The Washington Post
Historic feat gives D.C.’S Haitian soccer stars a platform
When Haiti’s women’s national soccer team defeated Chile last week, it secured the country’s first appearance in a women’s World Cup, evoking joy, jubilance and tears from players on the pitch.
The victory was historic and heartening, and two players who attend school in the Washington area hope the team’s success helps provide a fuller perspective of the country and their cultural heritage.
“I’ve always since I was younger heard people say, ‘Oh, you’re from Haiti?’ ” said defender Milan Pierre-jerome, twisting her face to mimic a disdainful reply. “It’s irritating because people judge books by the cover. Haiti is not just the place where this happened. There’s more to it. There’s dancing. There’s food. There’s the language. Being able to bring that light to the name ‘Haiti’ is all I’ve wanted to do.”
Pierre-jerome, a former University of Maryland player who is now a team captain at George Mason, has formally represented Haiti since she was 14, when the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native of Haitian descent accepted a call to join the national program. She joined a crop of emerging talent that helped lead the country to its first under-20 women’s World Cup appearance in 2018 and boasts one of the best young players in the world, midfielder Melchie Dumornay.
The country’s U-20 qualification was a proud moment, but for Pierre-jerome, whose father was a goalkeeper on the Haitian national team that was eliminated during the preliminary rounds of World Cup qualifying in 1994, the goal has been to break through.
“I’ve known these girls since I was 14, and we’ve had this goal: ‘Koup du mond.’ It’s ‘World Cup’ in Kreyòl, and we have a song that’s like, ‘We’re going to the World Cup,’ ” Pierre-jerome said. “Six years later, to be able to do that, it makes me speechless.”
The moment came last month during the qualifying playoff tournament in New Zealand. After 55th-ranked Haiti beat Senegal, 4-0, in its opening match, it topped Chile, 2-1, after Dumornay scored twice to punch Haiti’s World Cup ticket. Haiti will play in Group D alongside England, China and Denmark when the World Cup begins in Australia and New Zealand in July.
“Everyone started getting emotional, jumping up and down, hugging each other and screaming, like everyone was just so happy,” goalkeeper Lara Larco said of the waning moments of the Chile match. “When the whistle blew, I just couldn’t believe what was going on. We were crying. We were happy. . . . It’s just an indescribable feeling.”
Larco, who also plays for Georgetown, was born in the Haitian capital of Port-au-prince, but her family moved to Boca Raton, Fla., when she was 4. For Larco, some of the same challenges that spurred her family’s departure from Haiti play a foundational role in its national team’s success.
“It’s one of the biggest parts [of our story],” Larco said of Haiti’s social, political and environmental challenges. “Before every game we huddle together the night before, have a meeting and everyone speaks. At the end of the day, everyone ends up saying: ‘We’re doing this for our country.
We’re doing this for all the troubles that we’ve been through.’ ”
Haiti’s decades-long challenges, rooted in French and American efforts to hobble the country after it earned independence from France in 1804, have been exacerbated by natural disasters and worsening political turmoil in recent years. The country was devastated by a massive earthquake in August 2021, a little more than a month after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Gangs have since become more powerful and more pervasive amid an increase in kidnappings and violence, which has contributed to a reduction in the flow of critical goods and services, which in turn resulted in a resurgence of cholera.
“I know the horrific things that are going on right now, but there’s also a lot of great things about Haiti,” Larco said. “If you’re not from Haiti, you don’t really know that. All you see is the negative side: the kidnappings, the corruption, the poverty. For us, it’s wanting to bring something positive in the news to people. I want to shine light on the positive that my country has, and soccer is one of the most positive things right now.”
Pierre-jerome said the team is more than the sum of its country’s challenges, although those challenges motivate players to showcase Haiti’s successes within its borders and beyond.
“Seeing all the things Haiti is going through, it’s not good right now,” Pierre-jerome said. “So I think being able to make the country smile and celebrate — and showing the country in a good light — just puts a smile on everyone’s faces.”