Young Haitians get a chance to change their disaster-ravaged world with college degrees

It began on the airplane. The two young men stared out the windows as the island slowly disappeared from view. Neither one had ever left Haiti. Neither had ever slept a night away from home.

One of the them, a slender, serious soul named Jhonas, had spent years in a tent city, his floor raw earth, his roof a blue tarp. No electricity. No running water. A toilet which was basically a hole in the ground 200 yards from where he slept. A small mountain of plastic bags sat near the foul-smelling opening; kids used these as toilet paper.

The second young man, Edney, has a long smile and a sizable mop of hair. He arrived at the orphanage I operate in Port Au Prince, Haiti – called The Have Faith Haiti Mission – when he was 7 years old. He was completely illiterate. No English. No French. No alphabet of any kind.

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Today, 10 years later, he is a high school graduate with an A average.

“What do you think?” I asked as the plane ascended.

A Haitian flag is carried during the Haitian Unity Day in Spring Valley, N.Y., on May 23, 2021. The parade coincided with the announcement that the Biden administration will extend temporary protected status to Haitian nationals living in the U.S. for 18 months.
“Wow,” he mumbled.

It’s been “wow” ever since. Try to imagine leaving the only world you’d ever known — the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere devastated by natural disasters, including a 7.2-magnitude earthquake Saturday – and landing in 2021 America, where every step is an astonishment.

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A highway? Never saw one of those. A traffic light that tells you to walk? A restaurant with 20 flavors of chicken wings? Supermarkets where you check yourself out? Suburbs?

These two young men are on the far edge of a journey that is taking them from the lowest rung of the ladder, where people live on $2 a day, into a stratosphere almost none of their countrymen get to witness.

Fewer than 30% of Haitian children ever reach sixth grade.

Only 1% ever get to college.

Only a fraction of that 1% gets to earn a degree in America.

These two are in that group.

Free Press columnist Mitch Albom with Knox, 8, an orphan from the Have Faith Haiti mission.
Making dreams come true
This Thursday, I am hosting an event at Madonna University (where Jhonas and Edney will soon begin studying) to raise funds for partial scholarships for kids like them, kids who otherwise would never have a chance at higher education. The Michigan Colleges Alliance (MCA) has partnered with me to make their 15 colleges potential landing spots for the young adults coming out of our orphanage.

The goal is not for them to stay in our fortunate country, but to return home to theirs and make it better.

The event Thursday night will feature live and recorded talks with celebrities like Kate Hudson, the Academy Award-nominated actress, Bradley Whitford, the Emmy Award-winning actor, Barry Sanders, the Detroit Lions Hall of Famer, and Bernie Smilovitz from WDIV-TV. There will be live music, videos of our kids, lots of stories.

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But the best part will be when the students themselves come on stage and speak about where they came from, and how immensely grateful they are to have a chance to go to college here.

In the United States, our leaders are pushing a new bill that would provide free prekindergarten education and two years of free community college. That’s for anyone who wants to go. Free pre-K. Free college.

Compare that with Haiti, where you have to pay, in advance, for pretty much any schooling of any kind. And nearly half the country remains illiterate.

That’s why, when the first of our orphanage graduates enrolled in Madonna three years ago, and we moved him into his dorm room, his eyes bulged.

“I get my own desk?”

Yes, he was told.

He teared up. “All my life, I always dreamed of having my own desk.”

Gratitude.

A earthquake hit Haiti on Saturday.
A greater sense of urgency
Now, I understand when people say, “Why do we have to help kids from other countries? We should be helping our own!”

In my humble view, it’s OK to do both. I try. SAY Detroit operates programs for Detroit youths that far outnumber the kids we help in Haiti.

But even as I was writing this, I got a phone call from our Haitian director at the orphanage. “Did you hear about the earthquake?”

And once again, my heart started racing. My involvement in Haiti began with an earthquake, in 2010, that left nearly 3% of Haiti’s population dead and nearly 10% homeless. Even 11 years later, that quake still has repercussions. Families who lost everything. Children who lost parents. Businesses that never reopened.

This new disaster, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake off of Haiti’s western coast that hit early Saturday, will create more of the same. More destruction. More homelessness. And invariably, it will send us more children, young children without much hope, children we will nourish, love and – starting from age 3 – educate.

And one day, hopefully, those children will board a plane for a chance to change their fate and their country’s fortunes – thanks to the generosity of people who have been blessed to have so much, and know how precious a college degree can be.

If you’d like to join us at 7:30 Thursday evening, you can get tickets at michigancolleges.org/Mitch. If you’d simply like to help, you can go to havefaithhaiti.org. In both cases, 100% of the money raised goes strictly to the children’s welfare. No administrative costs are ever deducted.

When I took Jhonas and Edney to see Madonna last week, we got to visit a classroom. They walked in, as if imagining themselves already there, and went right to the front row. It’s amazing to see kids who literally cannot wait for school to start, for their lives to change, for hope to take root. Wow, as Edney said. Wow, indeed.

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