For many Haitians, Jan. 12 invokes a somber mood. It marks the anniversary of the catastrophic earthquake that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Haitians two years ago and left millions more destitute and displaced. In the aftermath of the heart-wrenching devastation, Haiti experienced unprecedented global support as humanitarian assistance and volunteers poured onto the island in throngs to join search-and-rescue missions for survivors and to help out any way they could.
The whole world was fixated on Haiti, a nation that was already considered to be the most economically indigent population in the Western Hemisphere.
But the work that needed to be done was incalculable. The damage seemed infinite, beyond dollars and cents. Yet it set the stage for a cross-generational response that many Haitians haven't seen in decades.
With more than 1 million Haitians living in the United States alone, and another 2 million in neighboring Dominican Republic as well as Canada and France, much of the nation's most potent human-resource pool is largely outside the land.
Since the earthquake, however, there has been a renewed sense of patriotism within the Haitian Diaspora. First-generation Haitian Americans in particular, whose associations to the island derived primarily from stories heard or media images seen, suddenly became active participants in the reconstruction efforts and seem to have gotten more involved in Haiti than in decades past.
On May 12, 2011, in a meeting with the Haitian Diaspora Federation at the Karibe Convention Center in Port-au-Prince, then-President-elect Michel Martelly touched on the need to join arms by calling on all Haitians — young and old, domestic and abroad — to come together to organize economic and social contributions into a single fund designed to stabilize the country's future. Though news of this endowment being officially established has yet to be reported, some political observers believe that it is one of the motivating factors behind Martelly's pledge to reverse Haiti's long-standing ban on dual citizenship — to forge a more genuine bond with an overseas community that contributes more than 25 percent of Haiti's gross domestic product with allowances sent to relatives back home. That is nearly $2 billion each year.
Whether this reversal will ever be realized or be enough to meet the extraordinary challenges the country currently faces remains to be seen. But the surge in involvement by the Diaspora has become visible.
Today, people from all over the Diaspora are traveling in and out of Haiti for the first time to contribute their talents to the island in ways they haven't before.
Some have returned permanently. Young Haitian Americans like Samuel Darguin, 25, and Fabrice Armand, 29, represent the spectrum of participation that Haiti has been witnessing from its sons and daughters since the earthquake.
Darguin, who is the founder of the Haitian American Caucus, returned to live in Haiti in March of 2010. Originally from the island, he's a graduate in political science at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and now works as the country director for HAC, where he develops sustainable community programs for families in Port-au-Prince that are facing challenges in employment, education and professional development. Using École Shalom des Frères, a primary school in Croix-des-Bouquets, as home base, Darguin and HAC have housed more than a thousand foreign volunteers to help him implement these programs since the earthquake in 2010.
"From March 2010 to September 2010, we housed 30 volunteers every two weeks," Darguin says. "That's 60 visitors a month." And in 2011 that number was just over 300, many of whom were Haitian Americans, returning back to the island to provide expertise in areas like education, construction, microfinance and agriculture.
Yet Darguin insists that there are even greater possibilities and room for more to get involved. He understands the appearance of disconnect that may have existed between Haitians abroad and their countrymen in the homeland for decades; however, he feels that the current condition of the country creates a new occasion for Haiti to build a superior legacy.
"For our parents' generation, Haiti is the place they were forced to flee from in search of a better life. So for [many of Haitian descent], visiting Haiti was often discouraged because it was the land their parents had left behind."
But for those who remain in the trenches long after the media coverage is gone, according to Darguin, Haiti will remember them as the true heroes of the recovery.
For Armand, his commitment to rebuilding Haiti has been just as reflective.
Born and raised on the island, Armand moved to New York at the age of 15. He attended St. John's University, where he completed a bachelor's degree in legal studies and a master's in international relations. He has worked in the marketing industry for the past 10 years, including at the American Civil Liberties Union, where he spearheaded the organization's fundraising initiatives.
As a member of the executive committee of the Global Syndicate, an international fundraising network of professionals with a history of involvement in Haiti, Armand raised more than $300,000 for relief efforts after the earthquake. Although he continues to reside in New York, Armand's vision for his homeland hasn't swayed.
"I used to go back to Haiti every two years before the tragedy," he says, "but my most recent trip on Dec. 15 was my longest since the earthquake — I was there for 21 days."
Having felt compelled to raise the bar on how he would further devote his talents, Armand's new project is a documentary called Haiti Is Me, aimed at bringing dignity back to the people by chronicling little-known economic, cultural and social advancements made by Haitians that the international mainstream press has failed to cover — a dignity that he believes is vital for the new generation of Haitians to see if Haiti is ever to be restored as the "Pearl of the Antilles."
Armand hopes that the documentary, which he is currently shopping to U.S. film distributors for a June 2012 release, will help alleviate what he believes is one of the country's biggest Achilles' heels — tourism.
Always the optimist, like Darguin, he sees an enormous window of opportunity for Haiti to forever change its fortunes. "One thing that was surprisingly evident to me on this trip was the sense that this current government has the consent of the Haitian people, and a feeling this isn't going to be business as usual."
Perhaps if there is to be a silver lining in the devastation the country has endured, it is that it has galvanized Haiti's prodigal sons and daughters to come home and do the work of rebuilding their nation.
Jean McGianni Celestin is a contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.