Most young people dream of getting out of Cite Soleil – the lucky ones through school, others through visions of becoming athletes or musicians, others through politics and friends in high places. Those who give up on those dreams and feel trapped are generally the ones who end up becoming part of the local gangs. Anyone who gets the chance to leave is envied, and anyone who can leave but doesn’t is regarded with suspicion. With this, anyone with talent or opportunity who wants to stay in Cite Soleil is usually pushed out by friends and neighbors who can’t imagine any genuine reason for someone wanting to live where they themselves so desperately want to escape. And so Cite Soleil is gradually drained of many of its brightest young stars, with its own ‘local Diaspora’ of people raised in Cite Soleil who no longer call it their home.
This is what happened to Robi – he wanted to be the one to break the trend, to make something of himself and build a life in the only place he’d ever called home. But after graduating high school, getting a good job with an international organization, and marrying an American woman, the rumors began to spread. No one could understand why he was still living in Cite Soleil; he must be a spy, someone must be paying him to still be here, they thought. So he was forced to move ten minutes away, just beyond the borders of the place he was proud to call home. And since then, he has heard the story over and over and over again: young people who were raised in Cite Soleil, who want to go back or give back, but are afraid to.
There is a reason for the paranoia of Cite Soleil’s residents: many former residents of Cite Soleil have used their connections to manipulate their old neighbors for political gain. Soleyans, as residents of Cite Soleil are called, have been exploited and used by every kind of person in Haiti: politicians, religious leaders, journalists, volunteers, aid workers, businessmen, gangsters, and each other. And while the paranoia has its roots in reality, it also holds the community back: the kinds of people who leave Cite Soleil are often the ones who can help it most. So there has to be a way of making some sort of bridge – but the gap is wide and deep.
There are some people who have a longer reach than most. Cite Soleil’s prodigal son is Evens Pierre, a young man who grew up in the Soley 19 housing project and ended up becoming Haiti’s greatest boxer. He is Cite Soleil’s greatest success story: Evens grew up on the street, an orphan, at a time when the odds for a young man’s survival were slim. He now lives in Panama and competes internationally, and is ranked 15th in the world for middleweight at the time this is being written. He is an idol for Soleyan youth, not just because he made it out, but because he’s not afraid to say where he’s come from, to represent Cite Soleil around the world. And this past week, Evens Pierre flew into Port au Prince for a match.
Robi wanted Evens to know what he meant to Cite Soleil, and to see if the prodigal son would come home. He had a T-shirt made that said, “Cite Soleil is proud of you, Evens”, and went to the game. After Evens won, he and Robi began to talk, and Evens told Robi he wanted to go back to his old neighborhood. A few days later, Robi picked up Evens in his beat up Rav4, and drove him into Cite Soleil. The reactions were incredible: people, young and old, ran up to the boxer to tell him how much his story meant to them. Evens went to his old house in Soley 19, and hung out with friends and strangers; a bottle of champagne was passed around as everyone sat on the curb. Robi took him to Radio Boukman, the local radio station, to do an interview about what it meant to be a Soleyan and a star. Then Robi took him to the practice of the Cite Soleil Basketball Team, an initiative to bring young men from different – and sometimes rival – blocks to play basketball and represent the community. Evens gave a real and rousing speech about using sports to change the way people of you – to be more than the stereotypes people expect you to be.
At the end of the day, Evens turned to Robi and said, ‘when I am in Haiti, I want to be in Cite Soleil’. He wanted to have his own house in his old neighborhood; the prodigal son wanted to come home. When he told his friends and remaining family this, they all told him he must be insane to want to move back to the Cite. The old perception still stands strong: no one who is anyone would want to live here of their own free will. Maybe it would take someone like Evens to prove that it was possible to go back to Cite Soleil once you have broken through its strange gravitational pull and escaped. Maybe not. We can only hope that it does.