When a Middle East Airlines (MEA) plane full of supplies departed for Port-au-Prince last week, Haiti's capital, it wasn't just to prove that Lebanon is on the international humanitarian map, but also to honour a relationship between the two countries that can be traced back more than a century.
Haiti, ravaged by the January 12th earthquake, is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and home to 10 million people, many of whom live on two dollars per day. Many citizens are of Arab descent and are divided between the rich and middle classes of Haitian society.
Georges Salhab, the pilot of the plane that landed in Port-au-Prince on January 19th, said that the aerial view of the capital is a terrible sight. It is "a city that was punished by a natural catastrophe that took the lives of 100,000 of its people and its civilization".
"Lebanese started immigrating to Haiti around 1880," Walid Haydar, a Lebanese diplomat, told Al-Shorfa. "They would take a boat for the United States from Marseille and for some logistical reason the boat would stop in Haiti."
"As a result of this immigration, we now have generations of Haitians of Lebanese origin, as well as many Lebanese who moved to the island [more recently] looking for work in the trade sector," Haydar adds. "Some Haitians of Lebanese origins are also in politics. Lawmaker Rudy Boulos is one of the many Lebanese descendants who integrated into Haitian society and is now a lawmaker."
In the early eighteenth century, Haiti was a French colony and was considered the richest in the New World. More than one quarter of France's resources came from Haiti. The population during the 17th and 18th centuries was composed of Africans who were brought to the island as slaves and a minority of white Europeans.
After the revolution and the abolition of slavery, Haitians created a common language that is a mixture of many languages. Even though today the official language of Haiti is French, the Creole language unified all the African dialects. Haitians were also united by their work in agriculture, which employs 66% of the country's workforce. The industrial sector employs less than 10%, while 24% of the population works in the service industry.
Haydar says that most of the Lebanese who came to the island and stayed "work in the services sector and own independent businesses where they excel in general. They trade pearls and own retail stores, especially supermarkets. They also work in telecommunications, and presently there are 30 Lebanese engineers working for the Haitian telecom company Digicell. These engineers are now trying to fix the network that was damaged by the earthquake. Two of them were on leave in Lebanon when the earthquake hit Haiti. They both cut short their vacations and returned to help their colleagues on the Middle East Airlines plane that brought Lebanese aid from Beirut to Port- au-Prince."
Haydar describes this Lebanese enthusiasm as a sign of "gratitude to a country that gave a lot to Lebanese immigrants". He adds that the enthusiasm is not exclusively Lebanese. There are many other descendants of Arab nationality who live in Haiti as well.
Just as Lebanese immigrated to the island, many Syrian nationals left their homeland in the 19th century and immigrated to Haiti. Even though the number of Lebanese and Lebanese descendants living on the island is estimated at 8,000 people, the number of Syrian descendants is higher as the Syrian community in Haiti is the largest of any Arab community.
Like the Lebanese community, the Syrians excelled in business; many of them moved to the countryside early on where they worked as pedlars because the business sector was dominated in the mid-19th century by German and Italian immigrants.
Palestinian immigrants moved to Haiti more recently than the Lebanese and the Syrians. When the Arab-Israeli conflict turned many Palestinians into refugees in the 1940s, they sought sanctuary in neighbouring Arab countries, but others preferred to immigrate to the American continent and some continue to reside there. On its return from Haiti, the Lebanese plane included 15 Syrians and Palestinians holding Syrian passports.
Jordan also has a large immigrant community in Haiti. Jordanian soldiers are currently serving as part of the United Nations peacekeeping force on the island. Three Jordanian soldiers died in the earthquake, and 23 others were injured. Five other Jordanian nationals working with the UN on the island were also slightly wounded.
Syrian national Nahla Dayouk, 50, who returned to Lebanon on board the MEA flight said her family has lived in Haiti for the past two decades and that most of the people who returned on the same plane had immigrated to Haiti about 10 years ago.
Another Syrian national, Najib, who works at a supermarket he owns in partnership with his brother, recalls the moment when the earthquake hit and the building started shaking. He said his brother was unable to find out what happened to him for several hours because of the breakdown in communications. They were also unable to contact friends to make sure they were unharmed. "But at least we didn't have problems finding food and water since the majority of the Lebanese and Syrian communities live in the mountains where the damage was not as severe as in other regions such as the capital," he said.
Haiti's history is full of poignant events that made it one of the unluckiest nations in the world. A series of natural catastrophes, corrupted regimes, the destruction of the environment and diseases that affect children also hurt the country. According to a 2008 UNICEF report, Haiti has the Western Hemisphere's highest mortality rate among newborns, children under the age of five and mothers.