Joy unearthed amidst Haitian reconstruction

Getting to know orphans as they deal with disaster and displacement. Watching break dancers joyously hit the concrete streets. Speaking with distant relatives for a brief, heartfelt moment.

Koze Ayiti, a non-profit organization based out of the University of Miami’s School of Communication, makes these scenes possible by giving Haitians and the Haitian diaspora a chance to tell their stories in the wake of the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed thousands and left millions homeless. The name speaks for itself- koze is the creole word for conversation and Ayiti is the creole spelling of Haiti. According to the Koze Ayiti Web site, the organization seeks to reach and create conversations with a population that is isolated by geography and lack of technology.

“We don’t only want to bring attention to Haiti but we want to help Haitians speak for themselves,” said senior Alessandra Villaamil, a visual journalism major working on the project. “We want them to make their own news that they can bring forth to the international community.”

The organization, which began as a volunteer effort in January, has expanded greatly over the summer, with students (some from schools other than UM), faculty and staff members maintaining the Web site, hosting community events in South Florida and making trips to Haiti.

Teams of School of Communication faculty members have visited the devastated country to document rebuilding efforts and to teach Haitian citizens how to use equipment that will help them produce their own news and spread it across the globe. Koze Ayiti Production Manager Tod Landess recently went on a six-day trip to Haiti that he documented on the Koze Ayiti Web site.

In Haiti, Landess had the opportunity to connect with community members in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, situated just 10 miles from where the center of the earthquake hit, as well as in the outlying provinces.

“I was expecting so much destruction,” Landess said. “I was surprised at how alive and vibrant the city is. There’s so much joy and creativity; people just take life as it comes.”

There were, for example, the break dancers Landess encountered on the side of the road in Port-au-Prince, that offered a live performance he recorded for the Web site. Young Haitians are seen “flipping” for Landess’s flip camera, which he takes to record footage and teach Haitians how to easily record their own videos.

Landess was also able to meet young orphans that had been displaced after the earthquake hit. For part of the trip, he stayed with hosts Jean and Erlie Beauplan, Haitian-Americans who transformed the home they have been building for the past eight years as a retirement home into an orphanage.

The Beauplans have taken orphans from tent camps in Port-au-Prince to their 20-acre plot of land in a coastal city called Grand Goâve. Videos on the Beauplans’ story have been posted on the Koze Ayiti Web site, where viewers can watch shy children warm up to the camera, play with toys provided by the Koze Ayiti staff, and in one malnourished toddler’s case, grow stronger after just a few days in the orphanage.

The videos posted on the Web site allow people within Haiti to see how other regions of the country are coping with life after disaster. However, the Koze Ayiti opens a window to the rest of the world.

“We not only offer a bridge of communication between Port-au-Prince and the provinces, but we forge a bridge connecting the Haitian diaspora with those in Haiti,” Landess said.

On May 22, 2010, Koze Ayiti began hosting Cyber Cafes for 10 weeks that gave members of the Haitian community in South Florida the chance to make one free phone call to Haiti and access the Internet for free. This was done in partnership with the Trauma Resolution Center and Konbit for Haiti, which provided the meeting space. The group has also hosted a number of media workshops and town hall-type meetings.

“There is definitely a hunger for information and a strong desire to participate in identifying problems in Haiti and coming up with solutions,” Landess said.

So far, the Koze Ayiti project has been completely volunteer based. Students like Villaamil have worked through their free time on editing videos and designing the Web site.

“I like how we’ve become a family. We’re all working together towards such a strong initiative,” Villaamil said. “Everyone feels so strongly about it. It’s a very concise, well-developed idea and it feels good being a part of something so big.”

Koze Ayiti worked from January to June of this year without any funding. In June, the organization received $5000 from the School of Communication and the Knight Center for International Media. Despite the limited funding, Director of Development Lauren Janetos feels that the result is worth the effort.

“I went through Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans so I know what it feels like to be displaced and be in a traumatic and life-altering situation,” Janetos said. “I wanted to be able to help and create a community where people know there are others out there who care about them.”

Janetos is currently in the process of filling out applications for grants to expand the project further and make Koze Ayiti a permanent fixture to connect Haiti with the rest of the world. Koze Ayiti has also been entered in a competition hosted by True Hero, a non-profit organization that gives student groups around the U.S. cash awards for their community service projects. Results for the contest will be announced early in September.

In the meantime, Koze Ayiti is looking for student volunteers of all majors to work on Web design, social outreach, content gathering and transcribing. To get involved, contact Tod Landess at and visit

Alexandra Leon may be contacted at