RALEIGH — Paulette Bekolo remembers the first time she saw her native Haiti through the lens of the developed world. She was in college in Paris and caught a glimpse of a poverty-stricken Haitian ghetto on a TV news report.
"I thought, 'That is not Haiti,' " said Bekolo, who grew up in an affluent suburb of Port Au Prince.
Bekolo vowed to work for change in Haiti, and she has spent much of her adult life helping her countrymen persevere through political turmoil, poverty and natural disaster. Since settling in North Carolina, she founded the nonprofit Hope for Haiti. Recently, she helped open a school in a rural area hit hard by the country's devastating 2010 earthquake through her church, Solid Rock First Haitian Tabernacle of Grace.
But lately, the Haitians have also come to her. Bekolo and others estimate that more than 2,000 of them have come to the state in recent years, many arriving penniless and unable to speak English. Some come straight from Haiti, where hunger and unemployment remain common, while others come from Florida and other U.S. states, seeking jobs in North Carolina's meat processing plants.
For the past year, Bekolo has spent much of her time ministering to these new arrivals - criss-crossing eastern North Carolina every Sunday to pray with them, and spending the rest of the week helping them find food, shelter, translators, transportation and more.
Bekolo found there was so much to do in settling this population that she shuttered her own tax return and accounting business to free more of her time.
"She's a very strong woman of God," said the Rev. Erilus St. Sauveur, pastor of the Solid Rock church, who has worked closely with Bekolo in ministering to the newly arrived Haitians. "She loves the Haitian people and she has a passion to help them."
Finding the need
Bekolo, 49, speaks English with a thick Haitian accent and moves easily into French or Creole. She grew up in Petionville, a destination for many of the country's tourists that sits atop a hill outside the capital. She recalls her childhood as idyllic, including outdoor concerts and movies in the lush countryside.
While her family didn't want for much, she also remembers her mother stepping in to help neighbors, cooking and washing for others on top of her own seven children. Bekolo said it was this example that instilled in her a desire to help others.
But it was when she left Haiti that she realized her home country should be the focus of her efforts. In Paris, she discovered the kind of infrastructure that was missing back home - good libraries, for instance - and started keeping notes on what she might bring home.
She did bring supplies on her trips back, but she never returned to Haiti to live. Instead, she moved from Paris to Canada to New York, earning a business degree and working as an accountant and financial manager.
She came to North Carolina in 2001 with her husband and young sons. She held positions at UNC Hospitals and Duke University, and eventually at the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, where she witnessed poverty on American soil for the first time.
In 2004, when the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide plunged Haiti into violent chaos, Bekolo formed Hope for Haiti. Much as she was in Paris years before, she was dismayed by news reports of her country - this time because they portrayed Haitians as helpless, even hopeless.
She hoped to improve the efforts of groups doing charity work in Haiti by providing technical assistance, such as budget oversight, and helping form bonds between those in the U.S. who were willing to help and those in Haiti who needed it.
Her larger goal, in that and her other projects, is to make Haitians self-sufficient, not dependent on aid.
"A lot of Haitians want to elevate themselves and their country," she said. "And they can do that. They just don't have access to the resources they need."
Her civic work wasn't confined to Haiti or Haitians. Bekolo has been active in the parent-teacher associations at her children's schools and in local government in Chapel Hill, where she lived until a recent move to Morrisville.
Help for immigrants
Sauveur founded the Solid Rock church in 2008, hoping to tap into the Triangle's small but growing Haitian population. Bekolo joined in 2009. In 2010, a visitor to the church told them of the terrible living conditions of Haitian immigrants in Mount Olive.
Sauveur and Bekolo set out that same day for Mount Olive, and what they found appalled them - hundreds of people living with up to 40 in a home, many without beds, sleeping in closets or kitchens of homes without heat, or even water.
"From that point forward, Mount Olive has been a duty for us," Bekolo said.
The pair joined forces with other churches and local officials to offer literacy classes and training on workplace and housing rights to the Haitians, many of whom can work here legally thanks to special permission granted after the earthquake.
Solid Rock now has congregations in west Raleigh, Mount Olive, Fayetteville, Wilson and Lumberton. Another church is planned in the Clinton area.
Bekolo and Sauveur drive to each of these churches most Sundays, and several days during the week. At a recent service in Raleigh, Bekolo stood up ramrod straight in her tan silk blouse and flowered shirt, holding up a sheet so each family could fill out a Christmas list.
"We will have gifts for 10 boys and 10 for girls, and I must get the forms today," she said. "Amen?"
"Amen," the reply came.
At that service, five youngsters ages 16 to 22 were among those swaying and singing in Haitian Creole to a steady beat kept by a teenager on a drum set.
Like many of North Carolina's new Haitians, the group came from Florida, chasing tales of plentiful jobs in Fayetteville. Instead, they wound up crammed into a tiny rural apartment until Bekolo and Sauveur helped them settle in Raleigh and look for jobs.
"We feel good to have someone to support us," said Pierreline Janvier, 19.
Also present was Erick Louis, who was severely burned when a gas station exploded during the 2010 earthquake. He landed at UNC Hospitals, where he has had 19 surgeries. The church has given him a friendly place to worship - and helped him hook up with government assistance programs.
Asked how he found the tiny church, Louis said someone at the hospital called Bekolo. It's a recurring theme that Bekolo reminds the worshippers in folding chairs.
"The Haitian people are coming here every day, and guess who they're calling," Bekolo says. "They're calling us."
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