I’ve Spent 13 Years Trying to Leave Haiti

IMG_0662I’ve tried to leave Haiti many times.

When I moved here in 2007 it was supposed to be for 6 months. I came down, did my white-man-artist-volunteer-thing, and sincerely thought that would be it. I would move on to something else and cherish the time as a pleasant memory. Maybe visit again someday.

After my original 6 months, I left. I had other plans, other jobs lined up, and other travels scheduled, which shortly after returning from Haiti, ended up falling through. Then the opportunity was presented to return to Haiti a couple of months later, with a small group of other volunteers to the same organization. It was just going to be a couple of weeks to check in on the projects that I had been involved in previously and help these other volunteers get acquainted with things.

It was this second very short trip that cemented my relationship with the country long-term. I didn’t know how or for how long, but I knew that I was coming back to stay. That led to my first 3-year relationship with an organization that provided me the basis for calling this community of Mizak, Haiti, home.

At the end of that 3 years, I tried to leave again. I had looked very seriously into grad schools and was planning to apply and go that route. Then, a conversation with a group of my Haitian peers changed all that. I was looking at grad schools and these friends of mine, young Haitian men who were my same age but arguably far smarter and talented than me, were stuck in an educational system that was designed for them to fail. As I was researching which Masters program I wanted to attend, they were just trying to cross the obstacles set before them to make it through the early stages of high school. We all knew that the system was broken but these guys had ideas of how to remove those barriers to make things easier for other young people who were and would be in the same position as them. So, of course, I stayed to help them make that happen.

A little more than a month had gone by after that conversation when the earthquake hit on January 12, 2010.

After the earthquake, I didn’t try to leave. After the earthquake, I was more stubbornly committed to stay than ever before. But after the earthquake, everyone else tried to get me to leave. Very well-intentioned friends, family, and even strangers tried to convince me that there was no reason for me to stay after the earthquake. They thought it would be better for my own health and safety if I left. They were worried about me, and my privilege offered me a very easy way out at that moment if I wanted to take it. But I didn’t take it. On one hand I knew that the only thing that was going to keep me sane at that time was staying near everyone else who had experienced what I had just experienced and understood the trauma that we all were trying to survive. On the other hand, I had just embarked on this new endeavor of building the new organization with my Haitian peers for local young adults and I wanted to see that through. (Both hands were telling me to stay.)

So I stayed. And I’m glad I did. I worked towards recovering personally as our community worked to recover together. We built the organization and began programs in education and the arts that have carried through to this day. But about three years later, again, I tried to leave, again. I had decided that the most important way that I could help our young organization grow was by moving to the States full time to focus on the administration of the organization from there where I would have better access to the resources that we would need to continue to support the work we were doing.

This time when I left, I was so sure that it was for real that my community even threw multiple “good-bye Lee” parties. We carefully planned for the transition with my staff, I told all of my friends farewell, and then I “moved” to Savannah, Georgia. I was 100% sure that that was where I was meant to be and I was going to start a life there while building the Stateside structure for our organization. I was wrong. After several messy months of trying to make it work but not succeeding, dealing with bouts of PTSD and depression, sleeping on the floors of my friends’ apartments, all while trying to also get a book published, it had become clear that I had made the wrong decision. I moved back to Haiti and returned to managing the organization from there. Doing so may have saved my life in that moment.

Over the next couple of years I transitioned out of the executive director role in the organization and to a more advisory role staying on the board of directors while the local staff took over the daily operations of the work. At that point, without the same level of responsibility, I could have left again. But there were still a lot of reasons for me to stay in the community. During that time I had been involved in the foundations of a couple of other small local organizations whose work I really enjoyed being a part of. I also saw this time as an opportunity to return to focus more energy back into my studio practice as a professional artist myself. To do that I had to stay in the place that inspired me the most in the creation of my art.

So I did that for a while. And it was fun. I was able to support the organizations that I loved without them consuming my every moment with administrative tasks. And I was also able to do what I love most in the place on Earth that I had come to love most. This period of time in Haiti was truly one of my favorites, representing some very happy memories for me. Unfortunately that lifestyle wasn’t sustainable for long because it wasn’t making any income for me. So, in 2016, I sent out a few resumes looking for employment with arts organizations in the States, just to see what would happen. I didn’t want to leave Haiti, but I also wanted to make some money.

I got a very quick response from one of the potential employers and within a few weeks I was in the States interviewing for a job in South Dakota, which they offered to me on the spot. When I sent out the resumes, I certainly wasn’t expecting that kind of response, and definitely not that soon, if at all. So the offer took me by surprise and left me having to make a difficult decision. Was I really ready to leave Haiti now that I had the perfect opportunity to do so?

It may not seem like that difficult of a decision. After all, why would I apply for jobs in the States if I wasn’t ready to move to the States? But during that time I had also taken in a foster son in Haiti. He was a boy that was very important to me and at the moment of the job offer, I was all he had. Like I said, though, I wasn’t expecting a job offer so soon, so I thought that I would have more time to make other arrangements for the care of that boy. So when it came down to it, I ended up turning down the job in order to return to Haiti and fulfill my responsibility to my foster son.

God has a wicked sense of humor, though. Less than a week after returning to Haiti, we had gotten in contact with an aunt of the boy who was willing to care for him and he moved out of my home to live with his extended family. I was glad that we had found a solution for him, but at the same time I was kicking myself that I didn’t accept the job.

Y’all. I almost moved to South Dakota. South Dakota. I mean, I know it’s really beautiful there, but it’s also really cold, really remote, really conservative, and really white. Can you even imagine?

But it also soon became clear that God had some other plans. Not long after turning down the South Dakota job and relocating my foster son, I had a group of artists on my doorstep recruiting me to become their new director at the arts center in Jacmel. This was the dream. This was exactly the type of thing that I had always wanted to be a part of ever since moving to Haiti years before. The arts center was in a really difficult place, though, and I knew that if I accepted what they were asking me to do that it would be a very heavy load to carry filled with tremendous challenges. I could have easily said “no” and gone back to the States to get a job or go to grad school or move on with life however I chose to. I was free to do whatever I wanted at that point. But I love a challenge. So after some time really considering if I wanted to hitch my horse to this buggy (that’s the saying, isn’t it?) I began as their new director at the arts center.

Even as I began that journey, though, I knew that it wasn’t meant to be forever. The goal was always to help them get through the challenging period that they were facing and help them build a sustainable structure where they could maintain operations on their own without a white guy in charge. Now, another 3 years later, we’ve made it to that point, and it’s clear that it’s time for me to move on to something different as well.

This time I really am leaving Haiti. Not because any circumstances of life are forcing me to, but simply because it’s the right time. After thirteen years of trying to leave this country, always at the wrong times, this is the right time.

I watched the series finale of The Good Place last week and in it all of the main characters have to decide when is the right time for them to leave The Good Place and walk through the door where they will be at eternal peace. The first character to make this decision is Jason, and he describes the feeling as the air inside of his lungs and the air outside of his lungs feeling the same. That’s how it is with my decision to leave Haiti. In many ways, Haiti has been my Good Place for the last 13 years. It hasn’t always been perfect but it has definitely been good. And now I’m ready to walk through the door and welcome whatever lies beyond it. (Of course in the show, when they walk through the door they turn into stardust and their eternal energies are redistributed back into the universe. I’m just moving back to the United States.) The point is, there’s a sense of peace about the decision. It’s not something that’s forced but something that I’m welcoming as the inevitable direction that I’ve been headed in for a while now.

I’m not leaving because of security concerns or any unease with the political climate of the country. I’ve learned to navigate those over the years and never feel safer than when I’m at my home in Mizak. I’m not leaving because of any issues with the organizations that I work with. I will continue to support them all in a variety of ways and for the arts center in particular, I will continue to coordinate their international programs. You need to buy some Haitian art? You can still get in touch with me. Those of you who follow me will see that my social media probably will still look very similar. I’m not leaving because of any personal reasons. My friendships and relationships within my community here remain strong and I will keep them alive from wherever I am. I’m not leaving Haiti because of Haiti and I’m not leaving Haiti because of me. I’m just leaving Haiti because it’s time.

So next week I will be moving to … wait for it… South Dakota. What can I say? Something’s been drawing me there for some reason. I’m gonna go find out what it is. I’ve accepted a job with the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation as their Cultural Programs Manager. I will be working with indigenous artists from all over the world to coordinate artist residencies, art festivals, guest speaker events and more. It’s an exciting opportunity that I’m ready to throw myself into. The door has opened and I’m walking through it.

I’m forever grateful for what Haiti has been for me the last 13 years. This place will remain a big part of my life. So it’s very possible that I will continue to show up here on the Green Mango Blog or on Medium or elsewhere with writings and news and such. And as mentioned, I will continue to be active on social media sharing the good work of and searching for support for the organizations that have come to mean so much to me. So stay tuned.

For now, thank you for being part of the journey. For those who read this, I wish you all the best on wherever your journey may be leading you. Kenbe la.

5 comments

  1. Lee, i don’t know that i’ve ever replied to one of your posts but i think you’re awesome and i wish you the very best of everything…in South Dakota.

  2. Thank you for writing this piece. You have explained so thoroughly why you could not leave until now. I do wish you the very best in your new, challenging, position. You will diligently accept the tasks involved in South Dakota! You WILL make a difference. God’s Speed,

  3. I’m sorry I never got to meet you. I’ve enjoyed your blog tremedously over the years. You out some my perspective on life in Haiti into words that made sense.
    Hope all goes well in South Dakota. Try to stay warm at least.

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