A Haitian Does Not Run The New York City Marathon

A Haitian makes a long trip for a good cause, but the finish line recedes.
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Last Friday I called my neighbor, Edwin Ceide, as he was waiting at the Port-au-Prince airport to fly to JFK and run the New York City Marathon two days later. “Tell the people of New York I’m sorry about Sandy,” he said, “but they have to receive me well.” Hurricane Sandy had clipped Haiti about a week earlier, before it continued north and slammed into the U.S. eastern seaboard, where it killed more than one hundred people and caused an estimated $50 billion in damage.

He’d been training for the marathon, his first ever, for most of the past year. Edwin is a big guy. Not big as in fat. Big as in stacked. He’s about 6-2 and solidly built and a former military cadet. He doesn’t have a runner’s frame. He’s not a runner. But he was running this race all the same, because he was trying to raise money to buy food for the 300 kids that attend the two schools he and his wife founded in Haiti. One of them is right next door to the house I live in, in a neighborhood called Delmas 33. A hundred and twenty first-to-sixth-graders sing the Haitian national anthem there at 7:30 every weekday morning. It’s mostly funded by donations, most of which come from Norwegians. Edwin’s wife, Ingvill, is Norwegian. She's tall, too.

***

Mayor Michael Bloomberg called off the marathon while Edwin and Ingvill were flying north through the same airspace that Sandy’s bands had occupied days earlier. Edwin’s mother-in-law texted him upon his landing and broke the news about the race. He didn’t believe her at first. “I’m disappointed,” he told me over Skype on Sunday from his hotel room on the Upper West Side, “but I understand the situation. I just wish we knew earlier before we spent all that money.”

It was crazy, in retrospect, but also in the moment itself, to think that the marathon ever should have gone on. Beyond the practical and logistical issues of hosting more than 47,000 runners in a waterlogged and power-strapped city, the idea that the marathon would give the city “something to cheer about,” as Bloomberg had originally claimed, was absurd, even offensive.

“I just assumed it was canceled,” Staten Island Borough President Jim Molinaro said on Wednesday, before Bloomberg had his awakening and announced the cancellation. “My God. What we have here is terrible, a disaster. If they want to race, let them race with themselves. This is no time for a parade. A marathon is a parade.”

“We totally empathize with the decision,” Ingvill told me over Skype. “It’s the correct decision, no doubt about it. He will run the marathon next year. There’s nothing we could do this time."

***

One morning a couple of months ago, I was leaving my house on the back of a motorcycle taxi, headed to the airport to make an early flight. As we pulled onto the main road beside the Henfrasa tent camp—still home to hundreds of residents displaced by the January 2010 earthquake—I saw Edwin in his tank and sneakers, putting in his wrap-around headphones to start a morning run. I asked where he was heading. “Tabarre,” he said, “then up to Frère and back down Delmas.” That’d be at least 10 miles, far more than I even cared to think about running on the smoggy, congested, and dirty roads of Port-au-Prince. It was an afterthought for Edwin.

When I returned from my short trip to the States, he told me about a recent training day. He’d been on Route Frère and in a ton of traffic, he said. This was something in itself, because between the brightly-painted tap-taps—the ubiquitous pickup trucks and mini-buses that ferry Haitians around town—men pushing wheelbarrows full of sugar cane, girls in uniforms on their way to school, and motos zipping relentlessly in both directions down the middle of the street and on roadside shoulders, traffic is always pretty damn bad in the capital. Edwin said that for his entire run he was breathing in black smog from trucks chugging uphill. He’d come down with a sinus infection the next day. It was so bad that he had to spend a couple of days in the hospital.

A few days later, he was back at it, running laps on a gravel track that’s surrounded by tents at the Henfrasa camp. The site had been a fitness center—a barebones one by American standards, but with a gym and weights in the front and a basketball court and the small track out back—before it became a displaced persons camp. It had re-opened about a year ago, and there were no tents on the track, so that was where Edwin trained.

***

Edwin met Ingvill in Ecuador in 1996. She was volunteering for a U.N. organization that worked with women. He was in military school with fellow Haitians through a Haiti-Ecuador partnership, training to become a soldier for a country without an army. The army had been abolished two years prior by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Military officers had led a coup d’etat against Aristide in 1991, and after Bill Clinton helped restore him to power in 1994, Aristide decided to try to cut the generals off at the pass.

I’ve heard Edwin talk about how he grew up poor and “in the ‘hood,” in his words. He’s from Delmas 19, a neighborhood down the hill from where we live now. Roughly speaking, wealth and status rise with the elevation. At the top of the hill is Pétion-Ville, the affluent section of the capital where well-to-do Haitians and expats get French dinners and buy a lot of the same goods you can buy in New York City. At the bottom of the hill sits Delmas 2, where rainwater and debris and silt run through the streets when it rains hard, as it did when Sandy came through.

Military school was Edwin’s ticket out of the ‘hood. It led him to Ecuador, and to Ingvill, and, eventually, to Norway. He and his wife moved there from Haiti in 2001, but not before setting up a small organization called Prosjekt Haiti, with a small school in Delmas called Petit Troll, named after a Norwegian children’s story. The project grew into two schools, the other one located in the country’s currently rain-soaked southern peninsula; the two schools have about 300 students between them. The married couple moved back to Haiti permanently in 2009. Their three young sons wear Manchester United and Brazil jerseys while playing soccer in the street in front of our houses.

Prosjekt Haiti continued to grow. It’s still a decidedly grassroots organization, but one that now has a youth club for extracurricular activities and offers literacy classes and business training to local women. The classes started as a way to help the mothers of students, and have grown into what’s essentially a school for adults with offshoots where the women work—a bakery, a hair salon. “We always knew that we wanted to live here permanently,” Ingvill has told me, “and try to make a difference.”

Haiti’s Constitution guarantees free public education to all, but that doesn’t mean much in a country where, due to lack of state resources and competence, private schools educate 90 percent of students. Almost half of the population is illiterate. For the fortunate minority of Haitian children who get a shot at attending a decent school, education might be their only ticket out—toward a better life, in Haiti, or elsewhere.

Between teachers and people involved with the other projects, there are about 30 employees at the Delmas school. One hundred and fifty people eat there every day. The school in the south has more students with fewer employees to run it.

Edwin was running for these kids and for the people who depend on the school, and he hoped to raise money to cover food for the next year. He’d been training for months and habitually refusing my offers to bring over Haitian rum or beer on the weekends. “We can have a drink together,” he’d tell me, “but it has to be after the race.” I’ve known him only to be a positive person, but when I talked to him over Skype, he was even more sanguine than I’d expected. “I have a way to take things positively,” he said. “I will do another year to take care of myself, get to sleep early, wake up at 5am, not drink. I wish everybody have a chance to improve their health like I do. I feel much better in my body. I feel much better in my health.”

***

Sandy killed 54 people in Haiti, many along the southern peninsula, which was hit hardest by the storm and its resulting floods and mudslides. “This is a disaster of major proportions,” Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe said, “The whole south is under water.” The storm destroyed 70 percent of this year’s crops on the peninsula after dropping 20 inches of rain in 24 hours. The government has declared a nationwide state of emergency.

Donors had already sponsored Edwin for the run—$20 per meter, enough to give 10 kids one meal each. So not running the race wasn’t a total loss for Prosjekt Haiti, although Ingvill wasn’t sure how the cancellation would affect their fundraising efforts. She estimated they’d have enough to continue providing meals for kids at the Delmas school for at least the next few months. “It’s almost a monthly struggle to have enough money,” she said. “We’ve raised enough money to cover through Christmas, basically, but after that we don’t know what will happen.” Food prices had already been rising steadily this year, a trend that’s bound to continue after the damage Sandy inflicted on the local crop. But Prosjekt Haiti was going to struggle to raise ample funds regardless of whether Sandy hit, or whether the marathon went off.

Edwin plainly summed up the situation in New York: “They say, instead of spending so much resources on marathon people, we have to spend money on our own people.” It was clear, to him and most everyone, that it was no longer right to run in the storm-ravaged city. But in prepping for the marathon, he’d been running in a disaster-ravaged city for months, running past tent camps and hardships and plenty of people struggling by on something like two dollars a day.

“I was running to give food to my people. I was running on the dirt because that’s the only place to run,” he said about training in Haiti. “I run on the dirt, I run with trash, with traffic, all that shit. I run with the rats. The thing I’m doing is to feed 150 people for a whole year. It’s not about what I see.”

“Here, it’s different, this is a different scale. I was small in the scale of Haiti. It was a personal thing, I was trying to feed my people. Here, you had to do something for the people.”

I asked him and Ingvill what they were going to do with their newfound free time in New York before leaving Tuesday. A post-race fundraising concert that they’d planned was fortunately still on for Monday night. It would feature Zing Experience, a self-described roots/rock/reggae band that’s been playing in New York City since 2006. The group is headed by the son of a couple who are good friends of Edwin and Ingvill and who founded one of Haiti’s most popular voodoo-inspired roots music bands, Boukman Eksperyans. In the meantime, they were going to go see a Picasso exhibit at the Guggenheim. “She’s going to get me civilized,” Edwin joked.

***

On Monday morning, Edwin emailed me with a response to a few questions I’d sent him, most of which concerned details about the various countries he’s lived in, and when he lived there. But I was also curious about a topic we’d broached in the past but never fully discussed: why he decided to move back to Haiti three years ago rather than stay in Norway. Northern Europe wasn’t home for him, and he’s the only Haitian for miles if not for entire nations when he visits Ingvill’s family. But it might be easier to raise his three boys there—there would at the least be nice soccer fields to play on, instead of gnarled streets—and he could do as much if not more fundraising for Prosjekt Haiti if he were near its donor base.

“I felt I couldn’t be in peace in Norway, living the good life, as long as my family, my friends, my neighbors, people I grew up with, were living in dirt and misery,” he wrote. “My own peace of mind depended on me helping these people.”

He was running for them, but he was also running for himself—or he would have been, had the race gone on—and for the hard-earned satisfaction of finishing what he’d started after all those months of getting up at 5am and being a teetotaler and training in traffic and smog and dirt. He’ll run, for them and for himself, next year. He has reasons to run, and he has reasons to stay, and they’re not going anywhere. “If on my hand I have one sick finger,” he concluded, “and the rest are good, I will still feel the pain in my hand.”


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