Friday, September 25, 2009

Who is Belinda Gédéon?

This year, Belinda Gédéon dropped out of high school.

Her godmother, Sister Antoinine, first described the situation to Jack and I a few weeks ago. Sr. Antoinine approached us after Mass one morning and in a cloud of French told the story of a young girl unable to attend her final year of high school. At the time, school was just beginning throughout all of Haiti. It has now been in session for two weeks.

During this time, I have had many conversations about Belinda with Sr. Antoinine, Fr. Medenel, and Covsky (our friend and sometime-translator in Haiti). I never once spoke with Belinda who lives an hour away in Cap Haitian. I know very little about her. Everything I know of Belinda came from conversations with other people and a brief, handwritten letter composed in French.

The letter, roughly translated, reads as follows:

Madame Andrea and Msr Jacque,

I greet you in the holy name of Jesus.  I am writing to describe my situation to you: I am 18 years old, I am at the very end of my studies, and now for economic reasons my parents have told me I must quit school. But I would like to complete high school and go on to study something that would help me in the future. I come to you asking, could you please sponsor me for my last year of high school? I had already started to go but my parents forbid me because they could not pay.

I know that many people in Ste. Suzanne have benefited from your help. I ask you please for a part of that help for my final year of high school. Thank you for giving me this chance.

The peace of God be with you,

Belinda Gédéon

Sr. Antoinine brought me this letter in addition to all of Belinda’s tuition information. The cost of Philo—the fourth year of high school—is approximately $500 USD. I submitted Belinda’s letter, tuition documents, and story to one of our affiliated foundations. 

The foundation was interested but cautious. They have begun phasing out student sponsorships in favor of community-building projects. Even so, they requested more information and promised to make a decision at the next board meeting (last night). In particular, they wanted to know why Belinda’s parents were unable to pay, the circumstances surrounding this last year, and more about Belinda herself.

I called up Covsky—a law student who grew up in Cap Haitian—for a little context. How important is a high school diploma? Can you get a job without one? What is a reasonable tuition rate in Cap Haitian? Etc.

Covsky and I chatted in English over cell phones while I sat in a public square in the heart of Ste. Suzanne. Primary school was just letting out. Uniformed boys and girls, tiny and curious, milled about staring at me and my pad of paper. I smiled and waved; they smiled briefly and turned shyly away. Covsky and I discussed Belinda, but really we were discussing these students as well. In one ear, Covsky was saying “You can’t even get a job with a high school degree, much less without one. You have to graduate from high school because otherwise you’ll never be accepted to university. At university you learn your trade and that’s the only way to get a job.”

(The unemployment rate in Haiti is 70%)

“But even if we find a sponsor for Belinda, how on earth could she pay for university? Wouldn’t she just be stuck again?”

“Oh that’s much easier—especially if you’re studying to become a nurse or doctor. Parishes or organizations in Haiti will often sponsor you in exchange for a few years of service after graduation.”

The imperative to finish high school sent my mind back to a conversation with Fr. Medenel the evening before. This year he had opened a school in Ste. Suzanne for 7th and 9th graders. Baffled that there was no 8th grade, Jack and I asked Fr. Medenel why.

Fr. Medenel launched into a story about how the parents in Ste. Suzanne had demanded a middle school.  They were tired of sending their children far away to a public school that was continually closed because the government teachers went unpaid for months at a time. He had planned to begin only with 7th grade, but parents begged him to include the 9th grade as well. Fr. Medenel described a test that public schools administer to their students; only after passing this test could you continue to the next grade. Last year the public school failed to administer this test to the 8th graders from Ste. Suzanne. Consequently they could not graduate to 9th grade. Yet because they had already taken the 8th grade curriculum they could not attend 8th grade again. The parents of these students entreated Fr. Medenel to include 9th grade otherwise their children would have nowhere to go and no hope of attending high school.

Back in the square, I told Covsky that I would hike up the road to talk to Sister Antoinine later that day. He offered to translate over the phone. I laughed and said that it would be a huge help.

The road to the sisters’ house is steep and eroded. It’s composed of occasional concrete, clay, and rock. Deep gullies have been formed by fits of torrential rainfall. A well-constructed concrete gutter, built years before, stands perfectly intact but several feet above the road. Covsky’s words had made a big impression, and I pondered them on my way to Sister Antoinine. More than anything, they reminded me of a story I heard during my visit to Haiti last February.  Jack and I had lunched with “Jean,” a regional director of a large foundation in Haiti. Jean had grown up poor in Port au Prince; like Belinda, he dropped out of high school because the tuition was too much for his family. Afterwards, he worked random odd jobs—as a mechanic, a welder. His goal through it all was to finish high school, but he could never get enough money saved. Years later he came across an old English textbook and learned enough to get a job with a Canadian-based company. The owner was so impressed with him that he sent Jean back to school. Jean described his return to high school so many years later as a blessing, but also as very difficult. He sat in classrooms with his much younger, 18 year old classmates while still holding down his job.  Jean graduated at last, went on to university, and then began work with the foundation: building infrastructure, managing trash, and constructing schools in Haiti.

Jean’s return to high school seemed so belated, so unlikely. Was there any hope for Belinda?

Across from the sisters’ house is the Ste. Suzanne clinic, run by Sister Antoinine. She was working there when I arrived, and motioned me to sit in one of the blue wooden chairs outside.  She joined me, and after a few pleasantries I got down to business, determined to get the information the interested foundation needed. Unfortunately, this was one of the most indirect and convoluted conversations in my life. Sr. Antoinine speaks soft, rapid French. I speak halting French and pathetic Creole. Even with the occasional help of Covsky over the phone, the conversation went in circles. After an hour or so, I gleaned only that Belinda had gone to primary school in Ste. Suzanne and had been a highly intelligent and diligent student. She wants to become a doctor. She hopes to help her younger brother and sister through school. She would happily work in Ste. Suzanne the summer after graduation in exchange for tuition.

I asked again and again why her parents could not pay, what the circumstances were, but Sr. Antoinine would only repeat that the parents could not pay and that Belinda needed help.  I asked Covsky to translate. Again Sr. Antoinine gave the same response. I explained that the board’s decision might hinge on this information, but the reply was identical. It was baffling and infuriating. “YES,” I wanted to say, “I am quite aware of these facts, but don’t you know what is at stake? I do not want to pry, I have no personal interest in any of these questions, but if you care about this girl surely you can come up with something more?”

And yet, each time, Sr. Antoinine’s response was the same, calm and simple, as if no other information could possibly be required. I finally thanked Sr. Antoinine, walked home, and sent the information I did have to the foundation.

This morning, I learned that Belinda’s tuition was not approved. Before the foundation can approve the funds, they must know why it was a hardship case and why the family could not help with at least part of the money. With this information, they may be able to sponsor Belinda but until then, Belinda waits.

I can entirely sympathize with the foundation's decision. They receive far more requests than they can possibly fulfill, and Sr. Antoinine seemed to willfully withhold the information they need. There are so many students who cannot afford to go to school—in Haiti, in the United States, everywhere. What makes Belinda Gédéon more deserving than they? Why should she receive a sponsorship when so many others do not? Yet in Haiti, there seem to be no scholarships whatsoever and the attitude exhibited by Sr. Antoinine was quite different: Belinda is deserving, she needs help, she has come to our attention, and we are able to help. The idea that further justification or context might be needed mystified Sr. Antoinine.

And so Belinda will not go to school.

In the stories I heard from Covsky, Fr. Medenel, and Jean there was such urgency. Everything hinged on moving from one level of education to the next. Yet so many obstacles stood in the way. In addition to excelling in your studies (no small thing—9th graders in Ste Suzanne study five languages in addition to math, science, and history; at the end of the year they must pass a national exam), you must scrape together tuition every year or contend with public schools that are open only sporadically. The odds of managing all of these things seemed very remote.

It was exactly this urgency that the foundation needed to hear concerning Belinda.  Although I could not extract it from Sister Antoinine, I’m certain that it’s part of Belinda’s story. To struggle through the Haitian education system for so long, to be so close to self-sufficiency, to know that just one year later you could attend university through your own work and merits, and then to stop—perhaps permanently—because for that last year your parents cannot pay the final $500… I can only imagine how Belinda must feel.

I’m frustrated with Sr. Antoinine yet most of all I am profoundly sad for Belinda.



  1. Hey Jack!

    What an adventure and a challenge for your first year of marriage. Our family's thoughts and prayers go out to you looks like a great organization. God Bless.

    Paul & Angela Hager

  2. At a general level:

    Why on earth, in a community lacking in well repairmen, is a university degree required to get a job? How about a job in the growing field of well repair? I realize this isn't your problem to solve..but it's a question that I often have.

    Anyway I love this posts and am really glad to see them. Hope I see you soon and in the meantime keep it coming :)

  3. Hi Roy,

    I am baffled by this as well. There are many vocational schools in Haiti, but I believe they're similar to associate degree programs in the United States (thus you must finish high school before attending). Given the difficulty of getting through high school here, specialized training becomes quite difficult to obtain.

    Another problem is that many towns are too poor to hire someone to, say, fix a well. Lucien said that well repair in Ste. Suzanne would have to be volunteer as no one would pay for the work. I can't tell if Ste. Suzanne is actually too poor or if there's just a lack of "ownership" for the wells.


  4. One more piece of news: someone has very generously sponsored Belinda! Many thanks to everyone else who responded. If you're interested in sponsoring another student, please see