|Tony Boursiquot stands with children at a Star of Hope school in Jeanton, Haiti, 60 miles north of Port-au-Prince. He was born in a village in southern Haiti, then went to live with relatives in the capital. He worked for an American woman who paid for his college in exchange for being her driver and houseboy. |
Gary G. Yerkey
Tony Boursiquot flashes the smile known to thousands of poor children and others across Haiti as he negotiates his SUV skillfully over the rough roads of Port-au-Prince.
He is on his way to Jeanton, about 60 miles north of the capital city, to visit a school run by the US-based humanitarian organization Star of Hope. He has headed the Haitian branch of the group for the past two decades.
"Haiti is a suffering country," he says as he turns the vehicle into the school grounds. "I come from a poor family, just like these kids here today. The fact that I have had a chance to help Star of Hope has been a gift."
Mr. Boursiquot's lifelong commitment to helping the poor has also been his gift to his native Haiti. It has continued even in times of deep personal suffering, including the aftermath of the magnitude-7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, killing an estimated 300,000 and leaving another 1 million without a home.
It would be many terrifying hours, in fact, before Boursiquot, who was traveling in the United States at the time, would know that his wife and children were safe, and that his brothers and sisters had also been accounted for – except for one.
The country's main airport, in Port-au-Prince, was closed to commercial traffic immediately after the quake. So Boursiquot caught a flight to the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. There he hired a van and a driver and headed for the Haitian capital, about a six-hour drive away.
Power had been knocked out, and thousands of buildings had collapsed. His heart was pounding as he made his way through the rubble to the building where one of his sisters, along with her two children, was presumed to be trapped beneath the fallen concrete. In the end they were not found.
Barry Borror, president and chief executive officer of Star of Hope, recalls that Boursiquot decided to "postpone" his own grieving to assist in that organization's initial response to the tragedy.
"He was truly concerned for the 4,500 children he worked with," Mr. Borror says.
Born in the village of La Vallee, in southern Haiti, Boursiquot was sent at an early age to live with a relative in Port-au-Prince so that he could find work and receive an education.
But he was soon taken in by an American woman – the widow of an American agronomist who had worked in Haiti – who provided him with a university education at her expense (he earned a degree in engineering) in exchange for his services as a houseboy and driver.
"She was like my second mother," Boursiquot says, adding that his biological mother is still alive but is confined to a wheelchair because of an illness.
After Boursiquot was hired by Star of Hope in 1989, Borror says, he "quickly caught the vision [of the organization] of helping children become educated, healthy adults who are involved in their communities and share their love of Jesus Christ."
"He is a unique person," Borror says, adding that Boursiquot seems equally at ease with both the powerful and the powerless. "He treats the street boy with the same dignity and respect that he shows to an ambassador from another country."
Star of Hope, headquartered in Ellinwood, Kan., currently operates in 18 countries, providing children with "knowledge, physical well-being, spiritual growth, and social skills through educational programs and local and international partnerships," according to its website. It bills itself as a nondenominational Christian group.
In Haiti, where it employs about 160 teachers and an administrative staff of four, the organization runs 13 schools and orphanages. It also offers a sewing class for future seamstresses and tailors at its school in Boyer, about 25 miles northeast of Port-au-Prince.
The class is taught by Boursiquot's wife, Myrtha. She was motivated to make helping her fellow Haitians her mission after hearing someone on the radio many years ago saying that Haitians should help themselves, she says.
"I asked myself, 'So, Myrtha, what are you doing?' " she says.
Marie Josette Michel Chery, the director of the Star of Hope school in Boyer, has known Boursiquot for 19 years.
"He's a good man," she says. "He understands the importance of education.... He is a courageous defender of the weakest among us."
As for Boursiquot, he concedes that Haiti may be poor – at least according to conventional statistical measures. But he balks at the suggestion that it is destined to remain so.
"Haiti is really not poor," he insists, pointing to what he sees as the overriding decency of the Haitian people. "But we've had a lack of good leadership. It's hard for young people in this country. We don't give them a model.... But we have the resources.
"We should be able to help others. Others shouldn't have to help us."