals.

With the simple emergency cash, people with disabilities are starting small businesses to survive. There is a woman who had a family of seven, yet is now alone and disabled, after the earthquake killed her husband and six children. With the cash she gets from the program, she has set up a small kiosk, selling candies to people who pass by the plaza where she is living in a tent. Another young woman, who has no arms, confidently announces that she will use the cash to go to school and start a business with her mother.

The goal is that this generally ostracized group gets three things to help them succeed and participate in their community: the empowerment to take action, resources to achieve their goals, and a society that allows them to succeed. The CWS program focuses on empowerment through group celebrations and counseling, and on resources through cash assistance, help with micro-businesses, and house repair. CWS also works with churches and the Secretary of State to help create a more open and just society.

That sense of openness is evident in the displays of confidence people show at celebration events, where people of all kinds gather. Amputees and those born without limbs manage without prosthetics. People made blind by cataracts are led around by friends. Children sit and smile, some with mental disabilities that could in fact be only behavioral or trauma-induced problems. So many of these individuals could potentially benefit from some of the treatments or therapies available in the U.S., but are unheard of in Haiti. So, here as everywhere, people with disabilities focus their energies on living, surviving and even thriving despite special challenges.

Dancing in Haiti
A young man performs a dance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Photo: Amy Gopp.

At one of the monthly celebration events held across Port-au-Prince, a young man comes forward to perform a dance for the group of several hundred disabled people assembled. His legs are withered and unable to hold any weight; he hobbles while using crutches. After dancing a few minutes with his crutches, he throws them down and begins to dance upside down, walking on his hands, and holding his entire body up above him. Next, he is climbing up a thin plastic chair and balancing perfectly on top, his arm muscles straining and his face a giant smile. The crowd goes wild.

Perhaps this is the "new Haiti" that some people have spoken so hopefully about. People with disabilities, often considered the lowest in society, have something to teach all of Haitian society. Haiti today is hurting, it is handicapped, it has lost so much. But these disabled Haitians – the blind person who learns how to navigate without sight, the amputee relearning how to walk, the man learning to dance on his hands – are an example to their nation that it can rebuild, advance and enjoy a good life again.

Media Contact:
Lesley Crosson, 212-870-2676, lcrosson@churchworldservice.org
Jan Dragin, 781-925-1526, jdragin@gis.net


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