Vicente Gabriel Valdelamar, a former America Solidaria professional volunteer working in Haiti, shared with us how an attempted mugging led to a deep lesson in empathy.
He came to the island in September 2016 to serve with America Solidaria in a project to develop a positive school culture and norms. He learned to speak the local language, kreyol, and worked with Haitian schoolgirls, who constantly mentioned that their favorite part of attending school was Vicente. He finished up his year of volunteering with us and stayed in Haiti working with another nonprofit. We are proud to call him part of our organization’s network because he has all of the qualities we seek in a volunteer: capacity to break down borders and to reflect in-depth on his positionality in another context.
And he shared with us this incredible experience, worthy of a read:
“I usually don’t say this because I don’t like to hear stereotypical phrases like ‘take care of yourself because that’s not a good neighborhood’ or ‘that’s what happens if you live there.’ I will tell you that after a year and a few months of living in Haiti, I was almost mugged. It was far different from my last muggings in Mexico City, Puebla, or Nuevo Laredo: a Haitian confronted me in the street thinking I would have a lot of money because I’m a foreigner. After explaining that I had nothing to give him, he struggled to take my backpack while a group of people watched what was happening.
I tried to negotiate. I told him I didn’t have anything of value and that it was unjust to take my backpack because I was not a foreigner who had come to Haiti to extract money from locals (like many others do, living in their wealthy bubbles with expensive cars, air conditioning and fancy hotels). Finally, after staring each other down for a few seconds, about seven people came to help me and told him to get away from me. They then accompanied me to take public transportation and arrive home safely, despite my insistence that I could walk that stretch myself. One of the people who helped me told me that he believed that his country was not advancing for several reasons: one was government corruption, another that people had no respect and preferred to steal, and the last one was hunger: people needed to eat and if they could not find a job, they needed to find a way to survive.
Minutes later, the would-be assailant came back, explaining that foreigners come in and invade their country, take everything and leave nothing. He then gave me a high five and left as if nothing had happened, leaving me flabbergasted.
It was strange to be a part of a conflict due to the color of my skin and my foreignness, and due to the factors that have converted Haiti into a money machine for foreigners and wealthy locals with contacts, and, believe it or not, it was incredibly beautiful to break another stereotype linked to poverty. The stereotype that nobody cares what happens to another person, let alone feeling empathy for their own country, and their living conditions. It was nice to feel protected by someone whom I may never see again and know that the feeling is mutually shared by several Haitians. In short, it was simultaneously frightening and revitalizing; just a normal day in this mystically beautiful country.”
A single moment of solidarity like this can represent a seismic shift in the attitudes of people who have been trained to be suspicious and antagonistic towards each other. This is the vision we work towards in America Solidaria.