Nearly five months ago the massive earthquake in Haiti changed everything for the nation’s population and the relief workers who flooded in to help them.
Progress is being made – very slowly. Anything short of decade as a timetable for complete rebuilding may be optimistic.
Many Christian humanitarian organizations already had a well-established presence in the deeply impoverished nation prior to the Jan. 12 temblor. What some of them have seen are signs of life amid the rubble and a resignation that quick fixes are not an option.
Anne Edgerton is the Disaster Management Team Leader for Richmond, Va.-based ChildFund International, previously known as Christian Children’s Fund. She was most recently in Port-au-Prince in February and has been in close contact with ministry partners since then.
Specficially, ChildFund has been working in tandem with Christian Blind Mission International. CBM sponsored a school for disabled children in the Haitian capital which was severely damaged in the earthquake. School staff members were killed in the quake. Some of the children have been hard to track down.
“This is a local organization which has worked with learning disabled students for years and has had much of the same staff of very dedicated women,” Edgerton said in a telephone interview with Everyday Christian. “There are no men because men traditionally don’t raise young children in Haiti. It was very traumatic right after the earthquake with mothers and children trying to reunite.
“In developing countries parents of children with disabilities tend to be poorer than average, and because of this you hear a lot of really horrible stories about things that have happened to families you work with every day.”
In an attempt to heal emotional wounds and introduce somewhat of a sense of normalcy, tents have been set up for everything from physical therapy to child-friendly spaces where kids can simply play to try and relieve the stress of the world around them. The ultimate goal is to rebuild the center with the help of local partners and have the school functioning again as a vibrant outlet for children who in many ways can benefit the most from a structured educational setting.
That, however, is a long way off. Edgerton is a veteran aid relief worker and administrator. What she’s seen in other parts of the world pales in comparison to Haiti.
“I have a lot of experience in conflicts and emergency situations, and there is really nothing to draw a parallel to,” she said. “It is like 20 emergencies piled one on top of another in the same area of space. I don’t think we’ve ever seen an area of literally a few square miles of over a million people living in streets or in camps or in front of houses with no services to speak of. It’s an exceedingly difficult place to be.”
With the onset of spring come more rains, which could be seriously compounded when the height of hurricane season reaches the Caribbean in September and October. Because of the evolving situation, Edgerton sees that monetary donations remain the most necessary contributions.
“The relief community has gotten better at asking, ‘What do you need?’ and addressing specific issues,” she said. “That’s where the money can be helpful. It is easier now to assess what a particular need is and buying supplies in the States and bringing it down there.”
One hidden loss, too, which Edgerton sees as making real reconstruction “easily 10 years away” is the loss of professional and intellectual capital lost during the quake.
“I think there were four university faculties where the collapses killed nearly all their civil engineers,” she said. “These are the people that would help with the planning of rebuilding the country. You can’t just replace that overnight. What is happening there will take enormous amounts of money and time.”
In the camps themselves the social order is changing as well.
Laura Blank is a Boston-based media relations manager for World Vision. She went to Port-au-Prince immediately after the quake and returned in March through mid-April.
She said refugee camps, while far from an ideal living situation, have developed their own sense of normalcy.
“I think the initial impression of the devastation and the sense of chaos it caused has calmed down,” Blank said. “I think there is a sense there is food security in the camps and that a good portion of the people can reach emergency shelter if needed.”
She added that progress is being made on what some people may see as “softer” services such as mental health counseling and child care, but that conditions still generally remain challenges. The rainy seasons are a challenge because of how the camps were established in the first place.
“Ordinarily in a camp situation you establish a location based not only on its safety but where it will work best in the local environment,” Blank said. “In the case of Haiti, because the damage is so widespread, you have camps set up hillsides that otherwise are at risks for mudslides because of the widespread deforestation in the country.”
In these camps, though, small economies of scale have developed out of necessity and creativity.
“Not far from our offices there I would see a woman selling soda and gum or someone else operating a nail salon out of their tent,” she said. “You would see boys sitting around a radio shouting over a soccer game. One of the most interesting were these guys going around with mobile cell phone chargers and charging phones in return for a few gourds. It’s an opportunity for people to introduce a sense of normalcy into their lives.”
Regina Hopewell agrees the sense of normalcy took time to develop. Hopewell is the ministry director of complementary interventions for Compassion International. She has been to Haiti seven times in the past 12 years and was there in February and April of this year.
“The difference between February and April were pretty marked,” Hopewell said. “In February, the people were still very traumatized – few roadside markets had been set up, most tent cities were constructed from sheets, pieces of plastic, tents, and other very minimal shelters, traffic was less than normal, many fewer people out on the streets. In April – school children had returned – lots of kids walking in their uniforms to school, many, many roadside markets open, lots of traffic, tent cities were more ‘substantial’ – tarps and tents were much sturdier. Some rubble had been cleared but there is still an enormous amount of rubble.
“Our staff had moved back inside their homes to sleep at night – fear is still there but people seem to be less fearful. They are incredibly resilient and making the best of an awful situation. Compassion’s projects in April were back to functioning as normally as possible – meeting in many cases under tarps or temporary shelters. But it was good to see kids playing and learning and generally going about life in a relatively ‘normal’ way.”
The ability of the staff and the Haitian people in general to rise and meet the challenges in front of them has been inspirational.
“From talking to our Haitian staff who has weathered so many other disasters of all types – civil unrest, lack of food, hurricanes, and floods, they have said this is much, much greater in magnitude from anything they have ever experienced,” Hopewell said. “However, our Haitian staff has amazed me. Literally.
“They have embraced this opportunity to respond to this great need, and to not only respond to the disaster, but to see this as an opportunity to rise from the rubble and become what God intends for Haiti. They have planned and figured out a series of strategies that has enabled them to meet immediate needs of Compassion’s beneficiaries, and think longer term about how to begin to rebuild and repair. Their approach and thinking has been developmental and strategic. It is also comprehensive and holistic. They have addressed immediate medical and food and water needs, temporary shelter, longer term health and hygiene, trauma counseling, earthquake training in case of future tremors and quakes, staff needs, educational needs, and more. Just finding the children in the impacted area has presented a huge challenge but we are at a point where over 22,000 children have been located and approximately 600 are still being searched for – many have relocated or are living in tent cities so this has been no small task.”
As Edgerton referred to as well, Hopewell agreed that finding Haitian talent to lead the country into the future beyond the impoverished nation it was prior to the quake is a cornerstone of rebuilding.
“It seems to me that leadership if a huge need – the Haiti government needs to be strengthened and supported to be able to provide leadership for the nation,” she said. “(The government needs) to provide direction and decisions regarding the way forward. This is a huge and complicated problem but it is one that can be solved if Haitians own it and lead in the solutions. Figuring out how to free Haiti to help itself and take ownership of its solutions seems to me to be crucial in this country moving out of dependency and other oppressive forces that have thwarted its development. Investors who are willing to invest in it, supporting the development of products for export, and not flooding it with so much aid that local businesses can’t thrive are all part of the solution of Haiti not only surviving and recovering from the earthquake but recovering from the poverty that has devastated it for so long.”
Of course for the foreseeable future, aid continues to be a need even as Americans in many ways have already turned their attention elsewhere. Hopewell urged that it is a rut which Christians in particular should work hard to avoid.
“I think many, many people have forgotten Haiti and have moved on to other worries – the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, their own finances, other issues that are closer to home,” she said. “Unfortunately, without a close connection to a person or people in a nation that is suffering, it is hard to not simply move on to other issues.
“One of the most important aspects of child sponsorship is that it enables us to put a name and a face and a relationship to that country. I have two children there that I sponsor (whom I met last November) and that makes this personal. That makes this disaster really important to me. There are many, many disasters, wars, injustices, issues that happen so often that it can be overwhelming, numbing, and cause fatigue. But even though it takes work to be engaged and to continue to learn about the suffering of various parts of the world and the body of Christ, this is what we have to do – we cannot stay focused within our ‘Jerusalem’ – God calls us to care about Judea, Samaria and the outer ends of the earth – it’s not an option for us as members of the body of Christ to only care about ourselves (our local area, our neighborhood or our family) – we must stay engaged and be informed and pray and grieve and give and suffer alongside the world.
“Otherwise we miss the heart of God.”