It was at school one afternoon early last year that young Djecilia Jean Baptiste felt the walls start to shake.
“I heard other houses come down,” the 13-year-old says, eyes fixed downward. “And I didn’t know what was happening.”
The earthquake in Haiti killed more than 300,000 people and devastated the girl’s hometown of Jacmel. The school stood, but Djecilia’s family home did not, like thousands of others across the country reduced to rubble. Since that day, she and her twin brother have been spending their days in class, studying the arts, and their nights living in a tent with four other siblings and their mother.
This month, however, has been different. What began as a plan to display the school’s artwork at the Edmonton Fringe Festival became, at the request of the foundation that runs the school, a chance for students to share the art and storytelling of Jacmel first-hand in Canada.
“They said, ‘It’s really great the artwork can come up – can the kids come up, too?’” says Patti McIntosh, an Edmonton writer who stumbled on Djecilia’s school, the Art Creation Foundation for Children, by Googling “children’s art work Haiti.”
The invite, if funding could be found, was a no-brainer, Fringe executive director Julian Mayne said.
“It took about two seconds to realize it was a fantastic idea,” he said.
Fringe officials travelled to Haiti two months ago to help ACFFC school students, many of whom were once street children, develop two Haitian folk tales, each performed entirely in French and by the children. With the help of a local grant, officials then flew nine students and a chaperone to Edmonton to stage them once again.
“Without the foundation, I won’t be here,” young Djecilia said at the Fringe site, a digital camera dangling from her wrist.
It was the children’s first plane ride, and upon arrival they were in awe of the long summer days in the prairies – not to mention the 24-hour electricity.
The trip, however, was a tall order. Few had any family members with passports or documents, much less their own. It was only after months of work – and what Ms. McIntosh calls a “leap of faith” by two local agencies that offered a grant – that the kids’ visit was secured.
“It’s kind of an exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Ms. McIntosh says. “I think there’s something that resonates when you hear they want to be artists. They want to be international artists.”
The Fringe began last Friday and runs until next weekend. During their two-week stay in Edmonton, the students will perform their plays and sell hundreds of tiny papier-mâché birds and bowls, each hand-made and painted, to raise funds for the school. Tourism – and the wares tourists buy – are major industries in Jacmel. The children view the arts as a livelihood.
And it already is their livelihood: their creations are sold and help form the base of funding for the foundation, started by an American. The Jean Baptiste twins say they like all types of visual art, but both have prominent roles in the folk tales. The school and art are an opportunity in a region with widespread hardship. One child told Ms. McIntosh he’d spend his life in the arts “because then he could eat and have babies.”
The school offers at-risk children opportunity they hardly would have had otherwise, says chaperone and ACFFC executive director Georges Metellus. They get education, regular meals and shelter during the day. “Our program is to find poor kids, poor families, street kids, and have them with us, to live the life of a real kid,” he says.
Their paintings and sculptures are vibrant, filled with colour and depicting their own lives – Mr. Metellus, for instance, is featured in paintings. American friends urged him to get out of Haiti after the earthquake; he wouldn’t leave his job. The Edmonton trip, he hopes, is the first of many for the young artists of Jacmel.
“If we can take them around the world, we’ll do that. This is a big experience,” Mr. Metellus says. “We had a prayer – ‘thank you, God, because I didn’t expect to visit another country in my life.’ So, thank you.”
Josh Wingrove for The Globe and Mail