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Nurturing community in crisis: Renaud Thomas has hope for Haiti

A participant in Rayjon Share Care’s Breadfruit project in Haiti poses with the Breadfruit plant

October 16, 2023

By Jacqueline Tucci

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Renaud Thomas, Director of Rayjon Share Care in Haiti

The assassination of Haiti’s then-President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021 plunged parts of the country into an ongoing crisis, but local development workers know that there is hope.

“The resource we have during crisis is community, and what we can do together,” said Renaud Thomas, Director of Rayjon Share Care in Haiti. Thomas visited Canada in September and during his trip, PWRDF welcomed him to the office in Toronto. Thomas was joined by his Rayjon colleagues, Program Director Debbie Austin and Program and Communications Officer Piera Spinelli Barrile, who was also born in Haiti.

Rayjon Share Care is a Canadian organization working with partners in Haiti and Dominican Republic towards sustainable development, and a long-standing partner of PWRDF. Beginning in July of this year, the partnership was renewed in a project to empower the Haitian Women’s Federation and support their work in increasing access to clean water, building capacity and leadership skills, improving literacy and teaching agriculture skills. This project will run for four years and is being supported by PWRDF with a combined $200,000.

Left to right: PWRDF Public Engagement Coordinator, Suzanne Rumsey; PWRDF Executive Director, Will Postma; Rayjon Share Care Director, Renaud Thomas; PWRDF Development Program Coordinator, Jeannethe Lara; Rayjon Share Care Communications Officer, Piera Spinelli Barrile; Rayjon Share Care Program Director, Debbie Austin

During his visit, Thomas spoke to a group of PWRDF staff about the current project’s various activities. “[The drinking water project] is an important project for the community,” Thomas said. One aim of the project is to build reservoirs to hold clean drinking water in rural communities. Previously, humans and animals were taking water from the same ponds, posing a risk to community health and wellbeing, especially for children.

Another area of focus is improving adult literacy. Thomas shared with PWRDF staff that gang activity in some regions of Haiti have limited access to necessary materials to run literacy courses. When Rayjon lost access to their main print house due to gang violence, they had to find strategic ways to continue printing the needed materials, printing the documents elsewhere, month-by-month and in smaller quantities, allowing the program to continue.

“Every day we have to struggle to meet these challenges,” said Thomas. In Haiti, the adult literacy rate is about 60%.

Despite the challenges, Thomas and Rayjon Share Care continue to push forward in their work, finding creative solutions such as working in collaboration with local businesses and other organizations doing similar work. “At the local level, you have cooperation between like-minded organizations,” said Spinelli Barrile.

Port-au-Prince has been marred by political instability, civil unrest, and limited access to fuel, clean water and food, leading to widespread hunger, for over two years. As acting-President Ariel Henry assumed office, gang activity sky-rocketed in the capital, but according to Thomas, this is not the case across the country; something that is not always made clear in international media.

“We feel that the international community doesn’t really understand what’s going on [in Haiti],” said Thomas. “The international solutions fix problems that are not our problems.”

One such international solution is the deployment of Kenyan troops to Port-au-Prince following a request by acting-President Henry. Thomas and Spinelli Barrile suggest that while Henry calls for troops to stabilize the unrest against his government, the Haitian people seek a more meaningful change in leadership. 

“The people want a revolution…it’s going to come from the people,” said Spinelli Barrile. Still, Port-au-Prince is one of ten districts in Haiti, and according to Thomas, nine out of ten exist in relative stability. “Unfortunately, nobody reports that,” he said.

For Thomas, hope for Haiti comes in the form of listening to and learning from communities, following their lead on projects and creating conditions which allow people to stay and invest in their home communities.

“We find value in what [people] have,” said Thomas. “If they can have income with what they have in their gardens, they’re going to stay in their communities.”

Thomas and Spinelli Barrile suggest that if average people and international governments and organizations better understood the reality of life in the majority of Haiti, they would be more willing to support small, community-based organizations and projects – where Thomas and Spinelli Barrile suggest real change can be made.  

“[Community organizations] are the ones who are going to be able to have an impact, and a long-lasting impact,” said Spinelli Barrile. “[International governments and organizations] don’t want to fund Haiti because of corruption, they think it’s hopeless. This is the kind of messaging that people continue to receive, but you have to see the actual things that are happening outside of Port-au-Prince…Look outside and this is where you are going to find the solutions.”