AKRON, Ohio — Bilou Isaac loves his native country of Haiti for its beautiful landscape, unique culture, and friendly people.
"The smile that you find in the Haitians despite the hardship that we are facing," Isaac said.
The 28-year-old came to the United States in 2019 and is studying electrical engineering at the University of Akron.
Issac, whose mother and siblings live in Haiti, is thinking about his homeland this week in the wake of a story making national news— the kidnappings of 17 missionaries, including five children, by a Haitian gang.
"If things like that are happening, it's not good for the country," Isaac said. "They're making people afraid of visiting and seeing the beautiful side of it. It's a bad image."
The missionaries are part of Christian Aid Ministries based in Holmes County.
"We are seeking God’s direction for a resolution, and authorities are seeking ways to help," the missionary group said in a statement.
On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the FBI and State Department are working toward gaining the release of the hostages.
Kevin Smith, director of executive education for the University of Akron, has organized about 10 student trips over eight years to Haiti. The trips called "Zips for Haiti" exposed students to leadership and service-based projects aimed at helping the Haitian people.
"They'll climb a mountain. They'll go on a hike. They'll spend time with kids. They'll do English second language tutoring and they'll work in schools," Smith said. "Haiti is a beautiful country. It's a fascinating country."
Zips for Haiti was put on pause during the pandemic. Smith hopes to bring the trips back eventually, but there's too much uncertainty in the country right now.
"We don't have any intentions of returning until we can deem it's a safe experience for our students," he said.
Smith said there are "compounding factors" leading to insecurity in the Caribbean nation, including the assassination of Haiti's president in July, two earthquakes, a lack of resources, and the problems with gangs.
"It does hurt our perception of Haiti and it makes it more threatening for us as American citizens to be able to travel and have a relationship with people in that country," he said.
Isaac said he's praying for the missionaries, his family, and for peace in the country he loves.
He hopes the kidnapping doesn't create long-term fear for missionaries because their work is crucial to many Haitian people.
"We are worried that it's gonna get worse, that we're not going to improve— that the country is not going to improve at all and that people, foreigners, will be afraid of visiting Haiti still."