The Lycee de Cite Soleil is the only public high school in Cite Soleil, a municipality that has approximately 300,000 residents, and thousands (if not tens of thousands) of high school-aged teenagers. The Lycee de Cite Soleil can only hold a few hundred; the rest either need to pay for expensive private schools or give up on a high-school certificate. Most end up doing the latter. Their job prospects, already small to begin with, get smaller; the chances of joining armed gangs (for boys) or getting pregnant (for girls) get higher.
The Lycee has become the only ‘porte de sortie’ (exit door) for many parents who want their children to escape Cite Soleil. The fees are minimal, paying for books and uniforms, and there is something resembling a national standard. It is within reach for many families in Cite Soleil, when everything else is not. Then the earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010 damaged the Lycee so badly that everyone was afraid to enter the building, and classrooms were erected in temporary shacks in the schoolyard; the number of students who could physically fit in the space grew smaller, and that exit door shut a little bit tighter. For four years, there was talk of reconstruction and ‘lekol gratis’ (free schools) by the government and the NGOs – those words rung hollow as they fell on the top of the sheet metal in the schoolyard of the Lycee.
Then in 2014, an engineering company called Miyamoto International decided to partner with the government and the private sector to rehabilitate the Lycee and make it anti-seismic. But so many construction projects in Cite Soleil fail because of severe distrust between the community and the ‘implementing partners’; so Robi, who had graduated from the Lycee of Cite Soleil, decided to act as an intermediary to ensure that this would end differently. That is a story and a post for another time – in the end, the Lycee was rehabilitated successfully, and hundreds of students are now sitting in actual classrooms for the first time in years.
The oldest class of students, the ‘Philo’ students, had invited Robi to meet with them so they could thank him for his involvement in the rehabilitation of the school. But they also had serious questions for him about their own futures: would they ever (or should they) escape Cite Soleil? What could they make of themselves? Graduating from high school is a serious accomplishment in almost any part of Haiti, but what was next? Robi had stood in their shoes less than a decade ago, and wasn’t going to lie to them about how hard it was going to be. He told them that they’d beaten so many odds to get where they were, but the odds were still against them. People would discriminate against them because they were from Cite Soleil; higher education and jobs would be harder to reach. They would always have to try ten times harder than the people around them, and would never be given the benefit of the doubt. Everyone would be waiting for them to fail.
But he told the students that it was up to them to prove everyone wrong. The fate of students graduating from high school ten years from now depended on them breaking the stereotypes, the same way their fate was influenced by Robi and his peers ten years ago. When he was in high school, it was even harder: gangsters like Amaral and Evens were in power, students were harassed, and teachers weren’t paid. They persevered, they graduated, and they changed what they could. Everything Robi has done since high school, down to growing dreadlocks, was to be a walking example that not all young people from Cite Soleil are gangsters. They would now have to build on that. Robi told told them to not take short-cuts, and that their reputations were their greatest assets – the quickest way to getting off-track or even killed was accepting easy deals from politicians and businessmen. They had to stay honest, work twice has hard as everyone else, and look after each other if they wanted to move forward.
They talked for a few hours, and Robi said they could call him anytime they needed him. It was almost funny in a sad way: as hard as it was to rehabilitate the Lycee, it would be much harder to rehabilitate the structure of these young people’s lives. Their foundations had been weakened not by an earthquake, but by over a decade of violence and stigma. If only rebar and scaffolding could fix that.