A Year Ago: Haiti
By Erica Burman on Wednesday, January 12th, 2011
A year ago, when a massive earthquake devastated Haiti, we at NPCA witnessed an amazing mobilization of the Peace Corps community. There was an outpouring of offers to help from all quarters and Haiti RPCVs came together in force. Many of them are still working tirelessly on behalf of their host country, some stateside, some in Haiti.
Bryan Schaaf (Haiti 00-02, pictured above left addressing an RPCV/W fundraiser) co-founded Haiti Innovation with our former NPCA colleague Matt Marek. In those early days, Bryan and the organization’s blog played an important role in sharing information about what was happening on the ground. In the aftermath, he compiled reactions and stories from his fellow RPCVs in an article for the Spring 2010 issue of WorldView magazine, reprinted here.
GOING TO HEAVEN BACKWARDS
Shaken but steadfast, Haiti Volunteers react to disaster and vow to work towards recovery
by Bryan Schaaf
Peace Corps/Haiti was never a very large program. However, Peace Corps Volunteers have long made a difference in Haiti both through the projects we participated in and the relationships we made. Likewise, Haiti made a difference in us, most especially in the way we view the world. The earthquake has affected all and all are taking action in some way.
Following are some glimpses into what Haiti Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) were thinking, feeling, and doing in the days after the disaster. In this way, we both bear witness and re-affirm our commitment to stay connected to Haiti.
Josh Kunin-Goldsmith (01-03) writes: …I do know (pray) that somewhere there is still hope for Haiti. The power outages, logistical bottlenecks, and leadership gaps that hamper the rescue and recovery efforts have hampered the Haitian populace for years. Only now do they seem to be receiving the international attention they have always deserved. I am trying to count myself among those able to see an opportunity among this horrendous tragedy. The media focus on the made-for-television misfortune, not the underlying structural issues that exposed three million Haitians to the ravages of geology.
So while it is crucial to support the life-saving emergency response of the Red Cross Movement and others on the front lines, it is equally as important to focus on building a viable civil society, functional educational system and a reliable infrastructure. The idea of a “recovery” from this earthquake evokes an aim of returning to the status quo. For Haiti, the status quo is the problem; any recovery that does not change this will be a failure.
Tanya Santiago (97-99) writes: 7.0 Earthquake! An Earthquake?! In Haiti?! Hurricanes, yes, but earthquakes?! I am in shock and disbelief—not accepting what I am hearing: a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti—a country I once called home. I am at work sitting at my desk starring at the computer screen paralyzed with the sense of helplessness. All I want to do is run—run to the aid of Haiti—and then do what?…
It was not until I saw the images on television that it sunk in: the rubble, people crushed alive, crying, wailing. That wailing; I remember it distinctly whenever someone died in the countryside: “Anmwe!” (“Help me!”) Their whole bodies would be screaming—arms flailing about in the air, bodies collapsing into someone else’s arms. And that is what I was screaming, “Anmwe!” for how could I just watch and not do anything?…
Mike Wilson (90-91) writes: I visited Leogane today. Twenty years ago this house was built and I moved in as the first occupant. I paid 50 Haitian Dollars per month. This is what it looks like now. I stood and cried until I was told by a friend that they now know why I came to Leogane all those years ago. It was to help them today. I am going to try and mount an effort to adopt an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp. It is going to be way bigger than me but I have no choice. If you want to help I could sure use a hand.
Amanda Cauldwell (97-00), writes: Finally a free moment. I’m in the U.S. Embassy in Port au Prince now, working both here and at the airport. We flew in and saw plenty of flattened buildings, then landed a short walk from the Embassy…which is in perfect condition. It’s a brand new 3-story building, without even a crack on it—because it was built to American code. All around there are buildings and walls down.
We’re divided into 3 teams and there are 3 shifts every day, so we’re sixteen hours on and 8 off. I’ve never worked so hard. For the first half the shift I’m in the Embassy, then the second half out at the airport. The airport work is very dusty and fume-y, but amazing at the same time. We’re down on the tarmac, processing Americans and Haitians to board the Air Force flights to the U.S. Even last night there were still people walking through the process in a daze, some with bandages and carrying absolutely nothing.
At the Embassy in the mornings/afternoons I either do visas to help American’s Haitian family members leave the country, or I’m outside doing prescreening. The other day they actually gave me a megaphone to use. Can you imagine? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase “I haven’t seen her since the event” or sometimes “since the catastrophe.”…
Mason Robbins, (99-01) writes: …Life in Haiti was difficult—no electricity, plumbing, gasoline-powered transportation, etc. But through the trials and tribulations of dealing with a completely foreign environment and culture, I found that I laughed harder and smiled more than I did while living in the United States. I even fell madly in love with my wife Ernante, born and raised in Haiti, who is, as of 2009, a newly minted United States citizen.
The recent disaster in Haiti is heartbreaking. I find that I don’t have the ability to watch the news coverage of the disaster—it’s too painful. Many of the buildings I came to know in Port-au-Prince were reduced to chalk-white piles of rubble. The sobering list came out two days following the earthquake: The National Palace – heavily damaged, The National Cathedral – gone, The Hotel Montana – gone, The Hotel Villa Creole – heavily damaged, etc. All buildings I knew well….
Wendy Hirsch (98-00) writes: Haiti is a country of extremes, which demands a lot of you and rewards you immensely for the effort. I discovered this while a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1998 to 2000 working in and around Cabaret, Haiti…. I regret that most people are only exposed to the most negative of these extremes—dire poverty, environmental degradation, corruption, insecurity—and over the last week, the absolute horror that comes when you add a natural disaster to the mix. I don’t deny any of these. But I’m not going to write about them here. I want to talk about the other extremes of Haiti—beauty, vibrancy, kindness, gratitude, humor and lots of hard-earned wisdom.
I don’t possess the literary gifts necessary to describe the grace that is Sunday morning in Haiti—regardless of religion, whether you go to services or not—it’s a quiet and comforting time. Nor can I adequately convey the gift that is Haitian drumming, or the life and energy that literally leap from the paintings. But I can share with you some Haitian wisdom, as conveyed through proverbs.
I used proverbs a lot when I lived in Haiti. They provided a bridge to understanding the culture, attitudes and thinking of Haitians—and usually got a laugh when delivered through the mouth of a small, blonde American woman. Tenacity, effort, acceptance, practicality, hope and humor are all showcased in the proverbs—aspects of the Haitian people that I treasure….
One proverb in particular came to mind as I learned of the earthquake last week: W’ap fè’m monte nan sièl pado.
You are making me go to heaven backwards….
Gerald Wayne Harrell (02-04) writes: I was at a tree nursery conference in Ft. Lauderdale when I go the news. I guess my first thought was to get to Miami and get on the next plant to Port-au-Prince but instead I left the conference the next morning at went home to San Antonio to be with Henriette and the kids….
I’ve applied to no fewer that twenty relief organizations and Peace Corps Response. My dad said he would come to San Antonio and take over The Garden Center if I get a call. Honestly, I’m really more of a builder and I think my skills would be better used when reconstruction begins. M’ap tann—I am waiting. Like you, the other RPCVs and folks around the world, my spirit just aches for Haiti. I want nothing more than to make it better. I especially feel for the kids. I want so bad to be there and let them know everything is going to be OK.
Lenny Teh (97-00) writes: I’ve been optimistic about Haiti since returning from a recent trip during Thanksgiving…. I was there on a medical mission as a translator and stayed a few days longer to visit my Peace Corps site in the Grand’ Anse Department. I had left my site exactly ten years ago to the month (December) and I didn’t know what to expect. I had heard that going back to your site is disappointing since you are now just a visitor, or “blan”, simply passing through. This was not my experience, as I was welcomed back openly. It was a homecoming and validation of an experience that had changed my life. I had been riding a high about Haiti since then—and then the earthquake happened.
I was busy at work when I received a text that read “Big quake in Haiti!” immediately followed by another text “Do u know peeps still there” and “R u going?” I thought nothing of it probably because Haitians are use to a lot of misery—i.e., the numerous political coups, deforestation, floods, mudslides, and the title of being “the poorest country in the western hemisphere.” I then checked the news online and that is when the devastation of the 7.0 earthquake hit me: a third of the population impacted, hundreds of thousands expected dead, images of the collapsed Hotel Montana where I had lived and where the UN workers were trapped, and the feeling of not knowing the whereabouts of friends living there.
This was a different misery and I immediately called my host brother in New York (the only member of my host family in the U.S.) who was frantically trying to reach the family in Haiti. The communication network was down; there was no news and there would be none for the next few days. Although we eventually received word that all family members were alive, there were and still are many people from my village, which is one of the farthest points from Port-au-Prince, who are missing or confirmed dead. This earthquake has impacted the entire country.
I find comfort from the greater Peace Corps community and especially from my fellow-Haiti RPCVs. This disaster has brought us together around Peace Corps’ Third Goal in promoting an understanding of Haiti’s resilient people and its rich culture. Instead of feeling helpless, we have assisted our beloved Haiti in its time of need through holding fundraisers, building awareness, or directly assisting the response efforts here in the U.S. or in Haiti. As we do this, I am reminded of the Haitian proverb “Men anpil, chay pa lou”: many hands lighten the load. And, as in this case, the burden of recovery is shared among all of us with connections to Haiti.
Bryan Schaaf (00-02) writes: I had a Rotary Club Meeting at six o clock the night of the earthquake. On the way there, Lenny sent me a text message about what had happened. I remember thinking to myself that at least we had not been hit by a major hurricane, with the inevitable flooding and mudslides it would have created. When I got home at about nine o clock, I took a look at Twitter posts and pics. It didn’t take long to realize that the damage, both in terms of lives and livelihoods, was unprecedented. Port au Prince, Haiti’s largest city, was shattered. The Haitian government and UN forces had taken heavy losses. The infrastructure required to get people and cargo in and out of the country was heavily damaged. People with the means to do so started heading back to the countryside in droves. Every family has been affected, many traumatized. Right now it is still an emergency, the transition to recovery is being discussed. But recovery is the wrong word. Life will continue, but one does not truly recover from something like this.
Over the past year there were no hurricanes, infrastructure was being built, investment was picking up, and the government, while imperfect, was getting better at governing. Things were changing, we had momentum…and then this happens. Haiti is now a very different country than the one I remember from my days as a Peace Corps Volunteer…but it is still Haiti, and so I and other RPCVs are still connected….
Crime is below pre earthquake levels which is something the media has not done a good job of conveying—fundamental decency is probably not the best angle for increasing viewership. Haitians, ever generous, have been supporting each other, sharing what little they have, and taking in friends and loved ones. Haitians are survivors and they will make it through this together. They are strong in their faith. Many, if not most, will come out of this with a stronger belief in God. I can’t say the same. Here, as is often the case in emergencies, it is the women, the children, and the poorest who are suffering most.
That having been said, my faith in people is reinforced. Haitians are doing the best they can to take care of each other. Concerned individuals and groups from around the world, even in this uncertain economy, have given generously of their time and money in order to save lives, reduce suffering, and to make possible a recovery of some sort. I have never seen such an outpouring of genuine concern for Haiti.
Development in Haiti has been set back many years. Deye mon, gen mon. It will take a very large, long term international support, with a degree of coordination Haiti has not seen to date, in order to work. Men anpil chay pa lou—but only when working together in a sustained and coherent way. Haitians did not deserve what has happened to them. What they do deserve is the best efforts of individuals, groups, and the international community to respond to this disaster and to work with the Haitian government and people to ensure that this loss of lives and livelihoods does not happen again – whether from another earthquake, a hurricane, or something entirely unanticipated.
I also want to mention the work of Matthew Marek (00-02), one of the founding members of Haiti Innovation, who has lived in Port au Prince for several years, building the capacity of the Haitian Red Cross to prepare for and respond to disasters. Matt was in the Red Cross office when the earthquake happened. Part of the building collapsed, but he and his colleagues were able to escape. Since then, he and other Red Cross responders have been working non-stop to protect and assist survivors.
I would not be the same person without my time in Haiti. I would not be living where I am and working at what I do. I would also be more ignorant of the world around me. The earthquake not only affected Haiti, it also shook the Diaspora of which we are, in our own way, a part. We’re still connected, still committed, and we are not going to give up on Haiti.
Bryan Schaaf (Haiti 00-02) is a co-founder of Haiti Innovation.