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Tonac "Tony" Emile spent 20 years of his life in the United States and even became a naturalized American citizen. Yet his thoughts never left his native Haiti. For two decades, Emile dreamed of returning to the poor Caribbean nation, which shares the large island of Hispaniola with the neighboring Dominican Republic. He wanted to build a Christian church and a school there. In 1998, a Northeast Philadelphia merchant helped Emile begin to realize that dream. But in the aftermath of the devastating Haitian earthquake on Jan. 12, both Emile and his benefactor, Vince Marzulli, are back at square one. Despite losing virtually everything but the clothes on their backs, Emile, his eight children and members of his church have not allowed the natural disaster to derail their long-term goal. With Marzulli's help, they continue to bring spirituality to residents of the Haitian capital city, Port-au-Prince. And they remain hopeful of reviving the school that once served 200 students but was leveled in the quake. "We are nine of us stranded in Haiti," Emile said during a telephone interview from Haiti.
Prior to Jan. 12, Emile's New Convenant International Ministry was a poignant success story amid a society notorious for its failures on many fronts, including but not limited to poor health conditions, poor national infrastructure, illiteracy, political corruption and civil unrest. Emile arrived in the United States in 1979 and later worked for Marzulli before convincing the Holmesburg plumbing and heating contractor to back his vision for Haiti. Marzulli is the third-generation owner of Marz Inc., which has been in the Northeast for more than 80 years. Marzulli met Emile while attending services at a local non-denominational Christian church. When Emile returned to Haiti in 1998, he started a school out of his modest home in the Delmas section of the capital. His own children were the first students. Marzulli began funneling resources to Emile through Dayspring Academy, a Christian school in Lancaster that the businessman's children have attended. The funding helped the Haitian school buy uniforms for its students, desks and supplies.
Enrollment grew to about 200 as the ministry bought an unfinished rooming house in hope of converting it to a permanent location for the school.
" What we were doing was clothing them and feedingthem, like one meal a day, because they were comingto school and they were hungry, and it's difficult toteach them like that," Marzulli said.
The plan was to try to collect tuition of $130 a year from one-third of the students and partial tuition from another one-third, with the poorest of the children attending for no charge. Eventually, about two-thirds of the students were permitted to attend for free because of their needs. Many, if not most, were living in shantytowns around the city. "They mostly had parents, but their housing situations were dire," Marzulli said. "But even as uneducated people, their parents still recognized the value of education for their children. Education is the only way out of the country or the only way up in the country." All of that was before the earthquake, of course. Since then, dire living conditions have taken yet another step backward. Widely reported estimates are that at least 150,000 people died among the more than 2 million who inhabited the Port-au-Prince region. Thousands of the dead still line streets and are buried underneath rubble.
For the time being, Emile and his family live under several sheets that have been tied together to shield them from the sun. They have been fortunate because winter is the dry season in their region. But rains will pick up in frequency and intensity late this month and next. It took Marzulli a week to reach Emile by telephone after the disaster. The pastor and his children - ages 4 to 20 - all survived, although their house fell to the ground. Emile's wife had passed away years earlier. It is unknown how many church members or students died in the quake. Classes were done for the day when the disaster struck. " I asked him how everything was and he said, 'Now? Everything is collapsed,'" Marzulli recalled. "Everybody was out on the street trying to figure out what to do. He didn't know what was going on, so I told him (that) on the news they said that all of the resources were at the airport." Emile and his children walked several miles to Toussaint Louverture International Airport, but they were given little to help them survive. Emile got a container of drinking water, about the size of a juice box. "That was it," he said. "And for us to get back (in line) to get another, there was people fighting so it was difficult.
" That's the key problem with the relief effort,
according to Emile and Marzulli. The people who
most need help are having a hard time getting it."
Much of that can be blamed on corruption and the black market. "Haiti is well-known for that," Emile said. "Americans, if they really want to help the Haiti people, the way is to help them hand to hand. We have to have people who come from America and Canada get together with Haiti and make sure they see the relief given out. Those people have to stand up front and show people how to do things in Haiti." In the meantime, Emile is seeing an inspiring phenomenon take root in his community. Many new people are seeking out God. One of Emile's religious services attracted 560 people. "We do worship outside," he said. "The first week after the earthquake, we did a worship with a group, and the second week they came back. They saw how they could die, so now they're more interested in coming." That's how things probably are going to continue for the time being, Marzulli fears. At this point, it's still way too early to plan re-establishing a permanent church or school site, although that should be the ultimate goal. " The entire Port-au-Prince infrastructure is collapsed, so there's not going to be any school for a while," Marzulli said. "But if we can get a tent, we might be able to hold classes." Marzulli has been able to wire money to Emile several times on an as-needed basis. Under the current conditions, it's not wise to carry excess wealth. "What I'm trying to do is to collect resources, funds, that can be put aside in a separate account for him to administer. We'll send it to him little by little," Marzulli said.