Remembering an Irish hero of Haiti

In this 24/7 news cycle we live in, stories come and go. The entire country showered the folks of Haiti with support after the earthquake January, with artists and musicians raising money for telethons and the like.

When a devastating flood hits Pakistan or a politician gets caught with his pants down, the 24/7 news media turns its attention elsewhere and the Haitian people are forgotten.

This is not the case for Greg Grene, leader of the jig punks that make up The Prodigals. He lost his twin brother in the rubble of the United Nations building there, making the pain and loss a daily reminder of the country that was left in ruins.

“This is something that is not really a ‘coping’ thing -- there is no answer, no solution,” Grene says when asked how his family was coping with the loss. “Everyone is just dealing with it as they can.”

As a tribute, Grene and friends have formed the Andrew Grene Foundation, an organization committed to the rebuilding of Haiti.

“For me the foundation is a way of directing some of the belief in all that Andrew stood for, and admiration and love for all that he was, into something other than solely mourning the passing of a truly remarkable soul,” says Grene.

According to the website andrewgrene.com, donations of as little as $25 cover the cost of teaching one woman to read and write, the first big step to independence and economic mobility in Haiti.

Some of the microfinance loans that the organization will put forth with donations as little as $50 will provide the beginning of a self-enabled road out of poverty.

The Andrew Grene Foundation has taken off globally, with support from the likes of the Irish government and 10-year-olds forgoing birthday presents in favor of donations, with everything in between.

Grene has just returned from Haiti to see how the funds of his foundation are being put to use, and he talked to the Irish Voice about what he saw. Here’s how it went.

What was it like going back there, knowing how much effort both Andrew and now you/the charity is putting into that country?

In terms of Andrew, it was wrenching in the way you would assume; it was also a revelation to see just how much of a legacy of love Andrew had left behind him. Not just his UN colleagues, who were unbelievably supportive and kind, but also Haitians on the ground.

We visited this extraordinary community in Pandiassou, run by a Salesian father, and they were inaugurating their communications room, including their radio station. Radio is obviously hugely important there, among a population who have 50% literacy, and the room was named the Andrew Room. We cut the ribbon with Father Armand, the head of the community.

What do you want readers to know about the people and culture of Haiti?

This is an incredibly complex, difficult terrain, both physically and politically. The one thing to bear in mind, to those who would be impatient, is the extraordinary spirit of the Haitian people.
To put it in context, the average income of the majority of the population is $2 a day. There is 85% unemployment because there simply are no jobs. And yet they spend 45% of their income on education, and in the most remote areas you will see immaculately dressed school children wending their way to school over mud and rock.

To get to the school we are actively supporting, the Ecole Christ Roi, you clamber over a mountain of rocks, which is the ruins of the prior buildings, and ascend to the top of a slope, where there are tents set up, and every child, every book, every desk impeccably in order, as the heat beats down and the wind lifts the tarpaulin. You can see video of this on the Andrew Grene Foundation site, andrewgrene.org. It's something unbelievable.

Times are tough and people are mindful of the pennies, and charities are hurting. I was on the website and was amazed at how many factions came together to contribute. What are some of the worthwhile endeavors you have taken on with this support, and to what do you explain the outpouring of charity to this new charity?

I think that at this point, the outpouring is above all a profound tribute to the greatness of soul of my twin. He was a truly loved individual.

I think that as time goes on, the charity is going to prove itself with what we are doing, and I hope to continue to grow. But the initial donations -- they simply are a gesture of love to my dear hero of a twin.

What have been the most encouraging/discouraging things you've encountered around the re-building of Haiti?

The spirit of the people is by far the encouraging aspect. Discouraging -- the degree to which they are battling vicissitudes of weather, terrain and natural disasters. And the state is to an extent simply overwhelmed. And the donations that come in, where folk hear that other nations have pledged $10 billion, that sounds amazing, indeed.

The problem is that between 10% and 2%, depending on whose estimate you hear, has actually materialized. It can play very well to the folks back home to say we're pledging “x” amount. But there is a certain political game in this, so that if the spokesperson can score the goodwill without actually having to disburse the funds, that's kind of a political double-whammy.

Haiti is rich in words of goodwill, but not in funds.

I completely get the impact Andrew had on your life and your family and cannot begin to imagine the loss you've experienced -- he was so special and one of a kind. Was there anything you learned about your brother in the outpouring of other people's grief? Was there something in that outpouring that you wished Andrew could have seen?

Andrew was such a modest person in some ways. I think I told you before that when he first arrived in Haiti, he had to wear a bullet proof vest and helmet, and the bullets were pinging off his car, and he never told us this. We found out afterwards from a journalist.

In the same way, I simply had no idea exactly how influential he was, and I wonder if he did, if he knew just how much admiration and love he left behind him. From the radio station in Haiti, to the farmer's daughter in Ireland that instead of accepting presents for her 10th birthday instead collected donations from her friends for the Foundation.

I was amazed and moved to hear Matt Damon and Clint Eastwood talk about Andrew's life and work on the Hope for Haiti telethon. How did that come about, and how surreal must that whole experience have been for you?

Totally surreal. I had no idea it was going to happen. I got a text when I was visiting a woman who had babysat Andrew and I in Cavan when we were children. I didn't quite take it whether or not it was for real until seeing it later.

From an artistic perspective, is there anything in your concerts or writing that has been formed as a result of your pain/experiences this year that you care to share?

There is nothing artistic per se that I can share at this time -- it's simply too raw. But what I will say is that the community of musicians and music people has been so, so kind and supportive.
I've had beautiful things made for me, a rosary and a memorial bracelet, and benefit concerts set up totally independently of us, and just an amount of kind words and thoughts that were amazing.

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