It was 4:43 in the afternoon on a typical hot and humid January day in Haiti when the first tremor stuck and rattled the ground below Port-au-Prince with relentless terror. Haiti has had its fair share of political, economic and natural disasters in the past yet nothing prepared this poverty-stricken island nation of 10 million people for the destruction and aftermath of the January 10, 2010 7.0 magnitude earthquake.
As the earth shook with violent ferocity and the buildings began to crumble and fall, hundreds of thousands of Haitians were killed and entire communities were flattened. An estimated 1.5 million people were left homeless, and most were in Haiti’s overcrowded capital Port-au-Prince. International aid poured into Haiti along with countless NGOs (non-governmental organizations) who set up emergency services to provide immediate medical treatment, water, food and much-needed shelter.
Faced with the urgent needs of providing immediate shelter to the homeless, hundreds of tent communities popped up around the city, some legal and some not. Despite good intentions, many of the tent communities were in deplorable conditions often lacking water and sanitation and safety. Some tents were made from donated plastic tarp while others were more homemade being patched together out of spare linens and plastic sheets. When the floods and unbearable heat came, the situations inside the tent communities become like hell on earth if they weren’t already miserable. Tragically, hardly any humanitarian aid reached some of these communities and families were left to fend for themselves to survive.
Within the dirty and dusty walls of their government-owned tent camp on Rue des Freres, a group of women survivors begin to gather informally as a way to lift themselves out of the desperation, isolation and devastation that the earthquake brought. If was on a hot day in June under the shade of a tree that OFEDA (Organisation des Femmes Devouees en Action) was born. OFEDA is a unique and independent grassroots women’s group that was formed within the confines of the tent community after the earthquake. Feeling absolutely traumatized after the loss of their homes, communities, businesses and loved ones, the women of OFEDA came together to offer each other support, encouragement and hope for a better future.
Soon after the earthquake American Paula Allen, a social documentary photographer, entered these women’s lives. Working on assignment with International Medical Core, Allen realized that there was much work to be done in Haiti but she wanted to do something different that would have a long-lasting impact. Searching for ideas, Allen teamed up with a professional storyteller Laura Simms who had learned about some of the amazing things happening within the tent communities including the powerful group of women survivors of OFEDA. Allen was intrigued and asked Laura to bring her to meet them beginning a long-term relationship supporting the women of OFEDA.
After Allen’s initial meeting, she returned to Haiti every few months to learn more about what these women needed and how she could personally help them succeed. It was clear that the women wanted to work and make money, and they had many marketable skills such as making household products like shampoo out of scratch. Allen believed strongly in the philosophy that in order to truly support OFEDA, she had to ask them what they needed and not tell them. All too often governments and non-profits come into a country and don’t follow this basic rule of thumb.
Inspired Allen returned home to New York City and began searching the internet for ideas. She did a simple google search on how to make natural soap products and found the website run by Marla Bosworth of Backporch Soap Company. Allen sent off an email to Marla beginning a long friendship and commitment to helping the women of Haiti. A few months later, Paula, Marla and Amanda Gail (a colleague of Marla’s) traveled to Haiti with donated supplies at hand and taught the women how to make homemade natural soaps that they could sell to make a living. It was the first of many endeavors that lead the women of OFEDA to finding a new source of income enabling them to grow and support the group.
Over the next couple of years Allen continued to find volunteers who went with her to Haiti to help the women learn new marketable skills such as homemade embroidered cards, crochet hats and clothing and perfumes. She was supported by Willa Shalit, an artist, producer, writer and social good entrepreneur whose company Fairwinds Trading joined forces with the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund and retailer, Macy’s to create Heart of Haiti. Shalit brought the first artists to meet with OFEDA to teach them different techniques to develop the card making business. Despite the treacherous working conditions inside the tents and outside in the heat and dust, they persevered and that is what really amazed Allen. Their amazing strength and desire to change their lives from devastation to prosperity.
Below are some of the products that the women of OFEDA sell today.
A year ago, the tent community where the woman resided for almost four years finally shut down and the families were relocated. Around this time OFEDA also had another lucky break. A friend who had previously visited the women in the camp on a trip with Willa, donated enough money for the women to rent a house. Other women joined in and did an IndieGoGo campaign to cover additional costs. The new space offered them an incredible opportunity. For the first time ever, these women would have a stable, safe and loving place to work and come together as a group.
Last February, during my trip to Haiti our group of bloggers had the opportunity to meet with these women and learn about their lives. We visited them at their new building where we received a demonstration on making embroidered cards, toured the shop of products for sale and meet some of the inspiring women of OFEDA. We also brought with us a special gift. Each one of us collected enough purses and handbags to fill up an extra suitcase and brought them with us to Haiti. The gift was meaningful in its symbolism. A purse represented dignity and a place for each woman to keep her earnings. The women were delighted by the gift and sang us a beautiful song in Creole.
The group now has around 200 women ranging in age from 18 to 82 years old, and currently work in one of three areas: Hand-stitched cards, homemade soaps and perfumes and crochet. The building has provided the women with a life of hope and possibility for a better life with security, opportunity and dignity.
After we introduced ourselves, it was time to receive a live demonstration on how to embroider the cards.
We realized that making the cards was a lot more difficult than it looked. It takes a steady hand and a lot of patience, creativity and loves.
We left with one last group shot with some of the remarkable women of OFEDA. It was a happy meeting and our group leader, Danica, who has known these women since the beginning said she could see a real change. Instead of faces of desperation and sadness, now a small glimmer of hope and pride can be seen in their smiles.
Here is a video filmed in 2013 by one of the #Bloggers4Haiti: