HELPING TO BUILD A BETTER FUTURE FOR HAITI…

Agrandir en Haiti

I still remember the day it happened: Tuesday, January 12th 2010. For me, it was a regular day in Dubai; I went to the office, had dinner with my husband. But on the Caribbean island of Haiti, an earthquake registering at 7.0 on the Richter scale hit the most densely populated part of the country. Hundreds of thousands were killed, many more left homeless. And it affected me in a way that I just can’t describe, or that even makes and sense…

I followed closely the daily reports and images of the devastation and accompanying recovery efforts, deeply moved by what had happened. One story in particular had a profound effect: it was about a group of aid workers who had found 700 lost children but had only been able to track down families for twelve of them. And of those twelve, only five children were actually reunited with their families; in the other cases the families did not want them back, for they had no way of caring for them.

Once in a while something touches your life so significantly that it is all-consuming.  For me, it was the desperation of the situation in Haiti and I was overwhelmed with a desire to travel there and to provide whatever help I could.  Before I knew it, I had quit my job and was on my way to help provide the earthquake victims with the basic necessities of life – love, food, clothing and shelter.  The following extracts are taken from the diary I wrote during my first trip to Haiti, during which time I provided support of varying kinds to the relief effort in a small community outside of Port-au-Prince:

FIRST IMPRESSIONS:

final note1“As we start our descent, I press my forehead and nose tightly to the plastic view hole to see Haiti for the first time. The first sights I witness are beautiful, picturesque mountain ranges and lush greenery, but adjacent to these areas, in stark contrast, lie hopelessly barren enormous stretches of flat land, sporadically covered with large areas of white and blue tarpaulins – tent camps providing temporary shelter for the thousands of people who have been left with next to nothing in the aftermath of the earthquake’s recent destruction… 

…The extent of the destruction and devastation takes my breath away…  The colour grey is everywhere and dust in the air is thick and constant. The structures of so many homes and buildings are nothing more than just crumbled stone and I think to myself that this is a thousand times worse than the images I have seen on the news. I can hear children crying. I can see through the sorrowful eyes of the surviving parents as they hold their children underneath shelters of dust-ridden sheets.  I have never smelled the odour that now fills my nostrils, but instinctively I knew it was the smell of death and decay. My heart breaks every second. I am in sensory overload and I can feel my body trying to protect me from the images that will abruptly confront me in the weeks to come …. 

tent haiti

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My intention was not to document the sorrow and devastation, but, instead, to highlight the beautiful and positive aspects of Haiti where possible; the vibrant colours of the ‘Tap-Taps’ and the vivaciousness of Port-au-Prince and its people.  Despite the piles of rubble, faces of sorrow and cacophony of noises from man, motor and beast, I want to show those who could not experience it first-hand that which makes Haiti a place to rejoice and celebrate. I knew I would be emotional and I knew I would feel helpless but I wasn’t prepared for the broken dam of waterworks and the feeling of absolute unfairness and resentment that suddenly overwhelmed me…”

haiti camp

OUR COMPOUND AND NEIGHBOURS:

 “The compound, our home for the duration of our stay, is set back from the main road running through the CDB. To get to it, you have to pass a muddy track with destroyed concrete houses on one side and a ‘tent town’ on the other. These tiny plastic homes house entire families of up to 10 people. Whenever we walk this path, we are surrounded by children who dangle off any part of you they can get a grip of. They all know our names and are desperate for some affection and contact.

The exquisite eyes and beauty of the younger children beam up at you infectiously, but the older kids bear expressions on their face that tell the horrifying tale of the experiences that no person, never mind a child, should ever have to go through. How can you help someone who has lost everything? How is it fair? What can be done? We must help. We skip and run and cuddle…

haiti-city-soleil-trash

Nov 11, 2010 - Port-au-Prince, Haiti A stagnant drainage ditch filled with water, garbage and possible human waste runs through a tent city in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Thursday, November 11, 2010 as fears of a Cholera outbreak spread through the area just days after cases of the infection were confirmed in Haiti's capital. Officials from the Pan American Health Organization warn that Haiti's cholera epidemic, spread primarily through consuming infected water and food, is likely to grow much larger in the wake of Hurricane Tomas. (Credit Image: Brian Blanco)

compound23There is no rubbish collection service to speak of in Haiti, so giant piles of garbage are everywhere. The rubbish mound in our compound has reached an atrocious height and I am quite sure that nothing has been done to this for some time. The heap of sh*t, sweating in the midday sun propagates a stench that takes over the yard. And the animal life it attracts makes you shiver – flies, mosquitos, spiders, cockroaches, ants, maggots, lizards, rats and disease.  Armed with spade, shovel, matches, lighters, gloves, cans of repellent and a nose clip, I get to work….”

TEACHING: “On arrival, a Woman’s Day teaching session is in full swing. We are thrown in at the deep end.  This weeks’ Woman’s Day lessons will revolve around hygiene and contraception.  Whilst we were not here to change a culture or inflict our views, if there was any way that HIV and STDs could be reduced then we had to at least give it a try…

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school

…I had been assigned two of the English classes to teach. Verb formation is the lesson for my English class today. I teach them how to form the regular endings and provide them with a list of irregular ones which just have to be learned. They really enjoy this lesson and I feel privileged to have the opportunity to spend time with these remarkable girls. We have mutual admiration for each other and they sing my name over and over…

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…I am excited to see that both Robinson and Leslie have turned up at school at 6am so they don’t have to share me with the other pupils and can get my undivided one-to-one attention. For a while, they sit on my knee and we cuddle and colour in silence.  The other pupils arrive around 7.15am knocking each other off their feet and running towards me screaming; and school starts at 8am when the hand-held bell is rung.  The pupils sing the national anthem every day and raise the Haitian flag high above what remains of their school classroom…” 

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BUILDING: “In the space of a few weeks, we were able to assemble the frame to support the building of a roof on our crumbling compound, together with a small water tower, which collected rain water for us to wash once a week…  

…We put our weekend to good use: building benches, tables and items for the new outside classroom, and we erected a tarp roof for each of the external classes. Since the earthquake, many people have been too scared to go back inside any buildings for fear that they might collapse again, so many day-to-day activities and basic living take place outside… We painted and assembled each of our school items in the play-yard hoping that each would make school life a little easier and fun…

…The good news is that the projects have not just picked up a gear or two; it’s like a completely different organisation. I’d like to think that our original group’s no-nonsense attitude was the catalyst for this new motivated daily attitude.  We have now set up construction projects at two orphanages, one school, one refugee camp and one clinic…” 

…Some of the other volunteers pop back for a 30 min rest or get ready for a different afternoon activity. I change for my last working day; I have put my name up for a local construction project…Two schools (primary and secondary) catering for approximately 700 children were destroyed in the earthquake and we have offered our labouring skills to dismantle the unsafe buildings, clear the mountain of rubble, build a temporary school and, eventually, two permanent buildings of education.  We are at the rubble collection stage, so armed with pick axes, wheel barrows, spades, gloves and water; we head off to smash, collect, clear and flatten. I particularly enjoy this task since its physical nature helps to switch off my brain (for a couple of hours at least) and it’s great to know that there is a definitive goal and timeframe for what we need to do. Once again, we are surrounded by ants and cockroaches every time we move a giant bolder…”

CARING: Using supplies obtained from a mobile clinic, we put together ninety basic first-aid kits for distribution at the next Woman’s Day. We have noticed many infected cuts which could be prevented by the simple use of antiseptic cream and a plaster….Dehydration, malnutrition, worms, scabies and STDs (the youngest with an STD was 11 and the oldest was 85) were some of the other complaints we dealt with…”

medicin

LOVING: It starts to look familiar and we see the river and the wide gap at the sign of the road. We turn in and start to drive up a bumpy, winding and very narrow track. One false move and we could fall down the side into the river. We jump out and start to walk up to where we remember the tent orphanage being. As we get closer, we can hear the sound of children and we increase our pace to get there as quickly as we can. We reach the opening and the first person we see walking towards us is Johnny. He is walking. He recognises us and Tracy scoops him into her arms. Within seconds we are surrounded…

leaving club indigo6…I can’t believe how great they all look on this occasion. So much more alive and alert than they were just 4 days ago. I am being cuddled to death.  Jeffty appears through a curtain of children and is led by his hand towards me. He is on his feet and looks strong. He climbs onto to me immediately and begins “bla, bla, bla” noises with his tongue. When he then says “mamma” it nearly breaks my heart and for a second I wish I was…

…I am incredibly close to all my pupils now and indeed to all the individuals I have had the pleasure to meet in Haiti. I love every moment of this experience and really am struggling with the idea that at some point I will have to leaving it all to go home. I am fulfilled each day and I feel like my actions are genuinely contributing towards the improvement of life for all those in the neighbourhood.  This seems like what I should be doing with my life forever…”

FRONTLINE was established upon my return to Dubai and, with the help of our ‘on the ground’ partners ACTS, the ZANMI PROJECT (‘Zanmi’ is the Haitian word for ‘friends’) aims to build a community on the outskirts of Haiti’s capital, Port au Prince. Phase-One of this project is focussed around the construction of an orphanage, a dormitory for volunteer workers and a classroom.

The long-term aim is to help achieve a more prosperous future for the community by providing a healthy environment in which children and adults can improve their personal and collective prospects in areas of life that we take for granted: shelter, education, medical attention and care.  In construction terms, every $10 donation directly funds the purchase of six building blocks for use in Phase-One.

jeftyPrior to the earthquake, Save the Children estimated there were 380,000 Haitian children living in orphanages. And since the earthquake, the number of children who’ve lost their parents has more than doubled. Moreover, large numbers of children are also sent to orphanages by desperate parents, for whom the orphanage is a god-send, a temporary solution to help a child and family survive a particularly tough stretch. Despite the lack of resources, every school, orphanage or community willingly shares whatever it has with anybody in need, and the displays of sacrifice, sharing and selflessness that I witnessed on a daily basis have left an indelible mark on me. Whilst I expected and hoped to make a difference to other people, I found myself enriched by the proud people of Haiti, with a finer appreciation of what really matters in life.

The recovery relief in Haiti, a country already regarded as one of the poorest in the world, will take many, many years. It has significant logistical challenges and continues to be set-back by hurricanes and adverse weather conditions. All those involved will need to dig as deep as possible to find the strength and faith needed to help break the latest cycle of poverty and destitution. The size and scale of the problems are overwhelming and my approach was to try to make a difference one person at a time. Through the children, their families, the cooks, the translators and everybody I came into contact with, my time in Haiti had specific purpose.

The Zanmi Project continues that specific purpose and offers individuals an opportunity to contribute in a meaningful and tangible way.  Normality has not been restored in Haiti and the problems associated with the earthquake’s devastation have not gone away. Images and reports of the wreckage may no longer make prime-time news bulletins, but Haiti still needs our help.

 Together we can help to build a brighter future for Haiti. Humanity is Always in Style!

Zanmi campaign

Zanmi The Collection

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