An American’s Journey Through Haiti’s Recovery
By Derek Hockenbrough
Matt Vecere is an easy guy to like. Sporting board shorts, a t-shirt, sandals and beach-bum black hair, he lounges on the sofa in my Hollywood house like a sultan in his court. He’s the kind of guy that’s capable of containing both bountiful excitement and cool collectedness all within a grin. I’m sure that if he woke up tomorrow on some unknown shore without any idea how he got there, he would just mosey along serenely. But don’t let his laid-back energy fool you. Just like the country he’s spent the last three years helping to heal, his immediate surface belies depths of determination.
After a relaxed childhood in New Jersey, consisting mainly of surfing and restaurant work, he studied biology and creative writing in Florida where he had an “eye-opening experience.” Sometime around 1991 he was out on the water, early morning, when he noticed a strange object heading to the shore. It was a strung-together raft built of wood
and worn out tires but what was on top was far more shocking. In tattered clothes, skinny as all hell and with blinding white smiles stood a dozen or so rocking Haitians. Happy as can be, they beamed at the authorities waiting on shore. At the time, many Floridians were calling them “boat people”; a term first used to describe refugees from the Vietnamese War but used in this sense for the Haitians escaping the oppressive political shift in the Haitian government. After assuring himself that this wasn’t some weird dream, he headed straight to the library and soon found himself gorging on the rich history of Haiti. Columbus’ landing, the slave revolt against the French, and Haiti’s self-built government ushered him into his lifelong love affair with the island and began a fervent interest in social activism.
Matt spent the following years writing for a number of grass-root surf magazines. He had a nice job that left plenty of time for surfing, a house and a girlfriend. However, when disaster struck Haiti in 2010, in the form of a gargantuan Earthquake, his love affair was rekindled. With a suitcase full of water filters and little idea of what he was going to do, Matt shoved off to experience Haiti for the first time. “All I knew was I had to get the filters to the ‘red-zones,’” he says with a shrug.
“Red-zones” were areas that the NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) didn’t want their people going to, because they deemed them “too dangerous.” Matt had heard that these places were suffering heavily from water-born illnesses. So, carrying his suitcase of filters, he plunged into the red-zones alone and began searching out any English-speakers he could find. With little effort, he began to find locals that could get the filters to those that needed them most.
What he couldn’t understand was the purveying fear of the Haitians by the volunteers. “People stay behind the big walls of their NGOs – not mixing with the community. How are you sup- posed to know what the population needs? You’re there to create a capacity for this country to make a standard of living.” He met many people who were told by their organizations to not leave the compound without a guard. “If you do, you’re going to die. You will get kidnapped, held for ransom and have your thumbs cut off… There is this blown-out, heightened sense of danger and it’s just not like that.”
The Haiti that he experienced was benevolent by culture; strangers are often given the best food, clothes, beds, etc…. He goes on to gush that in his three years in the thick of Haiti he has had nothing but warm experiences.
“The Haitians wanted a say in what was going on with their country and they wanted jobs,” Vecere explains. “They have a very indomitable spirit.”
This spirit is very evident in the country’s history and continues to- day. He saw that what they wanted most was to re-build their own lives, make their own money, put their own kids through school and feed themselves. Countless Haitians would come to the NGOs dressed in their Sunday best with a polished resume – translated to English at local Internet cafes. The organizations did their best to supply jobs, but they simply could not support the waves of displaced Haitians.
He befriended many psychologists during his time that had come to counsel survivors with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), but most Haitians resisted or had no desire for the counseling. “They said, ‘Look, I didn’t eat yesterday. So let’s talk about me getting a job and then we can talk about the Earthquake.’”
He also realized how important a functioning government truly is. “I used to say ignorant things like ‘The government sucks!’” Vecere said. Matt realized that, though it might be difficult to live with a government that he doesn’t agree with, it is far more difficult to live with a government that he doesn’t agree with, it is far more difficult to live in a society where the powers that be seem apathetic to the people’s needs. The countless traffic accidents, due to lack of traffic lights, and the police with late (or no) pay that are coerced into corruption – with side jobs to pay the bills, are only a couple examples of the experience in Haiti that woke him up. Matt’s cool expression molds into a sly smile, “Now I am happy to pay taxes!”
Matt only had a two-week leave from his work and had to return to the U.S. sooner than he would have liked. But, as many who have travelled in poverty-stricken areas, Matt found the life that he returned to muted. The seemingly perfect existence he has built for himself became “boring,” his thoughts constantly returning to Haiti. Like a kite in hurricane winds, the pull was too great. The cord snapped, he quit his job and got on the first flight back to Haiti.
He hooked up with Sean Penn’s people, the J/P Haiti Relief Organization, who he had met shortly before. The group was set up on a golf course near Port-Au-Prince, where somewhere between 40,000-50,000 people had taken residency in a tent-city pitched on the green. They made Vecere the Non-Medical Volunteer Coordinator, “which basically meant that if a generator went down or the electricity died I would inevitably get a call, ‘Matt, what the hell is going on?’” What hit him the most, though, was the bereft education system that Haiti was left with. At the time, apart from the small elementary school that J/P had set up, Matt hadn’t seen any free public schools. Nearly all schools were privatized and, with the Earthquake’s wreckage, many families’ means to pay for their children’s education (and often the parents themselves) had disappeared in the disaster. Vecere laments, “They had no future, no school. ‘What am I going to do with my life now?’ they’d asked me.”
So Matt, along with a psychologist from Los Angeles, began his own non-profit that focused on putting children back into school. He tells me the story of a young Haitian boy who had resorted to living on a roof with his younger sister; a result of a local group of Haitians forcing the people in the boy’s relief compound to leave, in an attempt to claim their land back. The children were afraid to sleep on the street and found a shanty roof for sanctuary. The boy made a small amount of money washing windows and headed to an Internet café where he found Vecere on Facebook. The boy explained his situation – emphasizing his past grades in school and desire for education. Matt helped him return to school with his organization and, when the boy graduates he plans on working for them.
Non-profit funding doesn’t last forever, though, and benefactors expect to see results. The simple truth was that they were putting kids into education without a good way to sustain their financing. “Three years later, people see the same conditions. The kids still need money for rent, tuition, living, etc. It became obvious that jobs were the only answer,” said Vecere. He smiles wryly, “If we had listened to the Haitians all along, we could’ve started [with a focus on employment] right away. But, like typical white people, we decided that we knew what was best and did it our way.”
Market for Survival
Matt soon branched off and created another non-profit focused on job creation called “Emprofit.” He realized that he needed to create some kind of system that would allow people to maintain their own livelihood. So he adopted a system based off of the small commerce markets that can be seen in third world countries all over the world. The organization would import important goods that were sought after by the population and give them to the recovering people, at the cheapest bulk-price available, who would then sell them at market price. The newly appointed merchants are then given the profit as commission and the remainder goes back into the system to keep it running.
Sounds easy, but there are a number of complications. Most important is deciding on the products that will be taken out by the foot soldiers. The organization has to be extremely mindful to provide products that are desired by all but don’t “screw over” other local merchants. After conduction of copious marketing research, they were able to find a few successful (and surprising) products. Alongside blank DVD’s, perhaps the most surprising is Coco Butter Lotion: a product that is sought after by Haitian women but not available, even though the coconut is indigenous to the island.He found that social goods (in his definition, products that both serve a personal purpose and do good for the community at large) were very difficult due to the lower profit margin. “If a social good costs twelve dollars and they are able to sell it for fourteen, they only make four dollars.” He laughs, “They want to know why they only made four and I have to tell them.” Matt has been able to find a happy medium where the higher-priced commodities, like make- up, can subsidize the social goods, like solar lamps, so they can then offer them to the poorer communities.
Currently they use a door-to-door method, as opposed to getting lost in the bustling marketplace. It has been gratefully accepted in the middle-class neighborhoods where the residents would rather purchase their needs in their own home instead of travel- ling downtown. However, they plan on opening up a store front that will validate their goods, setting their products apart from the “junk” that comes in from Miami. He cites the millions of expired batteries that constantly pour in from the Florida metropolis.
I ask Matt if he considers himself a Haitian now. “If they will have me,” he chuckles. In the near future he wants to merge his two loves: surfing and Haiti, with a surf camp that he’s creating with a local Haitian. He hopes the camp will grow as it rides the re-emerging tourism trade, creating employment opportunities and funding for Emprofit. When asked if he had any more words on his experiences he said this, “Take Haitian news in the U.S. with a large grain of salt. It’s typically viewed as a problem child. So when something bad happens, it’s reported. But, bad things happen everywhere. There are many more wonderful things happening there than people know.”