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A Hopeful Haiti

by Jessica Reid, Haiti Response Team Communicator

There is a word commonly used in Haiti which gives you a glimpse into how the people there approach life. It is “degaje” which means to “do what you’ve got to do” or “make do with what you have.”

A Temporary Classroom is Framed by the Skeleton of Holy Cross School

A Temporary Classroom is Framed by the Skeleton of Holy Cross School

The people of Haiti do indeed face significant challenges with closing the “tent cities” and rebuilding as you’ve likely heard reported in the national and international news media, but Haitians are also resourceful and progress has been made.

At the end of May, several members of the Presbyterian Haiti Response Team (HRT) traveled to Port au Prince and Léogâne, Haiti, and saw signs of that resourcefulness, progress, and the need that remains.

Help for Haiti

For years, the planes that arrived in Haiti were filled with members of non-government organizations, more commonly called NGO’s, and missionary groups, each person traveling to the island nation to help in some small or large way. The planes are still filled but many of those on board now wear t-shirts that say things like “Hope for Haiti” or “Rebuild Haiti” a symbol of a new, unexpected need created by the 2010 earthquake.

Hundreds of thousands of homes crumbled during the quake, many “pancaking” as they came down killing thousands of people. Those who survived had no place to go and thousands were forced to move to “tent cities.” The international community, including Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, responded providing immediate aid. Temporary shelters were put up, food and water was provided, and basic medical care was on hand. Millions of dollars poured into charitable agencies around the globe, all to “Rebuild Haiti.”

More than a year has passed since the earthquake and, now, many in the media and at home have begun to question if any progress has been made asking, “Why is there still rubble in the streets and people still living in tent cities?”

The Streets of Haiti

“Haiti has always been cracked but the earthquake just made it come down.”

Sikhumbuzo Vundla is driving the Haiti Response Team around Port au Prince, showing us the areas of greatest need. He is the Chief of Operations for the Episcopal Church of Haiti and is pointing out one of the largest “tent cities” in the city. The camp sits just outside the capitol building. Its immense dome leans forward perched on the broken base of the building, as if a giant came by and knocked it over.

“The government needs outside help to address moving people into homes and out of the camps,” Vundla tells us. “As you can see, they themselves are overwhelmed.”

Thousands of tents line the camp. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to where each one was placed. They were simply put up where space could be found. Many of the tents are pieced together from reused blankets or tarps. Children play with toys made out of sections of tire or plastic, and mothers cook with upturned buckets used to fetch water earlier in the day. It’s “degaje” put into action as these families do their best to move forward.

“There is a big challenge of how to handle the people who were renting their homes [before the earthquake],” Vundla explains. “Many questions remain for these people. If they were to leave, where would they go? What land can they use for new homes? It is very difficult because giving them money doesn’t solve the problem. They just come back.”

One reason for that is in many of the cities of Haiti you have to pay a year’s worth of rent up front. So, funds given to the families are often not enough and to save the money on their own is a difficult task for families who are already struggling to survive.

As we drive by there are sign of the NGO’s that are helping in this area from giant bladder-type cisterns filled with clean water to medical tents. Vundla points these out and tells us that despite the challenges many displaced families have been helped. Thousands have already moved out of the “tent cities” to places like Carail.

Progress Made

Carail is located just outside Port au Prince near the base of the mountains. It takes about half an hour to reach thanks to the heavy traffic along the way. As we get closer to the mountains, little blotches of pink, green, and beige mark where thousands of new homes have been built creating a new community.

As you drive onto the road leading to these homes, you see more signs of NGO’s at work and the strong presence of the United Nations. There are gardens and school buildings and even a little hospital. People are walking together along the dirt and rock streets, sitting on their porches, and even enjoying a little music played by a DJ on a makeshift stage.

The porches are decorated on some homes and others have smaller gardens just outside their back doors. As we move around the area, the homes start to become fewer and fewer and we begin to see tents. It’s clear that the work is not done, but there is a strong effort to keep moving forward.

“Many different NGO’s are helping in this area,” Vundla says. “Each group was given an area to build homes. The need is so great that no one group or organization can help everyone.”

Clearing the Way

As we leave the new community of Carail, we spot several dump trucks unloading rubble just down the road. The cracked concrete is moved from the neighborhoods of Port au Prince and other towns to one of four sites, including this one.

It’s a slow and tedious process. The streets are packed with “tap taps” – the name of Haiti’s transport vehicles –buses, pedestrians, and even street vendors. The roads can be tight in places and cracked in others. It makes it difficult to move the machinery and trucks that can deal with the rubble across the city.

There is currently one agency handling the bulk of the removal and it takes the work trucks 45 minutes one-way to move the concrete to the sites outside of Port au Prince. Making matters more complicated some of the rubble is on private property and removal is expensive. In response, the government told home and business owners to put the rubble along the streets which in turn contributes to traffic issues.

Presbyterians in Haiti

The Haiti Response Team just approved funding for work to restore and rebuild Holy Cross School in Léogâne. The school provides education for about six hundred students yearly and is key to the future of this hard hit area.

“The school has provided education for Léogâne for 50 years,” Father Kerwin Delicat, Director of the Holy Cross School. “This is the way to educate our children to be useful to themselves, their families, and their community.”

In addition, PC (USA) gave about four million dollars in agricultural aid by providing seeds and tools through the local farmers’ movement of Haiti, and spent nearly one million dollars on restoring the nursing school and rebuilding a three story hospital in Léogâne. We’re now exploring using remaining resources to provide homes for displaced people as well as providing water and sanitary facilities.

The HRT’s goal is to use the funds given intelligently and help as many people as possible not just “make do with what they have” but have hope and the opportunity for a better future.


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