(VIDEO) My Trip to Help the Children of Haiti

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Saturday, August 7, 2010

My alarm went off at what my brother would refer to as "Oh Dark Thirty," better known to the uninitiated as 4:30 AM. I threw on my clothes, did some more wrestling with my luggage, and made it to the lobby in time for the 5 AM shuttle to the airport. I met Amelia, my translator, and we wrestled with our luggage some more. I put my suitcase on a scale in a closed check-in lane and discovered it was overweight by a couple of pounds. There was no way my backpack could hold any more, so Amelia had to find nonexistent space for a handful of books.

As we stood in line, I noticed that there were generally two groups of people represented: people of Haitian extraction going home or to visit family, and relief volunteers. The latter were easy to spot. First of all, they (or should I say we) were, on the whole, white. Second of all, there were large groups of people wearing matching t-shirts that said things like, "God's messengers in Haiti."

Once we were on board the plane, I was sitting near a man who used to own a construction company, now is a full time missionary, and was going to put roofs on houses. He chatted with the other person in our row about why some buildings survived the earthquake while others right next to them did not. He said that often concrete had been mixed with dirt and improperly reinforced to save money. The buildings that survived had been built to what we would consider "code," but most of the buildings in Haiti had not.

As we landed in Port-Au-Prince I was struck by two things. The first was that, unlike what I am used to seeing in US cities, the buildings are not in neat rows or lined up along obvious streets. From the air, it looks like someone took a handful of Monopoly houses and just plunked them down without arranging them. There clearly was very little planning involved in building the city. The second was that, even from the sky, you can tell there are incredible numbers of tents. These are visible because a large percentage of them are bright blue -- a standard color for tarps -- and they are literally everywhere. After we got our luggage, went through customs and battled the various people eager to help us with our luggage for a small -- or not so small -- fee, we met a friend of Amelia's family and a friend of his. They were, for gas money and a small additional amount, to drive us to Léogâne.

As we pulled out into the city streets, I was immediately struck by two things you see everywhere: piles of rubble and tent cities. There are now fewer collapsed buildings than there were because the big pieces have started to be hauled away, but in their place there are still large piles of cement and bent rebar, sometimes blocking the street. There are also still a decent number of broken buildings, and it's easy, driving by, to forget that there were people in those buildings when that happened. It doesn't seem possible. Worse yet, we passed partially collapsed buildings where people were obviously still living in them.

You will note that I did not say that one of the things you see a lot of is construction. In fact, in the several hours we spent in Port-Au-Prince, I saw one single site with a lone construction vehicle on it.

The tent cities are rows and rows of tarps held up with poles. The tarps say things like "Buddhist Global Relief" and "US AID: From the American People." The latter made me think, "Really? Is that all we sent?" Along the edges of the tent cities, small businesses have cropped up. People were selling produce, providing banking and hawking used clothing. Seven months after the quake, they are making the best of what is becoming a permanent situation. There were places it was hard to know what was earthquake damage and what were poverty conditions that existed before the earthquake. Was this road in decent shape before the earthquake and cracked, or was it always a mess? Was that house always somewhat rundown, or did it lose chunks of its facade?

The four of us stopped for lunch at a place called Muncheez, a sandwich and pizza chain. It was reasonably like what a similar place would be like in the United States, except for the armed guard at the entrance and the fact that there are collapsed buildings all around it. From the balcony I could see, spray painted on a wall, "J.C. Duvalier Bon Retour" -- a call for the return of Baby Doc Duvalier. An election is coming up in November, and there are people who think even he would be better than what they have.

We drove past the Presidential Palace, which I had seen on TV. Even so, I was shocked by the damage when I saw it in person. This is a massive, stately building, built to look grand and strong, and it is crumpled. Imagine seeing the White House or Buckingham Palace partially collapsed and you might have an idea. We arrived in Léogâne around 3 o'clock and got settled in a medium sized room in the guest house at the camp. The room had four beds, and we staked out our preferences before heading to the shower. The guest house, which was virtually undamaged in the earthquake, had running water but it wasn't very hot. The shower heads were gone, so we bathed essentially under faucets.

I then went out on the porch to write in my journal. Almost immediately a young woman and a young man walked over with a two month old baby and allowed me the joy of snuggling him. When they left, I returned to writing for a few minutes, but pretty soon a little girl, Bernadette, came over and started to try to talk to me. I did take French in high school, but there are a number of issues. First, I was terrible at it. Second, that was more than twenty years ago. Third, Bernadette doesn't speak French, she speaks Kreyol, which, while closely related to French, is not the same thing. Pretty soon, we were drawing pictures for each other in my journal and exchanging English and Kreyol vocabulary words for "cat," "dog," "balloon," and other things I can manage to sketch recognizably.

While we played, two boys, Christopher, 11, and Daniel, 13, came over to visit. I had no idea where all these children were coming from, but they seemed quite friendly. Daniel had the baby in his arms, and I tried to establish what their relationship was before realizing that they weren't related at all. Everyone takes care of the baby. Everyone takes care of everyone else. Pretty soon all of the children were passing my journal around, drawing what they could. While pens and pencils are relatively easy to come by because they aren't one use items, paper is a hot commodity.

The house we were staying in was on 8 acres, and is one of the lucky few in Léogâne to have survived the quake. At one point, there had been 750 people living in tents in the field beside the house. Now there are 18 families, all related in some way to the house or the camp (housekeepers, counselors, etc.). That's where all the kids were coming from, and there were many more.

Watching the children and knowing what they've been through was surreal. They were kids. Except for the language, they could easily be mistaken for kids in any neighborhood in the United States. Except these kids live in tents and don't necessarily know where their next meal is coming from. A blue felt tip pen and a journal are a hot commodity. But really, they're just kids.

Over dinner, our hostess Eloise told us there was a 17 year old girl on the property who was 5 months pregnant. Her water had broken that afternoon, far too early. They had taken her to Doctors Without Borders, which is now providing essentially all of the medical care in Léogâne. It didn't look like they could save the baby. After dinner Eloise fixed a plate from our leftovers and sent it to the girl, who hadn't eaten anything all day.

Doctors Without Borders was my charity of choice immediately following the quake, so I took some pride that they were being talked about so positively. This was in stark contrast to, for example, people's reaction when I asked what the United Nations was doing in Haiti. Their answer: "We have no idea." I also saw tangible evidence of Save the Children, Red Cross, and many others. Eloise said that while the material aid was crucial initially and still is appreciated, what Haiti needs is equipment and training to start doing the job themselves and avoid dependency.

Just before heading off to bed, I wrote in my journal:

I'm here for a reason. I don't know what it is, but I can't help but think it's about me, not them. I have a lesson to learn here. . . . There's something about being with these kids that makes my heart ache. Oddly, I think it's knowing I'm going to leave them. Love comes fast when people are just open with each other.

A Slideshow of the Trip


 

Naomi Zikmund-Fisher blogs at Monday Morning Crisis Quarterback.  She is a school principal and crisis consultant in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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