Why one Detroit business owner is gathering support for Haitian artisans caught in conflict

When Christelle Chignard Paul heard machine gun fire outside her Port au Prince workshop she knew would be closing the hand-made jewelry business she spent years building.

That was February 29, the day Haiti’s government lost control to the nation’s gangs. Since that day, Paul and the artisans she employs have had their work looted and tools stolen. Now they face the challenge of rebuilding in a country that has lost much of its infrastructure.

“(The situation in Haiti) has increased to lawlessness and anarchy,” says Paul, who holds dual citizenship in France and was able to escape to the Dominican Republic with the help of the French government.

She was proud of that business, which provided her fellow Hattians with a way to earn a living. Now her artisans face food insecurity and constant threats of violence.

More than 1,700 miles away in Detroit, Paul’s decade-long business partner, Yvette Jenkins, heard the call to speak up and act on the challenges she and others face in Haiti. Jenkins is working locally with Paul and others to generate the funds needed to restart operations.

Jenkins is the owner of Love Travels on the Avenue of Fashion and imports goods from across the world to provide economic opportunity for artisans in developing countries. She has been bringing products from Paul’s business into her store for about a decade. In that time, Paul’s jewelry has built a loyal local following, becoming one of the top 10 best-selling brands at the store.

“Christelle’s products sell really well,” Jenkins says, pointing out that upon learning of the conflicts in Haiti, customers have shown concern about the island nation’s fate. That gives Jenkins an opportunity to point out the reality Paul and her artisans face as they try to rebuild.

Jenkins and Paul were introduced by Natalie Tancrede in 2014 at the annual Artisanat en Fête, a buyers show in Haiti. Tancrede is a freelance consultant who sources wholesalers and retailers. She often hears from artisans about their plight.

“There have been text messages on my phone from artisans because they cannot eat,” Tancrede says.

An order from Jenkins was one of the last Paul was able to fill before the country shut down, providing much needed income to Paul’s workers. “It is hard not to get emotional or triggered when you witness the inhumanity of people,” Jenkins says.

Her philosophy of helping to economically empower artisans across the globe makes her a natural candidate to lend her voice to the rebuilding of Haitian businesses. She has been in contact with local chapters of international aid groups, local Haitian immigrant groups and other organizations. She is optimistic about future help, but says the wheels turning are slow.

According to Jenkins, the Detroit-based Haitian community has begun to mobilize and is still in the very early stages, but there are forthcoming signs of support. On July 27 and 28 the Haitian Network Group of Detroit will stage the Haitian Art and Crafts Festival in the city, which will include products made by Tancrede’s clients.

In the interim, Paul has a GoFundMe page to help her and other Haitian artisans. Most belong to the "Chambre des Métiers et Artisanat d'Haïti " (Haitian artisans Associations or Chamber) and all need to get their business up and running again as soon as possible. The GoFundMe page is a part of the Toussaint Louverture Cultural Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to promote and preserve Haitian culture.

Funds raised from the page goes directly to purchasing the necessary equipment to produce goods, and rebuild and repair the damage done to the building where the work is done.

Among the things in need of replacement include, but are not limited to: Sewing machines, raw materials like fabrics and metals, drills, and gas and diesel generators.
But even when they have the needed supplies and machinery, which can be acquired in Haiti, there is still a large roadblock. Airports are closed, as well as most ports.

Moving production outside of Port-au-Prince, where most of the violence is occurring, is not an option. With gangs seizing control of major roads, it would create a second supply chain that has to navigate gang control.

Paul says getting her business back and running as soon as possible is essential. The ports will eventually open back up, and it is imperative she has products ready to ship when that happens. The income needs to arrive as soon as possible. “The next two to five years will be the biggest challenge,” Paul says.

The bigger goal remains helping the people of Haiti survive.

“I am just glad Christelle is safe, but I worry about the future of Haiti, and the Haitian artisans,” Jenkins says. “It is important to keep Haiti in people’s minds.”
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