Next up in our series of posts from Concern Worldwide is a story on rebuilding efforts in Haiti. Concern US board member Kevin Fortuna reminds us to not forget about the need in Haiti.
We met at JFK airport just after sunrise, the six of us: two staffers from Concern Worldwide (a large international charity), three supporters, and me. We were all a little anxious, having digested both the recommended dosage of anti-malaria drugs as well as the federal security warnings that basically told us not to do what we were about to do.
The flight took less than three hours, about the length of time it takes to get from New York City to Miami. But instead of a first-world American city on the other side of that flight, we stepped off into a place the world has forgotten, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
When we deplaned in Port-au-Prince, we were greeted by an incongruous welcome: a band six-piece band performing a festive tune that sounded like a cross between calypso and salsa music. Though the music was enchanting and, in many ways, a fitting beginning to our trip, reality hit us when we left the airport. We were rushed into a waiting SUV and through the ruins of Haiti’s capital city to the first of many “camps” managed by Concern Worldwide.
This and all but one of the other camps we visited are what development workers call “spontaneous,” meaning they sprang up after the earthquakes in any open space where tents and makeshift structures could be erected on open land—including a private golf course, a soccer field and the grounds of a warehouse and trucking compound. At one camp we saw a medical tent that housed malnourished children and provided a safe space for their mothers to care for them under nurses’ supervision.
At another camp, we spent time in a child-friendly tent where kids were singing songs and learning about hygiene and safe drinking water. At the camp built on a soccer field, all four of the goal posts were incorporated as tent poles by residents of the camp.
This particular camp had seen some unrest and violence and the managing NGO had recruited camp residents to run security patrols near the water station. The threat of violence still hung in the air, and we could see it in the looks the security men exchanged with some adolescents nearby.
What’s remarkable is that there has not been far more violence. Haiti’s population is estimated to be a little more than 10 million people, and almost ten percent of them are jammed into the wreckage of its capital city. The country’s official unemployment rate is 80 percent, but we were told that it’s probably closer to 90 percent.
Haiti’s history has been cursed by unstable and often corrupt governments and an almost total lack of economic progress. Port-au-Prince is not so much a city anymore, but a demolition site. Structures are marked with serial numbers underneath a red, yellow or green dot. Green means that the structure is habitable, yellow means that it’s questionable and red means that it’s marked for demolition. We saw red dots everywhere.
Haiti had precious little hope prior to the earthquake, but now the people of Port-au-Prince face almost unimaginable hardship. No reliable sources of food and water, no permanent places to live, no jobs, and a government that has been slow to respond to a growing crisis. The NGO staffers we met in Haiti are some of the most unselfish and committed people I’ve ever met. The humility and generosity of spirit with which they approach their work is inspiring. But they admit that the main work of their operation is relief, sanitation, healthcare and education. They cannot solve Haiti’s more fundamental problems.
Our trip ended with a tour of Tabare Issa, a camp run by Concern which has quickly become a model for Haiti and the rest of the developing world. The beating heart of the camp is a sophisticated carpentry operation which assembles “transitional shelters” at a breakneck pace under the watchful eye of Concern staffer and civil engineer, Tom Dobbins.
Dobbins and his team recruited and trained a small staff of camp residents who now work efficiently enough to build up to fifteen shelters per day. These attractive wooden structures replace fragile tents, and Dobbins can’t build them fast enough. In stark contrast to the other camps we visited, Tabare Issa is teeming with life and hope. Children played on an adjacent soccer field (instead of using the goal posts as tent poles). Many shelters had private gardens and porches. The camp apparently has a long waiting list of applicants. In Tabare Issa, I saw proof positive of what I’d heard many times from Concern staffers: Haitians want to work, be productive, care for their families and achieve a measure of order and stability.
In America, we don’t hear much about Haiti anymore. Outside of occasional headlines about celebrity involvement from the likes of Sean Penn and Wyclef Jean, America has forgotten our next door neighbor. As we move further along into the New Year it’s a good time to think about our neighbors and reassess our priorities. Why is it that we hear so much about crises in the Middle East and other distant regions, and so little about our neighbor to the south? Children are dying preventable deaths in Haiti every day.
While it’s true that we don’t have an immediate national security interest at stake, surely we have a moral and humanitarian obligation to do more, to make Haiti a bigger part of our national dialog, get involved, to care more, to give more. I’m no exception: I learned about Haiti and traveled there only because I serve as a member of Concern’s U.S. Board of Directors.
Dominic MacSorley, Operations Director of Concern, recently said in a blog post that “Haiti is music.” And music was a hallmark of our trip, whether it was the musical greeting we got at the airport, or church hymns being belted out by an impromptu congregation in front of the ruins of a grand cathedral, or the songs of welcome sung in unison by the children packed into one of our host charity’s child-friendly tents. Music is transcendent; it’s about life and hope and dreams. MacSorley is correct: Haiti is Music. America—and the world—should listen to it.