“He said he’d leave them for me to get knowledge about Haiti,” says the Seminole State College of Florida student.
The tapes formed the backdrop of Demosthenes’ childhood and instilled in him a sense of his homeland’s turbulent history.
By 2004, Demosthenes was making his own recordings of history: the demonstrations and speeches surrounding the flight into exile of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide; the fury of Tropical Storm Jeanne, which killed more than 3,000 people in Demosthenes’ coastal hometown of Gonaives; and, in 2008, the devastation of Hurricane Hanna, during which Demosthenes nearly lost his life.
“When I woke up, I saw water in my room,” recalls Demosthenes, 25.
As the water reached his chest, Demosthenes, his family and several neighbors struggled to break through the ceiling and onto the roof of the house.
“My uncle took a bar and pushed the tin roof,” he recalls. “If we’d stayed in the house another two minutes, we would have died.”
Huddled on the roof, they waited for a day and half for the water to recede. Finally they were able to make their way back down into the house, where the water was waist high, Demosthenes says. Hanna destroyed the family’s belongings, including the computer that held Jimmy’s stories of Haitian history as he had lived it.
“My computer was in the water,” he says. “I lost every single thing. What saved me is what I wrote down.”
In addition to his recordings, Demosthenes wrote page after page of meticulous notes about the history unfolding around him. “I’d bundled them up and wrapped them in plastic and put them in my pocket.”
When he came to Orlando in 2009, Demosthenes began organizing his notes. “I didn’t intend to write a book,” he says.
However, inspired by a passion for sharing his country’s history and culture, Demosthenes did write a book, “Haiti: Courage and Resilience of a Great Nation.” In the book’s foreword, Demosthenes thanks a Seminole State professor and two of the college’s advisers for their guidance.
Donna Varette, an educational adviser at Seminole State’s Altamonte Springs Campus, says that in 2009 she and Demosthenes began discussing his academic progress in his native French. The first few chapters of his book were written in French, so he brought them to Varette and asked for her advice. She and Valeria Penny, also an educational adviser at Altamonte Springs, knew several self-published authors.
“We gave him names of people we knew he could contact to discover what he’d need to do to have the book translated into English and have it published,” says Penny.
“Haiti: Courage and Resilience of a Great Nation” is available on Amazon.com.
Demosthenes, who received the “We Change Lives” award from the college’s District Board of Trustees on July 18, expects to graduate from Seminole State in December and transfer to the University of Central Florida. His professional goal is to become a dentist practicing in the United States. He also plans to start a foundation to help his countrymen rebuild.
His advisers have no doubt he’ll accomplish his goals. They say his determination is evident in the swift progress he has made from English Language Studies to the Associate in Arts program to writing a book.
But Demosthenes hasn’t said all he wants to say about his beloved Haiti.
“I love writing,” he says. “I have two more projects. I want to show the rich culture of Haiti and write a satire about the social and economic situation. The true image of Haiti has never been shown to the world. Haiti isn’t just Port-Au-Prince, the capital. There are a lot of other cities that are rich in culture and remarkable history.”