In Haiti, a new generation of change agents

October 26, 2018
Written by Ashling O'Malley
Photo by Kieran McConville

The people of Haiti have suffered through a lot – hurricanes, earthquakes, political instability, and economic crisis. Today, Concern Worldwide is focusing on helping the younger generation take control of their own future, and Bien-Aimé Marc Onel exemplifies this growing wave of change makers.

A unique gathering

Recently, on a fall day as the mid-day sun beat down amid typical Port au Prince heat and humidity, 180 young Haitians gathered in an air-conditioned hotel conference center in the city’s downtown. Dressed to impress in bow ties and cocktail dresses, they could be headed for a wedding reception or upscale party.

But few if any would ever normally get to see the inside of a place like this, unless via the back door as a member of staff. These are the youth of Cité Soleil, a vulnerable community whose members are striving to overcome not only economic and social deprivation, but also a notorious reputation for violent conflict.  This group is intent on not being labeled or defined based on a single aspect of Cité Soleil life.Young Haitians at a graduation ceremonyA graduation ceremony in Port au Prince for young people from Cité Soleil graduating from Concern’s self-development program. Photo: Kieran McConville

And today, they are the guests of honor. The city’s mayor arrives and addresses the group with some inspirational words and then, one by one, they make their way to the stage. Each strikes a serious pose for the camera, proudly holding a certificate of graduation. For most, it’s the first accolade they have ever received.

And then they take over the proceedings – rappers, dancers, poets, actors, and singers take turns to let loose in front of an enthusiastic audience of their peers. It’s a free-spirited and free-form exhibition of talent, ambition, frustration… and hope.

Cité Soleil

Sitting quietly to one side, 24-year-old Marc Onel represents the essence of what is happening here.

“Today it might be peaceful but tomorrow you don’t know. It is an unstable area,” Marc Onel reflects. Although Cité Soleil literally translates to ‘The City of the Sun’, its residents have lived through some dark days.

Concern team member in Cité Soleil

A Concern team member with a community leader in Cité Soleil, Port au Prince. Photo: Kieran McConville

Though there is a long history of violence in Cité Soleil, relative calm has prevailed recently, and there are no current large-scale conflicts.  This is largely due to a conversion undergone by former armed groups into community welfare organizations known as ‘Foundations.’ The homicide rate remains more than double the global average: 10.2 killings per 100,000 people.  But a generation of young people is committing to reverse that trend, to change a narrative that once might have defined them as troublemakers.

“I went from a negative person to a positive person.”

There are few government resources available to help and Haiti has been repeatedly pummeled by natural disasters, including the devastating earthquake of 2010, Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and ongoing economic crisis.

In conversation, Bien-Aimé Marc Onel at first seems shy and somewhat wary. But he soon warms up, becoming animated and enthusiastic, as he talks about his own personal journey.

“Concern changed my whole attitude to life. I went from a negative person to a positive person.”

Marconel

Bien-Aimé Marc Onel, who once found himself in the middle of disputes between armed groups, is driven to change his community’s future, and his own. Photo: Kieran McConville

A tough start

“When you have no one to show you how to live in society, no role models. It is tough.”

Coming from Cité Soleil, Marc Onel already started life out with a disadvantage. This was exacerbated when his primary caregiver, his mother, passed away suddenly when he was just 16-years-old. With little to no support from his father, he was forced to leave school so he could get a job to survive and support his family.

“I turned to those who controlled my area for help. I delivered messages in return for food and money.”

He struggled from one menial job to another, never earning more than $1 – 2 a day. It still left a massive gap that he struggled to overcome.  Seeing few options, he found opportunity as messenger and intermediary between (now formerly) armed groups, which gave him status and some additional financial stability.

Young Haitians at a graduation ceremony

Marc Onel at the graduation ceremony.

“I turned to those who controlled my area for help. I delivered messages in return for food and money.”

Inevitably, he became mixed up in violence and illegal activity.

But even in his darkest moments, Marc Onel knew he wanted to improve his life. He just didn’t know how. It was at this point that he came into contact with a neighbor who was a community liaison officer for Concern. Recognizing Marc Onel’s potential and sincere desire to change, he recommended him for a project called Young Actors of Change, and the road to transformation opened up.

The transformation

Marc Onel at the office with Concern’s Katia Antoine. Photo: Concern Worldwide.

The Youth Actors for Change program is part of Concern’s Building Hope & Opportunities program in Haiti, funded by Irish Aid, The Irish government’s international humanitarian and development agency.

Training sessions with young people were organized over six months, covering a range of personal development topics. These included strategies for peaceful dialogue and non-violent dispute resolution. Those involved embraced the opportunity enthusiastically.

“Now I am looking at myself in a new light: I’m not just a fighter. I can do better and help others do better too.”

“My friends say ‘Marc Onel — is that really you?'”

Concern also provided young people with an opportunity to openly discuss subjects like sex and gender attitudes, things that had previously been taboo.

“I have noticed that the people I used to sit and joke with, we don’t have much in common anymore… My friends say ‘Marc Onel — is that really you?’ My mentality has changed so much. So, this is why I keep studying to avoid returning to the same problems I had before.”

Marconel

Marc Onel says his life has been transformed. Photo: Kieran McConville

Next steps

The change program is now being expanded to include professional training modules such as driving instruction, masonry, and heavy equipment operation. In part, the aim is to help participants find jobs — but beyond that are the added benefits of self-confidence, self-agency, independence, and ambition.

Marc Onel says he is now committed to spreading the knowledge he has gained in his local community to help others like him. “I want to thank Concern for helping me to become a better person. I would like the change to go spread into my family, my friends, and my community.”

Find out more about our work

Building Hope & Opportunities in Haiti: An Integrated Urban Community Resilience and Conflict Mitigation Program in Haiti (2017 – 2021) aims to address the complex and interrelated problems of Cité Soleil. It is supported by Irish Aid. This five-year, integrated, urban program is implemented in 8 neighborhoods in Cité Soleil: Ti Ayiti, Cite Lumière, Duvivier, Truitier, Bois Neuf, Village Rapatrié, Cite Gérard, Drouillard. The programme will, directly and indirectly, benefit 36,100 people (18,411 female, 17,689 male). The main areas of intervention are 1) Social Cohesion and Peace Building, 2) Livelihoods 3) Governance and 4) Disaster Risk Reduction and Waste Management.