Haiti’s Joy Warriors shine light in a country plagued by darkness

Steve Gross, Chief Playmaker
March 9, 2023

Gerye Jwa

Gèrye Jwa, which translates to Joy Warriors, has trained nearly 5,000 local Playmakers who have reached more than 100,000 children across Haiti since 2011. (Gerye Jwa Photo, 2021)

Rising gang crime in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, has prevented thousands of children from going to school, making them easy prey for gang recruitment.  To the 5,000 Haitian Playmakers trained by Haiti’s Gèrye Jwa (Creole for Joy Warriors) each day brings new heartbreaks and challenges. Some days however bring hope. This was one of those days.

On this day, a Playmaker (we’ll call him Joseph) walks home from his job as a teacher at a local school. A group of young men gathered on the street catches his attention. In a country where kidnapping and homicide have become all too common, almost anyone – especially a group of young men – must be viewed as a potential threat. As he gets closer to the men, Joseph sees that one of them is one of his middle school students. The boy notices Joseph too and lifts his shirt to reveal a gun tucked into the waistband of his pants.

Instead of playing it safe and walking away, Joseph bravely approaches the boy and asks him why he wasn’t at school that day. The boy responds, “lekòl pa bay (going to school does not pay off) and that being in a gang is just the way it is around here. He then asks his teacher, “Ki lòt bagay nou ka fé” (what else can we do).

Joseph tells the boy, “You are just a kid. Your future is waiting for you to do what you want with it.” The boy – letting his guard down a bit – admits to Joseph that he is afraid to fail a must-pass national exam.  Joseph assures the boy that if he set his mind to it, he is more than capable of passing the exam and offers to help him study. Joseph checks in on the boy regularly and tutors him as needed. The boy passes the National Exam and is so proud and happy that he promises Joseph he will leave the gang.

There are no “and they lived happily ever after moments” in life – especially in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Metaphorical landmines are buried everywhere. Lack of infrastructure, violent protests, lockdowns, food insecurity, disease and rampant gang violence make it easy to lose hope. Yet in Haiti – home to some of the most resilient people in the world - even one victory, like passing an exam, can give a person hope to fight on.

"...children who can easily become violent gang members can also take a different path if caring adults would tell them, “I see you. I believe in you. I want to help you.” 

Jean Guerson Sanon, Executive Director of The Gerye Jwa team in Haiti, explains how stories like Joseph’s demonstrate how children who can easily become violent gang members can also take a different path if caring adults would tell them, “I see you. I believe in you. I want to help you.” As one Playmaker put it, “if adults would love them, be nice to them, and play with them, these kids might grow to give the same back to society.”

Playmaker Mydline Jn Pierre agrees. She shares that a lack of supportive adults in her life left her feeling alone and unloved as a child. “Even after I became an adult, I still had a lot of resentment, my life was meaningless to me, I could do stupid and bad stuff too. This makes me think of the thugs and gangs that are terrorizing the population.  I could be the same as those who are killing people because it is the love, they didn't find that makes them hurt people,” she said.

Is it really possible that something as simple and cliché as love is the answer?

Roudy Saint-Hubert, Gèrye Jwa’s Director of Program, thinks so. “Love is our mission. Love is the way to a better future.” If every Haitian child had a Playmaker in their life, Haiti would be a different country today.  That’s what we’re working towards.