Blogger’s note: I spent Aug. 10-17 in Haiti as a volunteer for Mission of Hope, a non-profit organization that provides education, housing and healthcare to citizens who experienced hardship from the nation’s earthquake last year and its ongoing poor living conditions.
This is an account of my experiences in Port-au-Prince, Titanyen and surrounding villages, and what I think the city of Detroit can learn from the Haiti’s issues of poverty, an ongoing public health crisis, obsolete infrastructure and dysfunctional political leadership.
Titanyen, Haiti — Family, friends and co-workers all had their opinions, and some even took the liberty to read me the slew of warnings on the U.S. State Department’s website.
Their concerns, and the fact immunizations and pills cost more than my airfare ($410 vs. $380), made me wonder, as I headed to Metro Airport, if I was about to make a serious and potentially fatal mistake.
A few reasons why a week-long jaunt to Haiti, a placed deemed by the State Department as the “least stable country in the Western Hemisphere” isn’t considered a good idea:
- Travel there will increase the burden on a system, brought to its knees by a Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, that’s already struggling to support those in need on the ground.
- Haiti’s medical facilities have inadequate public sanitation, which poses serious health risks, including vulnerability to the country’s outbreaks of HIV/AIDS, malaria, cholera, meningitis, tuberculosis, respiratory infections and intestinal parasites.
- A poverty rate of at least 80 percent has created a dangerous criminal environment that’s led to “no safe havens” from murders, death threats, kidnappings, drug-related shootouts, armed robberies, break-ins and other security threats.
Call it a feeling of blind faith, or an idiotic sense of adventure, but believe me when I say I’m glad I got on that plane.
A week spent this month as a volunteer for Mission of Hope, a Christian-based non-profit relief organization, gave me more of an education about this world than I ever had in college at Michigan State.
When you’re staying in Titanyen, just outside Port-au-Prince, spending your days with orphans who lost their parents to natural disasters, disease (and in some cases both), it’s hard to not learn something.
When you’re visiting nearby villages that lack basic necessities like clean water and trash removal, and see infants sprint out of their homes to give you hugs, you can’t help but feel something.
Now the whole experience really strikes a cord with me emotionally as the country and an estimated 300,000 people living in makeshift camps had a brief scare from Hurricane Irene.
Some of the temporary homes, many the size of American backyard sheds, got pelted with heavy wind and rain, but the resolve of a nation stayed in tact.
I live in downtown Detroit, spend most of my free time volunteering in the community, and felt a kinship with the Haitians I met because of a similar fighting spirit found here amidst this area’s problems — ones took decades to create, and most likely decades to solve.
On Day 1 of the trip, 36-year-old artist Dacson Tham-SeJour, from a town called Jacmel, gave me a lesson in gratitude.
Tham-SeJour lost seven family members (three sisters, two brothers and two cousins) to the earthquake when the Port-au-Prince movie theater they were in suddenly collapsed due to the impact’s magnitude (7.0 on the Richter scale) and crushed them to death.
This creative mind is still deep in mourning over the tragedy and still feels helpless because he wasn’t with them at the time. But he refuses to give up hope on a country that’s been mired in natural and man-made catastrophes for decades.
“I see a new life,” Tham-SeJour said softly, smiling standing near a stand where he sells paintings. “I see a new Haiti, a new system. I see a new government, I see everything being reborn.
“It’s time to do something because we need this country.”
Complicated beyond belief
What can be done to right so many wrongs in a nation plagued with poor infrastructure, inadequate public sanitation and a lack of overall leadership remains a complicated and controversial dilemma.
Time spent in Titanyen and villages like Leveque, the site where Mission of Hope and the government is building 500 permanent homes, displayed plenty of optimism and signs of progress.
So did brief chats with lifelong Haitians excited about the direction the country could be headed under new President Michel Martelly.
The process, though, of turning words into action, and action into lasting and tangible results, has been a difficult one here for decades.
Haiti has been considered so dysfunctional for so long, with a government that severely lacks the world’s trust, that most disaster relief organizations and efforts have withheld the bulk of monetary aide for fear it will be wasted.
For example, Rolling Stone Magazine reported this month that of the $479 million an American Red Cross relief fund raised for Haiti, only $245 million by the one-year anniversary of the earthquake had been spent or at least had signed agreements in place to be spent.
The same magazine also said the U.S. Government Accountability Office disclosed in May that of the $1.14 billion allocated by Congress for Haiti last year, only $184 million has been “obligated.”
Rolling Stone contributing editor Janet Reitman wrote a piece this month in Rolling Stone entitled “How the World Failed Haiti,” and came to the conclusion after recently spending two weeks in Port-au-Prince and conducting nine months of research, that the county’s circumstances demand the world’s attention.
The challenge, however, is to rebuild Haiti in a smart way, with a partnership between public and private enterprises that empower and instill trust in the people who have a vested interest in its development.
Sound familiar? It should, we’re experience the same issue here in Detroit.
“I could give 10 million to Haiti,” Reitman explained to me over the phone, “But that doesn’t mean I have a stake in the country. People who have a stake are Haitians. It kind of boils down to the simple thing of trusting the Haitians and really working with them.
“I think that takes a really long time. We (in America) don’t like to wait; everything has to be results-focused — right away.”
Sense of hope hits home
The election of Martelly, a former pop singer known as “Sweet Micky,” might help buy some time because public sentiment is favorable. Based on my travels, though, I don’t believe there’s much to waste.
During trips just to and from the Port-au-Prince airport, it was hard to tell what direction the country is headed.
Images like seeing half-naked children bathing in irrigation ditches nearly roaming livestock and women washing dishes aren’t out of the ordinary.
Most water supplies like ditches and streams seem to move at a slow trickle, and waste are simply part of the landscape since there appeared to be no trash bins or dumpsters in sight.
Despite all the reasons why a person should flee – and quickly – out of the country, educated youth like Jude Destine, 23, of Titanyen, refuse give up on their homeland.
Destine lives on Mission of Hope’s grounds, as do about 60 orphans, and aspires to be an engineer who helps rebuild ravaged Haitian cities.
When I told him I was from Detroit, his eyes lit up, he cracked a smile and said it was his favorite American city — needless to say Destine has never been to the U.S. He loves the hip hop music Eminem churns out and hears the city’s sports teams are known for being tough.
Destine’s demeanor, however, changed when I told him the Motor City experienced last year, according to the U.S. Census, its lowest population dip (713,777 last year) in 100 years.
“They’re crazy, they’re crazy,” said Destine, when told of a mass exodus of more than 237,500 people who have left Detroit in the past decade. “When something happens to a city, and you run away, you don’t even know what’s going to happen where you’re going.”
If young people in a Third World country propped up by foreigners have hope amidst chaos, then why can’t folks here in the D keep the faith, stay put and use their passion to bring lasting change?
It’s definitely a question I ask myself often, and I can thank the Haitians for igniting a fire.
A guy like Tham-SeJour, who has every reason to flee a country marred by chaos, often created by its own people, inspires me stay engaged in Detroit’s revival.
It’s simply not the Haitian way to give in — no matter what the circumstances are.
“It’s like Satan and Jesus fighting,” he exclaimed, standing proudly by his booth full of paintings, “but I see this as Haiti’s last fight.”
Hopefully Detroit, a place I’m proud to call home, can stop getting beat up, too.
How to help Haiti
A few organizations and charitable groups I recommend if you’re interested in being a part of the humanitarian effort:
Mission of Hope - mohhaiti.org
A Christian-based organization that has, since 1972, pushed for education, healthcare services and community development in the nation.
3 Cords - 3cordshaiti.blogspot.com
A craft business initiative driven by amputee women and mothers of amputee children who were affected by the country’s devastating earthquake.
United Nations Special Envoy to Haiti – haitispecialenvoy.org
Partnership between former President Bill Clinton and the U.N. to fundraise for the reconstruction of various cities and villages within the country.
American Red Cross - redcross.org
Organization administers disaster relief and healthcare and has provided clean water (660,000 gallons) daily to more than 300,000 people.
J/P Haitian Relief Organization - jphro.org
A group founded by actor Sean Penn after the 2010 earthquake that focuses on emergency response operations, education and medical care.
Complicated humanitarian effort
Since the Haitian government has been full of turmoil over the years, and there’s such a need for basic services like food, water and shelter, organizations like the United Nation’s Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti have pledged millions of dollars to help.
But these non-governmental organizations (NGOs) often can’t – or won’t – disperse the money quickly because of the mistrust in Haiti’s government and its history of corruption and wasteful spending. Here’s a breakdown of the $4.6 billion raised over the past two years, since the country’s earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010:
- $5.6 billion (total)
- $2.6 billion – committed
- $1.7 billion – dispersed
- $1.2 billion – pending
Source: U.N. Office of Special Envoy for Haiti