Soft spoken and demure, Junor Hesgazons leans intently into his schoolwork, his eyes casting constantly to the chalkboard as the day’s lesson takes shape. His white collared shirt neatly creased despite the humidity of southern Haiti, Hesgazons looks every bit the engineer he hopes one day to be.
“I like to study engineering. I like mathematics and physics,” Hesgazons said. “I would like to build roads and bridges as a civil engineer.”
But for Hesgazons, that journey thus far has been a hard one. Growing up poor near the city of Les Cayes, Hesgazons has struggled throughout his life to stay in school. For he and his family, as with many across Haiti, the $70 yearly school fees are a major burden.
“Before, a family friend helped me [with fees], but he cannot afford to help me anymore,” Hesgazons said.
When Hurricane Ike came ashore in September 2008, those difficulties were compounded. Across Haiti, more than 850,000 people were affected. More than 70,000 were left without homes, their livelihoods destroyed. Hurricane Ike, along with Hurricanes Hanna and Gustav, cast many in the impoverished island nation further into poverty.
“Flooding destroyed my house completely,” Hesgazons said of the storm. “[Now] we live in the neighborhood, in the house of a friend. It is difficult.”
Displaced by the flooding, which struck just as a new school semester was starting in Haiti, Hesgazons and his family were unable to raise the money needed for school fees, as the crops upon which they depended for both food and income were lost to flooding. That was when Hesgazons got news of assistance being offered by Caritas Haiti.
“My parents knew of Caritas through church,” Hesgazons said. “The father there put us in touch with Caritas when he learned they were offering scholarships to people affected by the storms.”
That help came as part of ongoing Caritas activities in the wake of the 2008 hurricane season. With offices in each of the ten governmental departments of which Haiti is comprised, Caritas was quick to respond to the emergency needs of those affected by the storms – among the worst in Haiti’s history – providing food, shelter, and essential non-food items. Once those needs were met, Caritas Haiti turned its attention to the interim needs, from Cash For Work projects aimed at clearing mud from public buildings and roads to agriculture rehabilitation projects aimed at providing livestock to farmers who lost their animals in the flooding.
“In September the parents had to send their children to school and it was very difficult for them,” said Father Wilner Tilus, parish priest of the Ducis Parish in the Les Cayes Diocese and former National Director of Caritas Haiti. “In this area, and in agriculture, we thought we could provide the most help.”
Through the education project, Caritas Haiti is providing 300 students like Hesgazons with scholarships to cover three months of school fees. Students were selected from families most severely impacted by the hurricanes. The scholarships were intended to offer a critical window of time for families most severely affected to begin recovering their livelihoods, and again pay the fees necessary to keep their kids in school. For students like Hesgazons, even paying for school uniforms and supplies can be a hardship without help – but that help has always come when he needed it.
“My parents work the land as farmers. They cannot afford a uniform for me,” Hesgazons said. “Another agency provided it, and Caritas provided the school fees.”
An earnest student, Hesgazons hopes one day to help support his parents and his three sisters, all of whom are still displaced by Hurricane Ike. Though unemployment is high in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Hesgazons knows that his chances are stronger now that he is able to return to school. Having seen his home nearly destroyed, and his family uprooted by the devastating storms of 2008, Hesgazons is thankful for the chance he has been given.
“[Without assistance] I would have lost the year. I would not have been able to come back to school,” Hesgazons said. “But I am here.”