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'Back to Haiti for the first time': An MCC kid gets acquainted with the country of his birth

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Late last year, Jordan Bartel got to do something he’s been waiting a lifetime for.

Jordan, a sophomore at Bethel College, visited for the first time the country, city and hospital where he was born. He came into the world at Hôpital du Canape-Vert in Petionville, Haiti, in March 1988, five months before his parents, Barry and Brenda Bartel, completed their first term with Mennonite Central Committee.

Barry Bartel is president of Bethel College and Brenda Bartel directs the Newton Community Children’s Choir. They live in North Newton with their daughter, Leah, a junior at Newton High School.

Jordan would be the first to say that MCC service has already played a significant role in his relatively short life, but he would mostly be speaking of the five years he lived with his family (Leah was born in Salem, Ore., in 1991) in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where the Bartels did a second MCC term, 1998-2003.

“While we were living in Bolivia, we tried a couple of times to visit Haiti in connection with other travels,” Jordan says, “but it never worked out. Then my dad and I started talking about a father-son trip [for Christmas break in 2007]. My sister asked so many times if she could go, too, that we finally said OK.”

Jordan, Leah and Barry spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s in Haiti, based at the compound on the hill above Port-au-Prince called Gwo Jan, which friends and former MCC co-workers Carla and Ron Bluntschli share with a Haitian family.

“My favorite part about Gwo Jan was the tremendous view from the porch off the living room,” Jordan says. “We could see the city right below us and all the way to the Dominican Republic on the right and the coast on the left. Each night at Gwo Jan, we got serenaded by African drums and rhythms played by Ron [and also] Welele and other locals.”

After three days at Gwo Jan, the Bartels chartered a small plane to take them to Cap-Haïtien, with a detour to fly over Bwadlorens, the village in northeast Haiti where Barry and Brenda lived for most of their MCC term. It was too hard to reach by ground transport in the short time they had.

“This was a thrill for me,” says Jordan, who is majoring in both Spanish and aviation at Bethel, “because I got to sit up front and talk with the pilot the whole time – and for the record, I would have been fully capable of operating the plane if needed, since it runs on most of the same systems as the Cessna 172s that I fly. After flying over Bwadlorens, we flew over the Citadel, a fortress built after the war for independence [which ended in 1804] to protect Haiti from re-invasion by the French.”

The rest of their time in the north of Haiti they spent at Cormier Plage, a beach resort near Cap-Haïtien. Then they returned to Gwo Jan for the rest of their stay.

On New Year’s Eve, they drove into the mountains above Port-au-Prince to the village of Kenscoff, stopping along the way to eat grio, deep-fried pork served with fried plantain and potatoes, “which I think was Leah’s favorite food on the trip,” Jordan says.

“In the evening, we helped prepare for the New Year’s Eve celebration by gathering firewood, sweeping and peeling vegetables for pumpkin soup. We had over 30 people at the compound in Gwo Jan from all over the world. It made for interesting conversations with all the diverse backgrounds.

“We had a time of reflecting on the history of Haiti, since January 1 is also Haitian Independence Day. We lit a bonfire right before midnight and ushered in 2008 with drums and dancing around the bonfire. On Tuesday, we got up early to eat pumpkin soup, a Haitian tradition on New Year’s Day.”

There were several reasons, Jordan says, why he wanted to make this journey. “I like to travel in general,” he says. “My roots are in Haiti, and it’s a different culture from what I experienced in Latin America. Most of the other traveling I’ve done has been in Spanish-speaking places. Here, I didn’t know anything more than a few [Creole] phrases.

“I really enjoyed being ‘back in Haiti for the first time,’” he continues. “It struck me how much it was different from what I experienced in Bolivia. I found right away how much harder it is than I expected to get along in a country where I have no language skills. I also was struck by how much more extensive the poverty was, even compared to Bolivia. The population is also much more concentrated, with close to 9 million people in an area one-quarter the size of Kansas. I was also surprised by how beautiful the geography was, especially along the coast.”

One memorable occasion during the week was seeing Hôpital du Canape-Vert. “There was a stern-faced security guard outside the hospital,” Jordan recalls. “[Our friend] Ari explained that I was coming to see the hospital where I was born. The guard said that [former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand] Aristide’s daughter had also been born at this hospital. He said something like, ‘Maybe she’ll remember her roots, too.’

“People were very impressed and excited that someone would remember their home country like that and come back to visit after so many years. They would comment: ‘Part of your soul will always be here.’”

His favorite part of the trip, he says, was “the people we met and were able to talk with. I found it was the same here as in a lot of other countries – people were open, respectful, curious about my background and willing to share theirs.”

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