Notes from Haiti: A firsthand account of serving in Haiti for one week:
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Until a few months ago, I could not fathom the extreme poverty, despair and hurt that separate my world from a Third World country.
Then I went to Haiti.
I thought I knew what poverty was. I was raised with a passion for helping those around me. In high school, I went to Tijuana, Mexico, with my church youth group, where we built a small but sturdy house for a family. In college, I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in Mississippi, West Virginia and Washington; did hurricane relief work in Louisiana; and tutored children in inner-city Chicago.
When my Zonta Club started planning trips to Haiti, I was immediately interested. Our first group went to Port-au-Prince in May, while I saved my money for the next trip. I heard these ladies' stories and saw their photos, saw how emotional they got when discussing their experiences. I knew it would be intense, but I thought I'd be prepared. I had seen plenty of people in tough times before.
In Haiti, those "tough times" are on a whole other level.
Flying into Haiti, the land looks like paradise -- sandy beaches, turquoise water and lots of lush greenery. As our plane neared the ground, I noticed subtle differences. There were no highways and office complexes, like in the United States. I saw a few small, curvy roads, not many cars, and clusters of small, worn-down buildings. We stepped off the plane and into an airport with concrete floors, no air-conditioning and definitely no Starbucks. There were Haitian men everywhere, each asking (very loudly) to take our bags in hopes of receiving a tip. They didn't work for the airport. They were just there, trying to earn a living, like everybody else in Haiti. So began my journey into the Third World.
Barely a two-hour flight from Miami, there are children in orphanages because their parents can't afford to keep them. I held babies who were, quite literally, skin and bones. I was afraid I would break them when I lifted them out of their cribs -- and when I put them down, they cried and clung to my sleeves. It made me cry, too.
Two hours from Miami, the water is not safe to drink, there is no trash collection, and I saw people sitting in the dirt with no clothes on. The streets are a chaotic mix of traffic, pedestrians, dirt, garbage, stray animals and Haitians trying to sell everything from shampoo and raw meat to T-shirts and lottery tickets. The only time I breathed fresh, clean air in Haiti was the one evening it rained. Every other time, the air smells like burning garbage and car exhaust fumes. Two years after the earthquake that caused extensive damage and more than 300,000 deaths in Port-au-Prince, many survivors are still living in huge, crowded, dangerous tent cities.
When I recovered from the initial shock, I saw, in sharp contrast, the beauty of the country. Like I said, Haiti looks like it should be paradise, with its tropical plants, balmy weather and gorgeous coastline. In fact, on the other side of the island, the Dominican Republic is paradise for many tourists.
But the true beauty of Haiti is in the people, not the land. The Haitians I met are strong, positive and hardworking. That young woman we saw in church on Sunday morning? She may be a teenage girl living in a shack with her four children, but she still puts on her best and walks a few miles to church, looking flawless and ready to praise God and thank him for her blessings. Everywhere we went, we met volunteers who had been to Haiti dozens of times. For some, a short-term trip was not enough, and they'd given up their comfortable lives in the U.S. to serve in Haiti full time.
Boston natives John and Beth McHoul moved to Haiti 22 years ago and founded Heartline Ministries, where they coordinate classes in sewing, cooking, jewelry-making, reading and English. They operate a clinic for pregnant women and new mothers, a home for teen moms, and a guesthouse to house volunteers, including myself and my Zonta sisters.
"We never made any decisions. We just never went home," said Beth on her move to Haiti.
"In this culture, women are not always in a position to make decisions, and the men are not very faithful," she adds. "We target young teens so they're not starting the cycle of a baby every year."
Our Zonta Club packed and delivered more than 200 birthing kits to Heartline. Each kit includes a trash bag, razor blade, soap and string. The kits are delivered to rural villages and given to women who are turned away from Heartline when there is no more room. Can you imagine being sent away to give birth with only those meager supplies? I would be absolutely terrified. Beth says Heartline can never have enough birthing kits.
At The Apparent Project, Corrigan Clay runs an organization where parents make beads and jewelry to sell for a living. "Corrigan from Oregon" taught us a lot about the Haitian culture, and we got to meet some of the men and women who make jewelry at The Apparent Project. We brought them colorful cardboard to make beads, and did lots of shopping, too.
Corrigan and his wife moved to Haiti in 2008 and have two sons, one of whom was adopted in Haiti. Now, the couple's mission in life is to enable Haitians to rise up out of their struggles, and to help volunteers understand what that will really take. It's "tough love," said Corrigan, but he believes the only way to change Haiti is from the inside out.
"We want to enable them to feed their own families and keep their own children. We want to enable Haitian parents to be the parents God made them to be," said Corrigan. "Americans bring stuff to Haiti, but it's not redemptive unless someone here has a change of heart or mind. That's our whole motivation."
Samuel Darguin, director of the Haitian American Caucus in nearby Croix-des-Bouquets, feels the same way.
"It takes getting the community involved from the beginning. We're not here for charity. We're here to empower folks to do for themselves," said Sam, a young man who was born in Haiti, raised in the U.S. and returned to Haiti to launch HAC. "Too many NGOs (non-governmental organizations) come in with a band-aid for two months and leave."
HAC provides a school for 100 children ages 3 to 17, with 150 more on the waiting list. HAC also has a microfinance program, adult English, literacy and computer classes, agriculture and goat husbandry programs, a women's empowerment group, sewing groups and more.
HAC is in the neighborhood of Michaud. The population was about 12,000 at the last census, but Sam expects it to be much higher now. Many Haitians are moving here because there was little damage from the earthquake, and there is more land available for rebuilding. During our three days here, we taught CPR classes, painted the gate into the compound, played with schoolchildren, did crafts and manicures with the women's group and began organizing for Zonta's future dental mission to HAC.
Sam's ultimate goal is to have a Haitian American Caucus at the outskirts of every major city in Haiti.
"We know it's possible; we just dare to try," Sam told us.
One day at HAC, we chatted with 14 ladies from the women's empowerment group about our work and families, hopes and dreams. They all have dreams, just like we do: to be a lawyer, a nurse, an accountant, a fashion designer; to provide an education for her children or grow rice to feed her community.
My dream was to go to college, be a writer, get married and have a family. I've accomplished two of those things so far, and it was so easy for me. I'm almost embarrassed to admit how easy my life has been, while women in Haiti are lucky if they can afford to go to school for a few years before getting raped and pregnant. I could have been one of those women -- I was just fortunate enough to be born in the United States.
The needs are endless in Port-au-Prince, and I left feeling overwhelmed. What could I possibly do to make a difference? There are skilled laborers, midwives and missionaries moving to Haiti, so what can a young writer from Missouri do to help?
Well, I'm still not sure, but I'm inspired to try. After seeing the needs in Haiti, falling in love with the people there and seeing what others are doing to help this country -- I want to do more. Anything and everything. And I guess I'm starting with this story. I carried a pen and paper everywhere I went in Haiti because I didn't want to forget a single thing. I wanted to tell you about the people in Haiti and what they need.
I hope I've given you something to think about. A snapshot of what life is like for women just like us, only hours away. A greater appreciation for your life here. And I hope that, like me, you might feel agitated enough to do something about it someday, whether it's here in Cape Girardeau, in Haiti, or wherever life takes you.