In this episode of A Show of Hearts, Jeff Feldman shares his experience working in Haiti for over a year and a half in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in 2010. We talk about what it was like to be on the ground at the time, the many misconceptions about Haiti and acts of strength he witnessed in the wake of unimaginable hardship. We discuss the darkness but also the light – the magic of Haiti, the resiliency and pride of its people and a culture steeped in mysticism and creativity. Inspired by this creativity, Feldman produced a show of Haitian art called the Haiti Art Expo that drew attention to art from the area and raised funds for relief. Also hear a hilarious, eye opening story at the end about what we see on the news that may or may not be true. Feldman is a dear friend and, in addition to continuing to advocate for Haiti, is the Senior Vice President of Uribe Construction, which designs and builds commercial and residential real estate in Miami.
Resources mentioned in the episode:
“Why Haiti Needs New Narratives: A Post Quake Chronicle” by Gina Athena Ulysse
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RP: You’re listening to A Show of Hearts, the podcast about finding the courage to live a deep and magical life. I’m your host, life coach, Rosemary Pritzker.
Speaker 2: (singing)
RP: My dear friend, Jeff Feldman, and I met at a sustainable business conference in Tucson almost 13 years ago. He’s the Senior Vice President of Uribe Construction, which designs and builds both commercial and residential luxury real estate in Miami, but what Jeff and I are focused on in this episode is his passion for Haiti and particularly his experience working there for a year and a half after the massive earthquake that happened nine years ago on January 12th, 2010.
RP: When we sat down to talk last year, Pres. Trump had just called Haiti a shithole country, and Anderson Cooper had a strong emotional response on CNN. We picked up the conversation there. I’m just wondering what your response was to that video of Anderson Cooper, how it felt to watch it.
JF: There’s too much emotion wrapped up. I was watching him go through this, and I was like, “You Know What?” I turned the TV off. I just turned the TV off, because I knew where he was going. I knew where he was coming from, and I didn’t really want to be there in the moment, and because my anger, I was so furious, and to see the leader of the United States make such a terrible and awful and completely false type statement like that was infuriating. I just had to turn it off.
JF: He’s not the only person. A lot of people have the completely wrong picture of what Haiti actually really is. I mean, most people don’t really understand it. The visuals that we see on television here for the last 30 years have been of struggle and strife and despair, and there’s just so much more to it than that. It’s such a special place. It’s so different from anything that you’ve ever experienced. I mean, it’s one of the happiest and most beautiful and fruitful places as much, as they send the message that it’s not.
RP: Jeff spoke of the dignity and resilience of the Haitian people despite all the negative narratives about Haiti in the international press.
JF: I mean, these people are … Many of them go to sleep every night with less than a dollar to their name, millions of people, and particularly those in the capital in Port-au-Prince, but you can take everything away from them, their homes. You could take away jobs, food. You could take everything away from them, but you cannot take away their dignity. They’re the most dignified people. They’re the strongest willed people. They’re the most resilient people I believe anywhere in the planet.
JF: If you were to look in any of the shanties or any of the homes or anything in Haiti throughout, you’ll see that they’re completely organized. They’re clean, top to bottom. The shoes are by the front door. The spices are on a rack. I mean, the places, they are just … Their fingernails are always clean. Their teeth are always clean. Their hair is always brushed, and that’s something that just runs through the entire population of that country. There’s just pride in yourself and dignity, and you can’t take that from them.
RP: What was your relationship to Haiti like before the earthquake?
JF: Well, it goes back to about when I was 12 years old, which is now 30 years. I was always, as a kid, working. I was a busboy in South Florida. I worked for a friend’s father’s diner as a 12-year-old, and all the dishwashers were Haitian, and I was a busboy, so my job was to bring the dishes back to the dishwashers. They were these unbelievably unique and different people. I also grew up in white suburbia, so they were the first black people that I really knew in mass.
JF: I mean, there was definitely a few black kids throughout my schooling and all this other stuff, but this was an entire group of people, and they were from some island offshore. Being the way that I am, of course, I wanted to be their friends and learn their language and ask them how to say certain things, and they were the sweetest and the nicest and the kindest people. Even the ones that didn’t speak English, we had this unspoken, just affection for each other. It was part of the reason why I studied French in school growing up.
JF: From being a busboy and then just throughout the course of my life, I’ve always been drawn to them, to Haitians. Then, in 2006, I actually went the first time to go surf, one of my buddies I went to high school with, a couple of Haitians that grew up here in Miami. They lived back in Port-au-Prince. Their family business is in Port-au-Prince, and so we all went down to surf. I went 2006 for New Year’s. 2007, we went back. I toured all over the countryside, off-road, surf, Safari, crazy, driving down goat paths, the whole thing. It was wild, wild.
JF: In 2008, there were four hurricanes that had, in sequence, one after the other, passed right over Haiti and just absolutely annihilated Haiti, killing thousands. I should say thousands of people, but lots of people, stranding thousands of people, killing livestock, destroying crops. I mean, it just really was devastating, and I started a local supplies relief campaign, and then this thing happened a couple of years later, and I was a go-to guy after my experience there.
RP: When the earthquake happened, what motivated you to go?
JF: When we started our supply chain rally here in Miami Beach, there came a point in time where we had personally delivered so much stuff, pharmaceuticals, clothing, feminine hygiene products, medical products, just, I mean, so much stuff. We had transported dozens and dozens and dozens of aircrafts over the course of the first five days after the earthquake, that I said to the people with whom we were coordinating this at UM, University of Miami, “Whose, what’s happening with this stuff when it hits the ground? Where is it? How is it getting dealt with?”
JF: The answer was, “We don’t really know.” It’s a disaster, and it was. I said, “Well, what if I can rally a group of eight of us to go down and sort it out, figure it out?” The answer was, “When can you go?” and so we went the next day.
RP: What happened when you got there?
JF: Well, we were on the first commercial airliner that was able to land at the airport. It was the first five days. The airport was destroyed. The actual physical building, the airport was destroyed and closed. The runway was unknown whether or not it was working or not working, but planes started landing there, and the US military got there very quickly. We were on the first commercial airliner that was chartered to get as many supplies, but also critical people down there to administer, I mean, from aid to prayer to security. I mean, you name it.
JF: I was on an airplane, that you couldn’t make it up if you tried. There were priests, nurses, doctors, mercenaries with weapons, animals. I mean, you name it. It was crazy. The eight of us, our group from Miami Beach, we went down there, and as we were landing, before we touched down, I circled the group up and said, “Listen. When we land, when this plane touches the ground, there’s not going to be somebody here landing this plane and telling you, okay, welcome to Haiti, and unloading our bags and unloading the belly of the aircraft that was loaded to the gills with supplies.”
JF: I said, “It’s going to be us. When we get off the plane, we’re going to be first off the plane, and we’re going to control the area around this aircraft,” which is exactly what we did. We unloaded the plane. We told all the people to stand over here and don’t move. Then, we started to daisy-chain all of the materials off the aircraft. As we saw people’s names on it or organizations’ names or whatever it was, people claimed it, and they took their stuff, and then they moved along.
RP: What did it feel like to instantly have that responsibility on your shoulders?
JF: It’s just the way I’m programmed. When there’s a situation, I’m the guy that jumps into the burning car in the accident. I’m the guy that takes control of a situation.
RP: Why is that?
JF: It’s just the way I’m programmed. I don’t really know any other way. It’s just how I am. One thing I’ve always known is, if you look the part and you act the part and you think you’re the part, then people will give you the part, and so I just looked the part and took control. There came a point in time, a very, very quick point in time after touching down there, that I personally was one of the main people at the airport, where all of the aid and recovery and rescue missions were originating from within the capital.
JF: The airport grounds were, was ground zero for that. It was closed, and it was protected by the US Air Force, and there were groups, search and rescue, aid groups, and I don’t really mean NGO’s like the Clean Water people or the Save the Children people or school … I’m talking rescue teams that go into, from South Africa, from Qatar, from Australia, from all over the world. The airport had a capacity of, I think it has a maximum capacity of 160 aircrafts landing and leaving per day.
JF: It was maxed out for weeks, aircrafts from all over the world, from small private jets to Russian Antonov’s and US military C-17’s and C5’s and the biggest aircrafts you can imagine filled, filled with supplies and nobody there really to claim it, which is where we started to fill in the blanks. We just started claiming things off of the plane. If there wasn’t somebody standing at the base of the plane, which there almost never was, the Air Force was tasked with taking the materials off the plane and putting it in the middle of the infield, so we just started taking stuff.
RP: What was that experience like, witnessing the whole world coming in to help?
JF: It was unbelievable. I remember seeing the Red Crescent from Turkey, the aircraft from Brazil, from Qatar, from South Africa, from all over the world. It was incredible, I mean, absolutely incredible. Actually, the first aircraft I remember landing in Haiti after the earthquake from another country besides the United States was China. China and Haiti do not have diplomatic relations, because Haiti has relations with Taiwan, and Taiwan will … China will not accept a country that has relations with Taiwan.
JF: The first country to land a plane was China. They literally dropped several humongous crates of whatever the heck was in it, and they were just sitting there for days and days and days. Finally, we said, “You know what? No one’s coming to get this stuff.” It was actually the Chinese materials that made us realize, no one’s picking anything up. If it’s not picked up, it’s just being taken to the middle of the infield.
JF: No, it was just otherworldly. It was surreal. I was so hopped up. I worked, I literally worked 20 hours a day. I would probably sleep four or five hours in a cot.
RP: Jeff had a connection to someone who managed private jets, so he could get people, supplies and himself in and out of Haiti. After you got there, how long did it take before you got a really clear picture of the magnitude of what was going on, and was there a moment where it hit you?
JF: I mean, it was instant. When we landed on the runway and as we were flying in, you can see Port-au-Prince from the airplane. I mean, I actually saw the national palace collapsed from the airplane. When we touched down, and you can see the total mayhem happening inside the airport, and then an airport that I had been to collapsed, but it was when I got on the truck that drove us back to the hospital site, and I could see the infield was starting to fill up with stuff, and all the camps, people were burning fires.
JF: I mean, it was like this crazy, Mad Max, Burning Man disaster, insanity that I just couldn’t comprehend. Well, the national hospital was 60% to 70% destroyed. They closed the gates, because they didn’t have a way to handle the number of people who needed to come in. There were bodies piled up out in front of the gates of the national hospital. I stumbled into the triage area / recovery area for people who had been brought into the airport, and it was the United Nations airbase, and it was inside of a hangar.
JF: I went there to find baggage from our plane that didn’t make it off, and I stepped into this room full of people. People were crying. People were wailing. People had bandages on their heads. People had arms missing. It was nighttime. It was hot. It was crazy, crazy, and I remember seeing a little girl, was probably 12 or 13 who had part of her head smashed, and that was when I finally first realized, “Holy moly, this is real. These are the people. These are the actual humans who live here who were impacted by this.”
JF: It was about two or three days later that the hospital that we were putting together at this campsite, for lack of a better term, on the airport grounds were all 200 people who had been, medical conditions of whatever. I mean, there were people having their arms amputated, their legs or whatever. We had to have this hospital up and running, built, air-conditioned, wood floors, the whole thing by a Thursday or whatever the day of the week was. We had 200 people transported from the UN airbase to this tent, and we literally were carrying bodies on people, patients on stretchers into this makeshift hospital.
JF: I was like, “My God, this person is so messed up. This person’s arm is off.” Then, these were just days after the earthquake, and people were still being found. In fact, I saw the very last survivor that they found. I believe it was 16 days after the earthquake, and I saw them, I saw them bringing her into our hospital.
RP: Did she make it?
JF: Yeah, she did. I think she was inside of the famous Caribbean market. The entire market completely collapsed, killing basically almost everybody inside, and she was trapped in a pocket, and she was surrounded by food, so she was just eating and drinking. Eventually, two weeks later, they got to removing the rubble from around her. She wasn’t well. I mean, she was severely hurt and dehydrated and, but she lived.
RP: You’ve given a picture of what it looked like for the injured people, the people trying to help, et cetera, down there, but what happened to you down there?
JF: That’s a really big question. It was life-changing. I mean, that’s the shortest, quickest answer. It was life-changing. We throw around the terms, “Gosh, it was a disaster. How was the party at your house last night? It was a disaster. I mean, my plate, my house is a disaster.” You don’t know what a disaster is until you’re in one, and this thing, it was a catastrophe of epic proportions.
JF: There were 250,000 people who got killed and another 250,000 people who were severely wounded. There were so many dead bodies, that the Haitian government, rightfully so, made the decision to literally scoop them up with machines and dump them into dump trucks and bury them outside, way outside this, about eight to 10 miles outside of the city limits. It sounds inhumane. It sounds terrible, but it had to be done, and they, if I’m not mistaken, I believe they burned them.
JF: It was the right thing to do. As terrible as it sounds, it had to be done. There were too many dead bodies. You can’t let them just sit in the city and decompose, and there was nowhere to put them.
RP: An estimated 300,000 people died as a result of the earthquake that struck Haiti. Not everyone agrees that burying the dead in mass graves was a humane response. Many people still don’t know where or how their family members died or where their remains are. Shortly after the earthquake, Haitian anthropologist and artist Gina Athena Ulysse wrote, “The Haitian government treats the dead the way they treat the living,” and describes these mass graves as a human rights abuse.
RP: On the flipside, having all these dead bodies lying around was unsanitary. They needed to be removed for the health and safety of the living. One could argue that there just were not the resources to dispose of these bodies in a more humane way. There were just too many, and all efforts needed to go towards helping the living since the dire need was so great. Either way, it was a tough call.
JF: People say, “Why didn’t they do this?” or, “Why didn’t …” There is, and I always said the following, “There was no they.” When this thing went down, there was no they. There was no, “Why don’t they help us? Why don’t they open this? Why don’t they do …” There was no they. They were half dead.
JF: It didn’t discriminate between rich and poor and neighborhoods or areas. Everything everywhere was destroyed, and wherever you were, if the building collapsed, you were dead. A lot of the politicians and a lot of the leaders of Haiti fled. They literally got on airplanes and flew to the Dominican or helicopters flew to the Dominican. They just got the hell out of there. It was total mayhem.
RP: What did it feel like to have everything be so out of control, so out of your control?
JF: Well, I mean, that’s why I took control. I took control of an area that I could control, and that I was given that control, because everybody was so busy doing what they do. If you were a surgeon, you were operating. If you were a truck driver, that’s what you were doing. You’re using your truck. Everybody was in on helping however they could.
JF: Of course, there were always, there’s always forces of evil, and there’s always people trying to look for ways to profit. I didn’t fault any of the Haitians who were looking to steal food or any of that stuff. They were just looking to feed their families or their children or whatever the case may be. There were lots of instances where trucks would be taken or stolen or containers would be taken or stolen and then sold to the Dominican. All kinds of stuff like that was happening too, but I couldn’t concern myself with that.
JF: I was concerned with the area that I had an immediate impact on. We had … We were saving lives. I mean, that was the thing, is get the hospital up and running. At one point, very, very quickly after arriving there, I had 77 Haitian volunteers who were desperate to volunteer, because it means, it meant that they got fed twice. They were also safe inside the airport grounds, and it was crazy. It was crazy.
RP: I remember you telling me, that after you got there with your group of eight, what was it? Five days later, the rest of them all left? What gave you the guts or the courage or the bravery or whatever you want to call it to stay there despite how enormous it was and how intense it was?
JF: I just think I’m just built for that stuff. I’m just, I’m tough like that, and I also knew that, and I felt that if I didn’t continue to do what it was that I was doing every single day, that it may not, and I’m not saying that it wouldn’t, probably wouldn’t, but it may not get done. I knew that the role that I had was so critical, that I had to keep doing it to make sure that, that little space that I controlled was taken care of. Even since I was a kid, I was volunteering.
JF: When hurricane Andrew struck in the early 90’s, I drove around my neighborhood and did my own little canned food drive. Then, I went with the food supplies down to Florida City, which was another … By the way, the first disaster zone I ever saw was Florida City, a stop on the way from South Florida to the Keys that I’d make every year at least once or twice to go fishing and hang out during the summer. Florida City was completely flattened, completely and utterly flattened. The only standing building was the Burger King.
JF: I saw that at, I don’t know, 13 or 14, and that was the beginning of my service and feeling like I have to help people. That, not only do I feel like I have to help people, I actually enjoy it. It feels good.
RP: Do you feel like you need to do that?
JF: Yeah. I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t … I’m not one to stand around and watch. I made a lot of sacrifices to be there. It took a toll on me physically. It took a toll on me emotionally.
JF: Yeah, definitely, but I did it, because I knew it was the right thing to do. People needed it, and I hadn’t really see an option. I just did … There was no option. There was no, “What the hell was I going to do?” Just … I remember one of the first few times I came back home for a few nights. I’d come home for two nights, three nights, a week, once in a while. A friend of mine was in town for Massachusetts, and he said, “Hey, let’s go to dinner. Where do you want to go?”
JF: I said, “I really don’t care. You pick it.” He said, “Let’s go to Joe’s Stone Crab,” which was one of the nicest restaurants anywhere in Miami. It’s very expensive. It’s delicious. It’s fantastic. They’re famous for stone crabs. I said, “Okay. That’s fine. Sure.” I remember just being bummed I was there. I felt terrible about the amount of money we were spending. I remember looking out the window and just fantasizing, daydreaming a little bit of, “Here we are, 750 miles away from utter catastrophe, from complete devastation, suffering.”
JF: People were living on sides of hills, because there was just, there was a place. There was space. People were living under tarps and tents. People were living in squalor, in mud and rain. I knew a guy who lost two of three of his children. I mean, the list goes on and on and on and on, and here I am having a $60 dish of stone crabs and an $18 cocktail, and I’m just like, “Man, it’s just, this doesn’t feel right.” It took a while for me to come back from that.
RP: Is there one experience that sticks out in your mind that was the hardest thing that happened to you down there or the hardest thing you witnessed?
JF: There’s so many. It’s hard to really know, but I actually watch a 10-year-old girl die literally right at my feet. I walked up on it, and I always say, in Haiti, when this was all happening, “Wherever you were, there you were, and if something was happening, when you were there, you were on it.” It was you. That was your thing, and I just walked into the doorway of the hospital. All of a sudden, this girl went down on the floor.
JF: I remember, there was a couple of local US doctors and then two Israeli doctors, and everybody circled this little girl. It was like, “She needs blood. She needs blood.” I said to the Israeli doctor, “Take mine.” He said, “We don’t know what her blood type is.” I said, “I don’t care. Just try it. She had lost so much blood.” I said, “Just try it. Take mine. Just do it.”
JF: I’m not a doctor, so I don’t know if that’s even possible, but they said, “No, we can’t. We just, we can’t.” She literally, her eyes rolled back in her head and closed, and she expired on the floor at the feet of five men. That was definitely not easy to watch, but I remember, at that moment, I was like, “Okay. Well, she’s dead, and I’m busy,” so I ran off to the next thing that I was in the middle of doing to begin with, and I didn’t really think twice about the fact that I just saw a 10-year-old girl die.
RP: Did it hit you at some point later?
JF: There was a lot of stuff that happened just like that, that there was no time to think about, there was no time to process. I remember having a Blackberry at the time, and my dad would text me saying, “Make sure you take time to process. Make sure you take time to think about all this stuff and let it out.” I was like, “I’m too busy, dad. I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” or whatever, texting about it.
RP: I think I was texting you the same thing.
JF: I was just like, “God, people, don’t text me. I’m not taking pictures. I’m not sending pictures. I’m busy.” Yeah. There was a time where it was about 8:00 or 9:00 at night, and I was standing in a moment of just calm, and there was control and quiet among the camp, this hospital camp, and I was standing outside, and I heard the sound of people singing, coming from inside the hospital. It was like, it was a beautiful gospel-type Haitian gospel.
JF: They sing about God a lot. That’s why, naturally, I walked in just to see what was going on, coming from this hospital, where during the daytime, you hear people’s arms getting sawed off. I walked in, and there’s 200 beds and people. See, Haitian people don’t necessarily have nurses at their bedside. They have their family at their bedside. Their family is their nurse when they’re in a hospital. You have 200 patients, and you have at least 200 other people sitting next to them.
JF: There’s 400, 500 people inside of this tent, which was packed. By the time I walked in, the entire place was singing this song, which I would give anything to know what song it was, and it was so beautiful. I had heard it twice, and it was so unbelievable and so beautiful, that at that moment, that was the first time I, it all hit me. “What the hell happened here? How am I standing in the middle of this? This can’t be real,” and I just completely lost it.
JF: I mean, I just cried like I probably had never cried before, and just, I mean, it was like I wept. The guy who was my right-hand man, who walked next to me everywhere I went to help me translate and to help me get this and do that, put his arm around me, and I just, I cried even more. He was crying, and I was crying, and everybody was crying, and people were singing. It was just, it was out of body. It was unimaginable.
RP: Yeah. I remember you telling me that there were two times that you broke down like that. What was the other time?
JF: The other time was, every morning, the airport was locked off, closed off, and every morning, there were, I’d say thousands, but certainly hundreds of people, if not thousands of people, at the gate, the main entry, trying to get into a driveway gate to get into the hospital, because they knew that there was medical care. There was food. There was water. There was life. There was safety, security, so part of what I had created on my own was a volunteer task force of Haitians, that I had a list of their names, and I had them on two shifts.
JF: I had a morning, a 12-hour morning shift and then a 12-hour afternoon overnight shift. One morning, I went over to, early on, early on, I went over to the gate. The Air Force opens the gate. There’s thousands of people very orderly standing. They’re not running in. The gates opened. They’re all standing there and everybody yelling my name, “Mr. Jeff, Mr. Jeff, I speak English,” flashing resumes, “Please, I work, I work, Mr. Jeff.” Then, once my name was known, they all knew it, so everybody, “Mr. Jeff, Mr. Jeff,” but I knew I was looking for my list.
JF: The Air Force guys would give me a bullhorn, and I would start calling out my names, and I would see their arm reaching through this wall of people, and I would literally grab their arm and pull them through the people. I would tell them, “Stand right here and don’t move.” Then, I, so I’d get the first batch of 35, 36 people out of this crowd at about 7:00 in the morning, and I would literally march them single file from the gate to the back of the hospital. Somehow, I known. I don’t know how they ever did it. They were very crafty.
JF: I would count when we got to the camp, before we walked in, and there’d be an extra one. I don’t know where they came from, how they got in and how they got in the line without me seeing it, but there’d always be an extra guy. One morning, there were two extra guys in the line. Somehow, they got in, and I was like, “You guys know. You can’t stay here. You have to leave,” and they were … “Don’t make me call the guards on you.” They both said, “No, please. We’ll work. I speak English. We’ll work. I’ll do whatever you need.”
JF: I’m like, “No, no, no. We got plenty of people. We got too many people. You got to leave. Don’t make me, don’t get me upset.” They were like, “Please, we have children. We need milk. I need to work. I need to be able to feed them. Don’t make us go back out there,” and I was like, “Don’t make me cry. You’re going to make me … You have to …” They were like, “Please don’t make us leave,” and I was like, “Please leave.”
JF: They were like, “We can’t leave.” I was like, “You have to leave.” Then, I just started to well up, and one guy put his arm on me, and then I just, that was it. I sat down on this wall, and I put my hands in my face, my face in my hands I should say, and I just cried uncontrollably. These are humans. These people eat, breathe, drink like we do and love their family and their kids like we do, and they’re desperate. They’re desperate, and I can’t make them leave.
JF: I just all came up and out, and I just, it was the second time that this happened to me when I was there. From that point on, I was just like, “All right, man. You just got to be made of steel.”
JF: Because there was too much sadness. There was too much to spare. There was too much desperation. There was too much pain, and you just can’t feel it. You have to just not feel it. You’ll feel it eventually. You don’t need to feel it now. Right now, it’s about the business.
RP: Did you find space to feel it later?
JF: I think so. I mean, what I found is, that it became the topic of conversation for everybody that I knew for so long, that it was like all they ended up talking about, but I was never really able to tell the stories of what I experienced, because there was too much story to tell. There was too many things that happened. I have potentially, I don’t know, forgotten about more than I could ever remember because it was 24 hours a day for almost a year and a half of stories.
JF: Good, bad, fun, funny, scary, threatening, all kinds of stuff that have just became part of, I guess, my life, and so I don’t know. I think so.
RP: Was there an element too of when you were talking about the guys that you couldn’t turn away. One of them putting their arm around you, et cetera. It reminds me of soldiers in the trench together in war where they’ve got this shared experience, camaraderie, shared purpose, a sense of belonging and seeing each other that you couldn’t possibly have shared with the people here sitting like wanting you to share your story.
RP: Like I imagine telling the story to people who had never been there, who couldn’t begin to comprehend it? I don’t know. You tell me. What did that feel like?
JF: I’m not a soldier. I’ve never been a soldier. I’ve obviously never been to battle but I can tell you that in my mind, this is the closest thing to it that you could ever imagine. There absolutely was this feeling of we’re all in this thing together camaraderie, this brotherhood, sisterhood, of course. It also led to some confrontations as well because I felt, if you weren’t onboard with the way we’re moving this thing forward, you need to get the hell out of the way.
JF: There were a few instances where people would come in because it became regular where there were flights to bring people in who wanted to help and volunteer. Doctors, nurses, medical support type people but then also just regular people who wanted just to volunteer. What ended up happening was once it stabilized, people started to come in because they wanted to see it.
JF: That hurt. That really pissed me off. It upset me. I didn’t want them around. I didn’t want to see them. People came with cameras. They’re taking pictures. They were becoming disaster tourists. I can tell you that back in those days, I had problems with people who were trying to create a fame for themselves using the situation. I definitely was angry at people who were using our success.
JF: I say success based on lives saved, help given, aid rendered, and people were using at us, hey, look at this group I’m a part of. Look at me, look at me, look at me. I’m going, “Man, look at you on my effing back. Look at you on the tears and the blood of all these thousands and thousands and thousands of people who are literally dying over here and you’re patting yourself on the back because of it?”
JF: I’m going, “No, that’s not.” That upset me. To this day, it makes me mad that people did that. They don’t do it now because it’s not fashionable but when it was fashionable, people used it to propel themselves to … They were clogging up the operation because they were eating our food, drinking our water, sleeping on our beds.
JF: Then the media hype coming through and celebrities passing through and I’ll never forget John Edwards who, at the time, was going through his marital, whatever the heck he had done. He came through and I remember telling him to get the hell out of here. Geraldo Rivera came through and was doing some sensational piece.
JF: I remember telling him to get the hell out of here. Then I saw Sean Penn walk through. He walked through with a very determined look on his face. His hat pulled down low, a group of people walking alongside of him and then they came in. They came out. He wanted to see what was happening. A couple days later, I’d heard that Sean Penn had started a camp up in the hills of Port-au-Prince in a neighborhood called Pétionville.
JF: Actually, at the Pétionville Country Club and so that was where the 182nd Airborne Division was bunking down to. Penn had linked up with the commander of that group, 182nd Airborne and basically said, “I’m not here for TV ratings. I’m not here … I’m here to work. I’m here to work. I’m here to help.” That they said, “If you mean what you say, you can stay with us and make this your camp.” He did.
JF: He made good on what he said he was going to do and they created a camp and what ended up happening was there were 60,000 people who amassed on the hillside of this golf course. J/P HRO was founded by Sean Penn and became a very central location for aid. This was in a time when there was no communication throughout the country.
RP: Jeff began working closely with Sean Penn and moved his own base of operations to Sean’s Pétionville camp.
JF: There came a point in time where I said, “Hey, this is where I need to stand. I’m doing all this stuff in Haiti. I need a place to centralize and I’m going to work here. I’m going to help.” We trusted each other. He trusted me. I was staying in his camp. We got a lot of stuff done together. I knew him to be a tremendous individual, a truly a beautiful human being.
JF: People will say what they will about Sean Penn and I can tell you from personal experience. He is a fantastic human being and he doesn’t do it because he needs to. He doesn’t do it because he gets money from it or because … He does because he can. He has that same internal I have to do this that I have.
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RP: There’s no doubt that Jeff worked hard and selflessly in Haiti and he took on a great deal of responsibility. He also got extra credits simply because he is a white American man. Jeff also had the privilege to come and go. To leave Haiti whenever he wanted. A privilege, many of the people he worked with in Haiti, did not have.
JF: There were times where I would literally fly home at midnight. Be home by 2:00 in the morning. I would shower. I would shave. I would eat. I would sleep and then I’d be on the next aircraft out at seven am. I’m back and nobody even knew I was gone. Meanwhile, I flew out in a Learjet and flew home in a Boeing Business Jet. It was unbelievable. It was truly incredible.
RP: I’m sure this is something that you probably pondered a lot. You show up there as a white American man or those are three separate sources of privilege and that opens all kinds of doors for you and gives you automatic credit, et cetera and yet, at the same time, it’s one thing to like choose to show up somewhere where there are a lot of people who are there not by choice.
RP: Like stay a couple days and like I can’t take this and leave. It’s another thing to like show up and stay and like be in the trenches with people but I just wanted to like bring up that whole subject of like the whole white savior thing, et cetera. Just anything that’s gone through your mind of the years about the-
JF: Yeah, I’ve experienced the whole spectrum of that from people shouting at me, not knowing who I was or what I was there doing. For example, you can walk into the airport. Anybody, anybody that’s there, any Haitian that’s there could see you coming off of a plane from Miami and think that you are just yet another missionary, or yet another charity worker or somebody that’s going to come in, love the country or you’re somebody who’s coming to pillage which happens a lot there too.
JF: You’re coming in and you’re going to disappear like the rest of them. That’s a very common feeling from Haitians. Like I said, it depends on where you are. I find myself on the coast like … When I was there two months ago, I went down to [inaudible 00:44:00] with some friends. We went and served and ate grilled conk by the beach, and drank beers all day, and hung out, and laughed and played.
JF: We were hanging with the kids and the locals and they look at you differently than people at the airport look at you. They look at you like, “Wow, we’re amazed that you’re here.” It depends on where you are and when you’re there. When people see you working and really giving yourself to them and to their cause, whatever you may be doing, they love it.
JF: They love it and they appreciate it and they feel you. They feel you. Those people are so … On one hand, they’re stone cold emotionless about certain things but on the other hand, they’re also deeply emotional and connected to if they feel you, and so like I said, I’ve experienced all of it. I’ve had my life threatened. I’ve had people welcome me into their homes. I’ve had people make me food in a tent. All of it.
RP: Yeah. It’s such a complicated subject of like here we are, a couple of white people talking about this, pretty much entirely black country and I don’t know what we can really say about that because we are who we are and really, what it’s about is like you can speak to what you can speak to through your own experience. You’ve had the experience that you had.
JF: When I talk about Haiti, the Haitian people, they always at first say, “Are you a missionary or what do you go down there for? How do you know about Haiti?” I tell them, I’ve been there 38 times. Wow, or you say a couple phrases in Creole, or you know about a city that they’ve never even been to or the list goes on.
JF: You know obscure foods that they like to eat or the name of a certain soda that they drink and they really then, they just, their eyes connect-
RP: Because you’ve taken the time to-
JF: You know my Haiti. You really know my Haiti. That’s when people say, that’s when you see their smiles and their eyes, really bright. They love to know that I know Haiti. They want people to know it because if they’re here on the states, they miss it. It’s their home. They live here but that’s their home. That’s their mother nation.
JF: They don’t really look at me personally like just another white person going down and doing their thing, and then never going back. They look at me as somebody who loves it like they do.
RP: Jeff then shared the story of the day he decided to leave Haiti.
JF: I woke up one morning and said to myself, “I’m leaving Haiti today. I don’t care what it takes. I’m leaving today.” Before I left, I decided to not tell anybody until 15 minutes before the plane took off. I’ve gone down to the plane by myself and I told the pilot, “I’m on this plane. You do not leave without me on it. I’ll be back in an hour or in 30 minutes when we take off.”
JF: I went back to the camp. I told a couple of the people, “Go inside. Go find everybody. Tell everybody I’m leaving.” People came running out. They all said, “No, no. You can’t leave. No, don’t leave.” I said, “I’m leaving. I’ll be back. Don’t worry. I’ll be back.” They picked me up and they carried me out of the camp and were shouting and cheering and it’s crazy.
JF: Laughing and smiling and I was like, “No. Geez. Don’t do it. Don’t pick me up. No.” They did and then they put me down and I got into this little van and headed down and-
RP: Ultimately, Jeff’s experience in Haiti continued to impact his life and he found different ways of remaining engaged with the republic.
JF: One of the things that I took from Haiti was and it was an effort to raise awareness and to raise funds was the art. Haiti is a country that is steeped in and based on creativity and art and music. It’s the one thing you can’t take away from them. Their dignity and their creativity are the two things that they have endless amounts of.
JF: I created with other folks a few different art shows. We had a very big art show in 2010 called the Haiti Art Expo where we created so much hype. It was fresh. It was during [Art Basel 00:48:42], the biggest contemporary art fair in the United States. We created the Haiti Art Expo and I believe we raised about $250,000 in art sales. We had celebrities there and we had tons of hype and we had a big Haitian Rara band.
JF: We had four nights of programing and we did the Haiti Art Expo in December of 2010. Again, in 2011, I did an art show up in New York. I sold art to private collectors. It’s fantastic so that’s something that’s always with me. I have it in my home. A photography in my home and every time I see … I live in Miami so every time … I’m with Haitians all the time. Yeah, so it’s always with me. It’s always a big part of my existence.
RP: What’s it’s like for you to go back to Haiti now?
JF: It took me a while to go back. I basically, from 2000 … No, it’s 12. I don’t think I went back until 2017. It was exhausting to even think about stepping foot there. The traffic, the heat, the exhaust, there was dust and it’s just so high maintenance to be there in Port-au-Prince. Of course, the memories, I was just like, I needed to not go.
JF: Going back in March of 2017 with eight of my friends, with one of my very best friends, bachelor party was just the best. I took people all the time. You could go to Haiti today as a tourist and you’ll have the most amazing time and you’re not going to regret it. You’re not going to get kidnapped. You’re not going to get killed.
JF: You’re going to have the best time of your life because it’s such a beautiful place. The people are so friendly, so welcoming. There’s not really much of a need to spend much time inside of the capital. It’s about the provinces. That’s where all the magic is and Haiti is magic. It’s magic. It’s different.
RP: Yeah. Why? Why is it magic?
JF: There’s something there that is very mystical and magical. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if anybody knows what it is, including the Haitians. They’re steeped in magic and steeped in mysticism and in stories.
RP: When you were there during the earthquake, did you feel any of that mysticism or anything unexplainable happening while you’re there?
JF: At that point, not really, but the night where I heard the people singing, that was … There was something there in the room that was like I never felt anything like it before.
RP: What did it feel like?
JF: It felt like touching God and I’m not a religious person. It wasn’t a religious experience. It was like touching humanity. It’s feeling humans on a larger scale like the global sea of consciousness. That moment was like coursing through my veins.
JF: Where you just know we’re all one. We’re all people. We’re all the same creature and that was that moment.
RP: What does Haiti need now? What’s it like there now?
JF: The rubbles have been cleared. The problems still persist. The way the government functions, the corruption. That stuff’s baked into their … I think baked into their society and I don’t necessarily know that I have the answers of how that’s ever going to get unwinded. I can tell you that much of what we hear and see and much of what we know to be the case is really based in Port-au-Prince.
JF: A city that was built for 300,000 that has three million. The city’s physically broken. It’s broken. There’s 10 times too many people. Part of the reason is because the people that are living out in the provinces have to cut trees for heating, to eat. They don’t have electricity in a lot of these areas so they have to create heat through flame. By doing that, they cut down immature trees based on need.
RP: If you look down at Haiti, in the Dominican Republic from the air, you’ll see a lush green country on one side of the island and pretty much the opposite on the other. There’s a long history of deforestation in Haiti that dates back to the Haitian Revolution in 1804 when it became the first black republic in the world. The US and Europe refused to trade with them and France imposed attacks that Haiti paid for 80 years.
RP: The new Haitian government, composed of elites, tried to impose a plantation economy on the population that did not serve the majority. As a result, the people, particularly outside the capital, have been left to fend for themselves ever since. There is no standard electricity grid or gas pipeline so people used firewood for cooking.
JF: They have completely deforested much of the provinces of the entire country which then denudes the soil which then, when it rains, runs into the ocean which affects the sea and marine life.
RP: That’s one of the pieces of why the two countries on the same island, the other one being the Dominican Republic when one of these national disasters happened where there’s an earthquake, hurricane, whatever. The effects on the two countries is completely different and from what I’ve read, that’s one of the reasons why.
JF: Absolutely, and one of the things that I would love to see the Haitian government do. I wish they would do this. It would be to subsidize propane. Subsidizing propane, just giving people propane even if it’s for the smallest coin they make. I don’t care what it is. Make people earn it. Give it to them. If they stop cutting down the trees within some number of generations, they would be able to have … I would hope that we would be able to have, restore some of the damage that’s been done.
JF: That damage is the root of so many of the problems of that country. The environmental destruction has led to hunger and poverty and like I’m talking about abject poverty and illness and so many other things. If that was solved. By the way, the Dominican did that and it changed the country. Now, their government still has issues but they don’t have that as an issue.
RP: I asked Jeff, “Who’s making a significant effort to reforest Haiti?” He said that one of J/P HRO’s main projects is exactly that. Their focus is not only on reforestation but to create jobs to replace those of people who cut down trees as their income. J/P HRO is working with the Haitian government on these efforts. Their goal is to eventually make it a national movement. To learn more, visit the link in the shown ups.
JF: Something that really struck a cord with me was one day, I was in the airport in Port-au-Prince and I watched one of these missionary groups come in and their t-shits said something about saving Haiti on their shirts. Everybody wears their color coded t-shirts so that they see each other. They don’t get lost. Haitians are so used to seeing groups come in that fall in love with Haiti, that never go back.
JF: They never live up to their promise to this child. I’ll be back. They never come back, so they’re so used to this. All of a sudden, this group of white people come in off of an airplane that says, “Save Haiti.” I saw a Haitian man say, “What do you mean, save Haiti? You’re not going to save Haiti. Get out of here. I don’t want you. You’re not saving Haiti. We don’t need to be saved.”
JF: I was like, “You know what? He’s right.” They’re fine. Are there problems? Yes. Could it be better? A million percent. They don’t need to be saved by you or by me. They need to be visited. They need to be respected. They need to be paid well for the things that they provide. Buy their art. Listen to their music. Eat their food. Visit Haiti. That’s the best thing we could do.
JF: There’s plenty of tourism infrastructure there and you don’t have to be Indiana Jones to go visit. It’s a great place. It’s a beautiful place with so much history. I tell people to go. Go visit. Go visit. There’s plenty of information on the internet about visiting, tourism. They have an unbelievable Ministry of Tourism. They’ve done a great job of branding it as a beautiful, fun, safe place. The food is fantastic. The people are sweet. The beer is delicious.
RP: Is there anything else you would want to say like to address Haitians directly who are listening?
JF: The Haitian diaspora is very large and very powerful and I would encourage any one of them to continue to promote their country and their homeland regardless of … It’s easy for me to say, but regardless of their feelings towards whomever is in power or whatever those political issues are, encourage people to visit.
RP: I recently followed up with Jeff about the latest situation in Haiti. We talked at length about current events and sustainable development. I’ve been hearing in the news about like violent protests, people asking the president to step down. Can you just give us a little bit of a picture of what’s going on right now?
JF: Yeah. I don’t really know all the details. It’s hard to know the truth of what’s really happening there right now. It depends on who you ask, who you talk to. Everybody has a different perspective. Some people love the president. Some people think he’s terrible. I can only tell you that about two weeks ago, nobody worked for about a week and they were demanding that the president steps down.
JF: There’s frustrations that even if he does, they’re going to be forced into having to deal with a new transitional government which is what they already have right now.
RP: I know you went to Haiti recently, a couple of months ago. What does Haiti look and feel like right now?
JF: It’s generally unchanged from all the other times I’ve been there. I will tell you that I was pleasantly surprised by … I did a lot of driving through Port-au-Prince. Actually, I was there for a wedding so I spent a few days down at the beach and then when we came up to the capital for the wedding, we were driving through the city a lot and I saw a lot of really well-paved streets and sidewalks.
JF: That’s a huge thing. That helps immensely. It gives people hope in some ways so I noticed a lot of it. More than I had seen before.
RP: It sounds like there’s some … Real progress has been made in some ways?
JF: Yeah. In some ways, after the earthquake and all the funds that came in and with President Martelly and he set out to do well. They did do a lot of positive things. One of the most and the easiest thing to do is just paving some of the streets in the capital. The capital hasn’t been improved since the ’70s. That was one of the very first things that they could do.
JF: Oftentimes, when they do that, they do a cheap version and it washes away in the rain but this time, they really did it. It appears to be that they did it well in certain places.
RP: We discussed how in the beginning of a massive catastrophe like the earthquake, you just have to do whatever you can to help in the moment. More long term, just getting humanitarian aid creates dependence and leaves people disempowered. There needs to be more focus on sustainable solutions by merging humanitarian efforts and development.
RP: I told Jeff about Dr. Paul Spiegel of the Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health who says that “Giving refugees and displaced people jobs, bank accounts, insurance, et cetera, helps not only with their dignity but also with improving local economies. My friend, John Kluge, Founder and Managing Director of the Refugee Investment Network created a matchmaking service between impact investors and impact actors, focused on the 70 million refugees and internally displaced people in the world.”
RP: He said, “We need someone to help connect refugee entrepreneurs to investors, mentors and technical assistance.” What does sustainable development look like in Haiti? What’s the ideal scenario and who’s doing the best work?
JF: After the earthquake, everybody and their brother came down hoping to change the world and open up their NGO or their non-profit or their charity or whatever in Haiti and the overwhelming majority of them didn’t make it for the long term. There are a few that were there from the beginning and have absolutely survived and have become the forefront of what’s possible down there.
JF: Sean Penn went down there as we discussed and he started the J/P HRO which is still down there doing incredible work. They basically have … The overwhelming majority of the people that work there are actually Haitians. They’ve taught them and trained them and empowered them to be able to operate on their own. There’s a school that was started by some folks from LVMH, Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy.
JF: Enormous global brand. They basically started a school. They just basically plot down. The government of one of the areas gave them land and they said, “We’re building a school.” They have built the Lycee Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable which is an unbelievable school that is funded through Hand in Hand for Haiti which is an amazing 501(c)(3) organization.
JF: They basically give the kids free school, healthcare, two square meals a day. They pick them up. They have a soccer field. It is as legit as any organization anywhere in the world in Saint-Marc, Haiti. It’s just absolutely incredible. They have really knocked the ball out of the park. They’re teaching kids English. They’re teaching kids French.
JF: The Ayiti Community Trust is another phenomenal organization and they’re focused on their three main pillars which are the environment, entrepreneurship and civic engagement so they’re really providing, giving local people the tools to be able to fend for themselves. They’re teaching. They’re learning. They’re empowering. They’re supporting so that someday, they don’t have to exist anymore.
JF: One of the biggest problems in Haiti is that a lot of the organizations that are down there are down there for the sake of being down there, simply to exist. Their endgame should be to, at some point, not exist, to-
RP: To be obsolete.
JF: Yeah, to have achieved their goals of creating a self-sustaining future for Haiti and her people.
RP: We were going to end it there, but then Jeff told an amazing story that sums up so many aspects of Haiti’s relationship to the US, Haitian ingenuity and resilience in the face of negative narratives and specifically, his friend [Juber 01:04:30] who knows how to get what he wants.
JF: Haiti has always been on the pirate route and a stop for pirates. There’s pirate ships and treasure and all kinds of ships from centuries ago that are sunken off the coast. It’s a very dangerous and rugged coast and so a friend of mine, Juber, he actually … He’s a commercial diver in Haiti by profession. He gets a phone call one day.
JF: The phone rings and he picks up the phone and it’s a guy called Peter Arnett who was the senior foreign correspondent for CNN back in the ’90s and early 2000s and Juber says, “How can I help you?” Peter Arnett says, “I understand that you are Haiti’s leading boat captain,” and Juber says, not being a boat captain at all, says, “That’s right. I am. What can I do for you?”
JF: Peter Arnett says, “There’s violence in the streets and there’s fighting and gun battles and we want to come down and get a story. We want to see this. We want to get a story.” Juber says, “Okay. That’s going to cost you $50,000.” Peter Arnett says, “Why? We can’t do $50,000. It’s too much. We can give you 30.” He says, “It’s $50,000. It’s how much it’s going to cost for me to do this for you.”
JF: He says, “We can get you $40,000.” Juber says, of course, knowing that $40,000 is way too much money to be paid for this, he says, “Okay, that’s fine.” Peter Arnett flies down to Haiti and Juber picks him up and takes him, him and his cameraman to this boat.
RP: That he scrounged up out of-
JF: He scrounged it up. I’m sure he borrowed it from a friend and takes Peter Arnett and the cameraman to this remote piece of the coast off of the capital where he stages a gun battle and fully fakes out the news crew and they’re recording this thing and all of a sudden, the guys firing these guns are heading towards Peter Arnett and the cameraman, and Peter Arnett’s running, “We got to get to the boat. We got to get the hell out of here. We got to go, go, go.”
JF: Juber says to him, “$50,000?” Peter Arnett says, “$50,000. Let’s go. Let’s go.” He raised them back to the boat and got paid $50,000 so-
RP: Didn’t they air it on CNN?
JF: It was aired that night.
RP: Then the whole world thinks there’s this thing-
JF: It was aired that night.
RP: Didn’t you also say that like the only conflict was actually in Port-au-Prince?
JF: Yeah. That was totally made up, completely fabricated and aired on CNN that night as some gun battle, raging violence in Haiti which is totally untrue.
RP: Yeah, so then we watch or hear the news or read about it, whatever. Like of all these things going on all over the world, who’s to say if any of it is what it looks like.
JF: Most of the time, it probably isn’t, but you always got to question the reality. Yeah, Haiti’s got a lot of those stories and it’s really an unbelievable place. It’s really an incredible place.
RP: To learn more about the various efforts in Haiti that we mentioned in this show and how you can help, there’s a list of links in the shown ups. For more detail on grassroots Haitian responses to the hurricane recovery and Haitian perspectives on this period, we recommend the book, Haiti Needs New Narratives by Gina Athena Ulysse.
RP: Thank you for listening to A Show of Hearts. If you enjoyed what you heard, please subscribe in iTunes and share it with your favorite people. Visit our website, ashowofhearts.com where you can sign up for emails and explore all our episodes in-depth. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @ashowofhearts.
RP: Remember to choose courage even when it’s scary, and join me in igniting the world with our hearts.
Speaker 2: (singing)