Did you realise that it has been three years since the Caribbean republic of Haiti was devastated by the massive earthquake that killed over 220,000 people and affected the lives of over three million? For many of us, the natural disaster has already faded in our memories – not so Melissa Gilchrist Higgins, the Dubai resident who was moved so much by news reports of the earthquake’s aftermath, that she caught the first flight she could to Haiti, to join the massive relief effort that was underway.
‘Everyone always asks me, why did you decide Haiti,’ she recalls. ‘But I still can’t give a definitive answer or a reason – it just affected me in a way I wasn’t expecting, it totally came out of the blue. I was watching the news every day and seeing the disaster unfold, watching the death count and the number of casualties rising every day, and I just had to do something. To tell the truth, I’d barely even heard of Haiti.’
Having fallen in love with Haiti, and not satisfied with just being another volunteer, after her first visit Melissa returned to Dubai determined to set up a project that would benefit the stricken country in the long term. Drawing on her background in the fashion industry, the result was Frontline Fashion, an online magazine that combined her love of style with a social conscience, and a line of slogan t-shirts under her label Zanmi, the Haitian word for friend. One hundred per cent of profits from the label go straight back to carrying on the work she began in Haiti three years ago.
‘In the first year we achieved so much, and now it’s a case of keeping that momentum going,’ says Melissa. ‘Although you’re not seeing as much in the papers about Haiti any more, for me what is special is that there are so many people who were involved in the beginning that are still involved now. People that didn’t just go in, put some money in, pat themselves on the back and walk away.’
Having partnered with ACTS, who are on the ground in Haiti throughout the year, Melissa has just returned from another trip to the country, where she has seen her efforts start to come to fruition. ‘Phase one of our project was for an orphanage, a dormitory, and a school,’ she says. ‘That phase is now complete. The house is an absolute haven – we even have toilets, showers and running water, which is almost unheard of! We have six orphans who live there full time – plus two classrooms and 39 school kids from the local area who come in on a daily basis, and we have three dormitories with four bunk beds in each where volunteers can stay.’
But her involvement with Haiti doesn’t end there – Melissa and ACTS are now putting the ambitious phase two of the plan into action. ‘We’ve just bought eight acres of land for phase two of our work in Haiti,’ she explains. ‘This is our long-term project for the community. That’s going to take some time, but the idea is investing directly back into the community and employing local people, giving them a sense of community and continuing to rebuild the country. There’ll be a school there, and dormitories, everything we’ve already got but in a bigger scale. Eight acres is a huge plot, but we want to make it a really safe haven – families there will be given a plot of land and we’re working with some agricultural experts to teach the families about the soil conditions to grow their own crops. We hope that the community will become self-sustaining in time.’
To reach their goals, Melissa is planning a series of new initiatives for the year ahead. Firstly, individual children can be sponsored. It costs US$35 a month to send one of the local kids to school, which covers one meal (often the only meal the kids will have all day), plus supplies, the teacher’s salary, and fabric (which is then made into a uniform by a seamstress employed from the local community). Likewise, to sponsor one of the orphans, it’s $150 a month, which covers everything, from general care, clothing and food to medical check ups and trips to the dentist.
Melissa is hoping to organise a trip for volunteers later on in the year (for more information, keep an eye on the website). She will also be appealing to local schools here in the UAE to create supply packs for the school children in Haiti, with essentials such as stationery. ‘We need 150 to last us for the year. We will distribute ziplock bags with a note inside detailing what’s needed. The contents will be a maximum of $10 (Dhs37).’
The difference that the organisation has made over the last three years is clear to see, says Melissa. ‘When I first met them, the kids had a look in their eyes that I’d never seen before, a real emptiness – they’d obviously witnessed things that nobody should have to, especially children. On my last visit, they’ve got that spark back – they’ve got attitude, and can even be a bit obnoxious! In other words, they’re real kids, healthy and happy.’
To find out more about Frontline Fashion and Zanmi, log on to www.frontlinef.com. Zanmi t-shirts can also be purchased from www.aura-b.com.