This blog post was written by Jonas Esperanza, a member of the Haitian student community at Florida International University. He is pictured here at the Haitian-Israeli Cultural Exchange.
Mother Theresa once said “The problem with the world is that we draw our family circle too small." This is a problem that Florida International University student Alexia Zadok doesn't have. I met her in front of Einstein Bagels, and she welcomed me with a warm smile on a chilly spring afternoon. Her eccentric, diligent, and entertaining personality broke any ice there was between us. Within minutes of sharing a small coffee table with her, she began to talk to me and my dear friend Jerald about the love of her life. No, she wasn't speaking about her boyfriend--instead, she was talking about a small country in the Middle East, known as Israel.
She spoke passionately about Israeli history, healthcare, military, and culture. It became evident Israel is her life. Alexia shows her support as the President of Hillel YAD, secretary of SHALOM FIU and as a campus intern with The David Project. Israel was a place I had only read about in high school history books. She brought Israel to life with her animated anecdotes, and I began to engage with the culture.
Her love for Israel parallels my love for Haiti. Jerald, Taisha (President of FIU HSO), Alexia and I decided to create an event in order to showcase the communal love we have for each other’s country. We planned intensely for weeks. Our goal is to create an annual forum where Haitian and Israeli students can come together and appreciate each other’s rich culture and history. The more we worked together to highlight our cultures, the more we realized there are very few differences between them. In the weeks approaching this event we joked about the similarities of the grandmothers and aunts in our cultures. We shared the countless hilarious accounts of how they stretch our stomachs to maximum carrying capacity with delicious food.
April 14th came along, and the weeks of planning lead to the first annual Haiti-Israeli culture exchange. The event outlined the diplomatic ties Haiti has with Israel. We learned that Haiti is the reason why Israel became an independent nation. We showed our gratitude to Israel as it was the first country to provide relief to Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake. The leaders of our home countries share vital pieces of history together. As the next generation, we decided to do the same. We shared food, laughter, dance, and music. The night was a beautiful learning experience.
I decided to perform a mitzvah on April 16. This was a term I had learned from Alexia only two days prior at the Haiti-Israeli culture exchange. She explained that a "mitzvah" is a good deed you do for someone without expecting anything in return. I wanted to show my support for her, Hillel, Shalom FIU, and The David Project at the Holocaust Remembrance Day event held at FIU. Alexia's great grandparents were survivors, so I knew this event meant a lot to her.
I found a round table occupied by strangers, as I physically sat down, I was figuratively standing up for a cause that no collection of words could grasp. We didn't speak to each other, but the silent nods we exchanged with one another spoke volumes. The message was clear: we were here to pay our respects. Everyone in the room understood.
The Rabbi blessed the audience, with an arrangement of syllables and sounds that were foreign to me. As we prayed I recognize that Hebrew was not the only language he was speaking. I didn't need a translator to understand the universal language of love. These strange words wove us together and I felt as if I was connected to every soul in the room. The prayer ended and then I opened my eyes, eager to learn.
The Holocaust survivors Isaac Klein and Silvia Wiener were introduced to the audience. Their words created a gory slideshow, one with pictures of beatings, gas chambers, and corpses. I became squeamish; their stories were tugging at me from every dimension of my humanity. The accounts of despair, hunger, and loss left me numb. After they finish reminiscing on the darkest time of their lives, they ask the audience if they had questions. I thought that the question I had could not be answered by anyone. I wanted to know “How could this happen?” So I didn't raise my hand, I let my question burn on my tongue.
Alexia and other members of Shalom FIU, Hillel, and The David Project went on stage to perform a collection of poems regarding the lives of children in the Holocaust. They didn't introduce themselves and they left the stage without a farewell. In essence, the performance alluded to the way in which the children in the Holocaust were here then gone. Some of the individuals in the audience and performers held back their tears, I wasn't one of them.
I had entered the ballroom as a Haitian American, but I left human. I realized that the racial categories society gives us only objectifies and divides us from each other. The only way to grow is to leave these labels behind--they are merely fictional shackles. As a moment of silence concluded the event, I realized you don’t have to be a Jew to be a Holocaust survivor. The Holocaust assaulted the collective morale of the entire human race. The Holocaust threatened everyone, regardless of color of skin and place of origin. Martin Luther King explained this as he said that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We overcame the threat collectively, we are all survivors.
Working with Alexia I realized that when we come together our differences fade, and our bonds strengthen. I learned to stand, in a way they don’t teach you when you are a child. I learned to stand for righteousness, justice, and perseverance. For me, April 16th will be regarded as the day I stood. I stand with the victims, many of whose stories will go untold. I stand with the survivors. I stand with Alexia. I stand with Israel.
The Haiti-Israeli Cultural Exchange at FIU