Our series of posts from Concern Worldwide continue with this reflection on the one year anniversary of Haiti's earthquake. Jennifer Jalovec talks about the transitional shelters and planned settlement housing that Concern has installed in the past year. Jalovec works as the Haiti Emergency Program Coordinator for Concern.
My journey to Haiti really began with 9/11. I had been working in marketing and promotions for broadcast and print media in New York at the time, a job I had held for nine years. In the days following the attack, I started to question what I was doing with my life and if I were making any kind of positive impact in the lives of others.
Fast forward to 2005: I joined the Peace Corps at age 35, and my humanitarian career was off and running. Today, I am the Emergency Coordinator for Concern Worldwide in Haiti, overseeing a recovery program for the poorest country in western hemisphere, which is still reeling from the devastating earthquake that struck it a year ago.
Sure, there are days when I miss my comfortable corporate life in Manhattan— having lunch at a cafe on Madison Avenue, walking through Central Park, or being able to catch the latest movie at an air-conditioned multiplex. But I have gladly traded all of that to contribute to the positive impact the international aid community is making in the lives of the Haitian people. The story of Haiti is best told through an individual’s concrete experience.
There is a young woman living in the planned settlement of Tabarre Issa, a Concern-designed and Concern-managed planned settlement—the country’s first, in fact—just outside Port-au-Prince. Sarah (not her real name) had a stroke years ago that caused partial paralysis, which forced her to stop attending school. Her condition worsened after the trauma of the earthquake.
On the afternoon of the earthquake, a friend had invited her to come over for a visit. If Sarah had been at home, she would likely have been killed under the weight of her collapsed house. As is true for so many of the 1.3 million displaced, her family lost everything: loved ones, their home, livelihoods, and all their possessions.
At Tabarre Issa, Sarah’s family was one of the first to receive a transitional shelter built by Concern. These are durable, hurricane-proof structures meant to last up to five years. Until just some weeks ago, Sarah and her family lived in a tent. She recently told me: “I was so, so happy when we moved into the new house. I was laughing and jumping all over the place. I was saying, ‘That’s my house! That’s my house from Concern! Look at my house!’” The look of happiness and hope in her face is indisputable evidence that the aid community is making a difference: Sarah’s family of seven has a place to call home; her mother was able to restart her petty trading business; and the young woman herself is selling socks and women’s items—and dreaming of the day when she can pick up her studies in information sciences.
By mid-year, Concern will have built 1,500 of these transitional shelters, in Tabarre as well as in the surrounding communities, serving the various populations with a full range of services (water, sanitation, cash-for-work opportunities). All this work is turning the area into a promising microcosm of the country’s immediate future.
The biggest challenge for aid organizations in providing transitional and permanent shelter similar to those at Concern’s site in Tabarre has been accessing land to build the structures. Land tenure was a problem prior to the earthquake and has gotten worse—coupled with the fact that 80 percent of camp residents were renters prior to the earthquake and now have nowhere to go. This cannot be solved by the international community alone; we need a workable resettlement strategy that all stakeholders are involved with and that is led by the Haitian government.
Those that are criticizing the aid effort in Haiti need to be here day in and day out to see all that has been accomplished in an extremely difficult context. We are working against a multitude of obstacles in an environment of complex emergencies, political instability, and insecurity. Given these many challenges, we can be proud of the work that has been accomplished. We cannot let the negative press get to us: we are doing the best we can do under uniquely challenging circumstances.
I cannot even begin to compare Haiti to anywhere I have worked before, the situation here is so unique, given the sheer magnitude of the disaster and the fact that agencies that were already operating in Haiti prior to the earthquake were affected immensely by the disaster. NGOs suffered losses themselves—staff members died and staff lost family members and friends, which also impacted the emergency response. Yet I am constantly amazed at the resilience of the Haitian people, through all their loss and suffering they have an upbeat outlook on life, which is an absolute inspiration.
There is currently a great deal of uncertainty as to what will happen next in the election process. But we cannot let that stop our earthquake recovery and cholera response operations. The most important thing for everyone is to continue moving forward on a day-by-day basis. Still, the recent violence slowed down our work, and there is a real concern that we will not have access to camps and neighborhoods if the security situation worsens again.
To prevent further cases, Concern’s Cholera Response Team must be able to transport and distribute vital cholera response materials—soap, Oral Rehydration Salts and Aquatabs—and have access to our water and sanitation program areas to provide potable water and maintain latrines. Safe passage to Cholera Treatment Centers is the difference between life and death. Concern, together with other NGOs, has appealed to the international community for a guarantee of humanitarian access and free movement of staff and emergency supplies so that we can continue our work no matter what happens.
Yes, this is the one-year anniversary of the horrible earthquake of January 12, 2010. And we must observe the occasion in various ways. There is an unfounded expectation that the one-year mark must go hand-in-hand with a record of super accomplishments by NGOs—like finding homes for more than 1 million displaced people; and rebuilding the city’s water and sanitation infrastructure from scratch.
The entire recovery and rebuilding process will take years. Concern has been saying this from the beginning. As Sarah’s story powerfully illustrates, progress is being made on a daily basis—and unrealistic expectations for Haiti must be kept in check. In the meantime, we—and I speak for all of my colleagues at Concern—aren’t going anywhere.