Katie post from Thursday (backdated)

One of the more somber posts.  Sorry this one got delayed.


I received some really interesting feedback this evening about my email updates, and I am so grateful for it—I had actually been thinking about this issue more and more, and was simply unsure how, or even if, I ought to consider the topic.

The question was, and excuse the paraphrase, “your emails seem so fun…but surely there must be some level of disparity that you see?  What are you doing, and how is your aid helping (or not)?”

I suppose my hope in writing these daily recaps was to reassure some people of my safety and wellbeing; as well as shed some light on the work that HODR is doing and provide a bit of humor along the way.  I think the editor in me thought that lightening the gravity of this relief work with humor would make the reality palatable—for me and for those I am sharing this experience with.  Mostly, the conditions here are so awful that recounting the details, apart from the “serious” paragraphs in my emails, is taxing because I (and others) choose to get up the next day to face it all over again.  And that is a difficult task.  I also fear appearing too much like one of those “Children International” people on the street who shove pictures of starving children in your face…

All that aside, the point is a valid one—and I do have the opportunity to transmit an experience and a viewpoint to you, that you cannot at this moment witness and assess for yourself.  One of the largest challenges for me initially was to achieve some level of comprehension as to what the actual damage from the earthquake was, in comparison to the conditions in existence beforehand.  It is no shock to hear that Haiti has a severe economic crisis, and that decades of NGO and aid organization presence has in some way instituted and nurtured a culture in which we come in to “fix” the symptoms but are not able, or choose not, to address the problem.

On a superficial level this can be seen in the buildings that we work with everyday—most are in states of destruction beyond repair—but it’s unclear to me what they were like beforehand.  The streets are mostly unpaved, those who lived in houses in the “center” of town, now camp in tents (or similar structures) on the main thoroughfare, inches away from the cars and motos that speed by.  Open-air canals feed waste and water through the city, and they are frequently littered and putrid.  It is a common practice to burn garbage and waste right next to the tent—the air here is perpetually smelling of garbage, stagnant water and human waste; the temperature and rainy weather add their own challenges as you might imagine.  Recently, the government has instituted a paid program for young men (they are notable because they all wear red t-shirts and can be seen every morning) to wade into the knee-deep canals and sludge out the waste, garbage and debris and create slop piles on the sides of the road.  Most do not have proper tools, shoes or anything nearing health-protective gear.

At tonight’s evening meeting we discussed the concerns many were experiencing by having children on the work site—and the risk we take with letting them push wheelbarrows, sling sledgehammers, or even just walk barefoot on ten feet of rubble.  We want the community to feel engaged—and since many of the adults and older children just stand by watching while we labor away, we want to foster these young kids’ enthusiasm to participate and help out.  At the same time, none of this should put safety in question.  Part of me would advocate not having kids on-site, and part of me feels this is essential to the HODR experience—it’s supposed to be more than just clearing rubble and being entertained by the St. Bonnie guys.

An insightful HODRer (who also speaks Creole) lent a very unique perspective to the discourse.  At today’s site, it was just…simply demoralizing.  The structure of rubble is over ten feet tall—it’s a three-story building that pancaked into one mass—with concrete, tile and rebar that is literally back-breaking.  The worst part is that it’s very much “in” the city center, and in order to dump each wheelbarrow, you have to walk in between four of five other shelters, then cross the street, and dump the rubble near the canal.  Not only does this take an enormous amount of time, and physical strength, we simply ran out of room on the street.  We are hoping the Canadian military can clear it soon.  The mass of the work, and the fact that we had to suspend the project just left everyone in our particular team feeling a bit deflated.

At the meeting, this HODRer reminded us that the benefits of having the kids around is that they share their stories—they love to talk.  This particular structure we worked on today houses three separate families.  When the quake occurred, three people had to jump off the roof to escape collapse.  In the very spot where we were shoveling rubble in the rear of the house, two people were crushed to death.  This “rubble” is very real to them, it’s their stories, their lives, their experiences.  We forget that when they see us work on a site, we aren’t just clearing crushed stone—we’re carting off their home.

It was good for us to have this conversation tonight, because we have lots of rubble work in the future.  And this should never be an exercise in construction demolition—it’s neither good for the volunteers nor the essence of HODR.  What makes a program like this unique, is its purposeful involvement with the community—the specific intention to work with what will help them the most: e.g. schools, community centers, houses with multiple-family dwellings, assisting other aid organizations to function more efficiently, working with merchants and local laborers.  I can’t speak for what is going on in Port-au-Prince, but in a small (and poor, by comparison) town like Leogane, there is some Red Cross aid and some military assistance—but it is mostly medical, and in the case of the military has an impending expiration date.  We’ve already been successful in partnering with other small, grass-roots NGOs in the Leogane to create systems and programs that will assist this community for years to come.

But in the midst of all the depravity, there is singing and laughter, and games and music—and I try to focus on the resilience that the Leogane people are demonstrating because you’d never know that just weeks ago they lost hundreds of people in this small town.  There is a shocking beauty that permeates the mud, sludge, and odor—and it’s equally as jarring.  There is an IDP camp in our front yard—and they are the ones we are trying to help first; every morning the kids line up to say hi and stare at this mass of (mostly) white people who push wheelbarrows or load up tap-taps.  Even though we wear shirts that say “Volunte” (Creole for “Volunteer”) they are shocked to learn that we are not paid, that we come on our own dime, and do this work with nothing expected in return.  I, personally, find encouragement knowing that even if we cannot assist all the people in the IDP camp, they (and especially the kids) have some experience in their life knowing that there is a concept in which others choose to provide help in times of need.

I hope that this gives some of you a broader understanding of what I see on a daily basis—and know that my humor (such that it is), and descriptions come inherently laced with this gravity.  Though it’s a repetition to mention this again, this experience is so much like a marathon—the NGOs who choose to work here would become deflated if they focused only on the long-term—there is so much work and humanitarian help needed.  If you think about ALL that is needed, it just seems impossible.  But like a running race, sometimes you have to start small, with one foot in front of the other—so we start in a small community, pick small families, and build and grow and move out further and further into a broader productivity.  It just happens to start with one shovel after another…


1 Response to “Katie post from Thursday (backdated)”

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