Ivan Skafar, Volunteer in Haiti for Lawyers Without Borders Canada (LWBC)
I have now been in Haiti for a little more than 3 months of my 8-month mandate as a volunteer legal advisor with Lawyers Without Borders Canada (hereinafter «LWBC») in Port-au-Prince. Initially, I had no idea what to expect of this foreign land. Although I have travelled and worked quite a bit in both Central and South America, my arrival at the Port-au-Prince airport in mid-November was the first time that I had ever set foot on Haitian soil. A few friends of mine had shared their experiences in this country with me, but I don’t think that anything could have truly prepared me for this initial phase of my journey.
I have yet to venture very far from the Nation’s capital, but the very little that I have seen so far has already left me spellbound. Just a short drive outside of Port-au-Prince and you become engulfed by mountainous landscapes painted with agricultural plots and surrounded by the ocean.
Even more fascinating is Haiti’s extremely rich culture which consists of a fusion of African and European elements that is unique in the Americas and the world. Haitians have managed to produce an original language as well as an extensive body of unexampled art and music, which is by any measures utterly impressive.
With all that there is to experience, my limited time here will undoubtedly only allow me to scratch the surface of everything that this beautiful republic in the Caribbean Sea has to offer.
It has been a very interesting and informative time to start this position when I did. This past fall marked the grand beginning of the AJULIH (Accès à la justice et lutte contre l'impunité en Haïti) project which has enabled LWBC to establish a strong presence in Haiti over at least the next 5 years. This translates into a new, freshly-renovated office which is slowly being populated with an entirely new team of motivated individuals who understand the importance of working together to make a difference.
Collectively, our main objective at this early stage of the project is to determine exactly how LWBC is going to insert itself into the Port-au-Prince community in order to work in collaboration with local organisations to protect the rights of people in vulnerable situations. This has provided me the unique opportunity to both witness and play a role in the development of a project as it evolves into a strong and efficient network of organizations collaborating to accomplish a common goal.
This includes the creation of support mechanisms which are tailored to individual organisations that are working hard to promote issues such as access to justice, gender equality, citizen participation and the fight against impunity.
As a volunteer legal advisor at ASFC’s field office in Port-au-Prince, my principal role is to support local human rights organisations in the strategic litigation of emblematic cases that we hope will have an impact on the future of the rule of law in this country. Concretely, my work consists of the research and writing of legal reports, analysing and evaluating evidence, as well as vulgarising legal material and planning and running various workshops in order to raise public awareness.
I was also fortunate enough to have arrived in Haiti just in time to participate, along with other members of both LWBC’s field team in Haiti and LWBC headquarters, in the 32nd annual Conférence International des Barreaux that took place this year in Port-au-Prince.
This was a fantastic opportunity for LWBC to introduce itself to the legal community in Haiti and we definitely took advantage of every minute of it. Ultimately, the event was a great success for the organisation, but it also provided me with the opportunity to meet and share with other young lawyers from around the world who have similar passions and goals for the future.
As much as my experience so far has been overwhelmingly positive, I will admit that there have been a few minor bumps along the road. Deciding to pack your bags and move to a foreign and unknown country for close to a year is never an easy thing to do. Although this is far from being my first experience living abroad, every country holds its own unique set of challenges and there is always a transition phase that one must go through in order to adapt to a temporary new life.
The main issue that I am currently struggling with is the language. Although I knew that Haiti has 2 official languages, Creole and French, I was ignorant to the fact that a clear majority of Haitians do not actually speak French. Normally, I prefer to have at least somewhat of a base of knowledge in the local language prior to moving to a country. It is simply just a more enjoyable experience when you can communicate effectively with the people.
However, this was not the case this time around. Fortunately, my ability to work is not affected by this shortcoming as the law in Haiti, and everything that has anything to do with it, is exclusively in French – this is an issue in itself that will not be addressed here but that definitely merits further reflection.
Additionally, Port-au-Prince is quite different from the rest of Haiti. The reality of the heightened security concerns in this city mean that certain restrictions are imposed on us for safety purposes that are not common to anything I had previously experienced. I will admit that this took a little bit of getting used to, but I have managed to come to terms with the situation.
Nonetheless, any problems that I have had thus far are heavily outweighed by the benefits that this experience has brought me even at this early point in my mandate. I am also fortunate to be working in a team of dedicated individuals who have not only welcomed me with open arms, but who continue to do everything in their power to facilitate my adaptive process.
Every new experience is a chance to shapes one’s character. I believe that it is important to continuously put yourself in new and challenging situations in order to accelerate personal development and grow as an individual. Working for LWBC has provided me with a fantastic opportunity to do exactly that, both as an individual and professionally.
The importance of the work that LWBC does here in Haiti and in other parts of the world is what motivated me to join this organisation. I went to law school in the hopes that it would enable me to have the greatest impact possible. I had always believed, even in the very beginning of my law degree, that working for LWBC was a necessary step in my professional development, and my experience so far has only confirmed my expectation.