DIAPERLESS CHILDREN crawl between the densely, erratically pitched tents. The
heat is heavy and dank, the fetid stench of human waste and misery blows strong.
The tent flaps are open, but the residents of this squalid camp seem not to
notice the intrusion; there is no privacy here to invade. Women wash laundry in
dirty basins or fry over open fires in rancid-smelling oil.
people subsist here. And somewhere in the midst of the warrens is the large
statue of the Neg Marron, the unknown slave, blowing a conch shell and holding a
machete, broken chains at his feet.
This is the symbol of Haiti’s
independence, a representation of the slaves who claimed their freedom in 1801,
making Haiti the second country in the Americas to declare its
The Neg Marron is located in what was once a series of
green parks and wide boulevards that formed Haiti’s national mall, with the
iconic “White House” presidential palace in the background. But since January
12, 2010, when the 7.0 magnitude earthquake, regarded by many as one of the 10
worst natural disasters in history, struck the island, the mall, like every
other available open space in Port-au-Prince, has been a tent camp. The White
House, still an absurdly pristine white, lies in crumpled wreckage, an
unmistakable reminder that little has improved since those horrible moments when
the earth moved, and that the Haitian government is almost completely
Tents donated by the People’s Republic of China have been
tethered to the Neg Marron’s outstretched arm. A makeshift antenna sprouts from
“Human beings deserve better,” says Gideon Herscher, field
representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
According to official Haitian government figures, 316,000 people
died in the earthquake and nearly 1.5 million were left homeless. A cholera
outbreak followed in the fall and in early 2011. The world, including foreign
governments, the International Red Cross, the UN and the Clinton Global
Initiative, promised massive aid. But according to data from several relief
organizations, of the $5.8 billion pledged, less than half has actually been
dispersed – and much of that has been in the form of debt relief to the corrupt
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Several Jewish and Israeli organizations are actively
providing aid to the Haitian people. JDC, whose disaster relief and development
programs constitute the primary overseas efforts of the Jewish federation
system, has made a three-year commitment of $7.7 m., contributed by some 10,000
North American Jewish donors, according to Michael Geller, AJDC communications director. Almost all of that money is
disbursed to partner organizations, especially Jewish and Israeli ones. The
American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an international development organization
that was involved in Haiti for 10 years prior to the earthquake, has, according
to President Ruth Messinger, already spent more than $1.19 m. and will spend a
total of at least $6 m. by December 2013, almost all of it in direct grants to
Haitian grassroots organizations.
Within 72 hours of the quake, the Israeli military had already set up the first,
and for weeks the only, operational field hospital in Haiti. IsraAID, the
coordinating body of Israeli and Jewish development and relief organizations
that are based in Israel, set up an additional medical unit within days and
continues to sponsor several projects, among them Tevel B’tzedek/IsraAID, an
Israelibased, grassroots community organization.
Shahar Shtrikman, 23,
from Kibbutz Lotan in the Arava desert in Israel’s south, at the time a
conscript medic, was part of the 220- person IDF team. Not knowing what they
would find when it arrived, or even where they would be able to set up,
Shtrikman recalls, the team had to improvise and adapt, eventually setting up in
the soccer stadium that had remained relatively unscathed.
“At the time,
I didn’t think about why we were going, I just knew we should go,” he recalls,
talking with The Report through Skype from Bolivia, where he is on a postarmy
trek. “In retrospect, I do know why we had to go. We had to go because we could
help. If you can help, then you have to help.”
ABUSED BY COLONIAL occupiers, raped by its own dictators, ravaged by poor planning and exploited by
richer countries, including the US through the North American Free Trade
Agreement (NAFTA), Haiti has never lived up to the Neg Marron’s promise. Freed
of the shackles of slavery, it never freed itself enough to develop.
a one-hour plane ride from Miami, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western
hemisphere. According to UN figures, even before the earthquake more than 70
percent of the population was living on less than $2 a day, and 86% of the
people in Port-au- Prince were living in slum conditions in tightly-packed,
poorly-built, concrete buildings.
Half of the residents of the city had
no access to latrines and only one-third had access to tap water.
decades, the country has been regularly disrupted by political and social
violence; in 1993, the UN Stabilization Mission for Haiti (now referred to as
MINUSTAH) was dispatched to quell riots and has remained there, but has done
little to help the country move forward.
The epicenter of the earthquake
wasn’t in Port-au-Prince, but the city was built so poorly that most of it
collapsed. Experts estimate that if 1,000 bulldozers were working 24/7, it would
take three years to remove enough rubble to start rebuilding Haiti. But there
are hardly any bulldozers working at all. There isn’t even regular garbage
collection; the few municipal services that were available before the earthquake
no longer function. There are no public schools or other educational
Never built according to any clear pattern, Port-au-Prince’s
twisting roads are still blocked with debris, gushing water from broken mains,
running sewage, and makeshift markets where people hock whatever wares are
available that day. There are no sidewalks, and masses of people walk in the
streets. Tap-taps, the ubiquitous, forcefully decorated vans that serve as
public transportation, honk and lurch their way through the crowds. Tents are
everywhere, even on the median strips along the few wide boulevards.
Port-au-Prince has always been marred by street violence, but now the crowded
camps are sites of gang warfare, rape, theft and random murder.
Jean Baptiste, 26, formerly a customer service agent for a mobile phone company
and a student of business management, is now employed as a local organizer by
the AJDC. As the organization’s leased, battered pick-up truck struggles over
the roads, he reveals that Haitians refer to the earthquake as goodogoodo. “It’s
a sound more than a word,” he explains to The Report. “It marks time, before and
Baptiste says he doesn’t want to talk about what happened to him,
only that he is thankful that he and his family are safe and sound.
a year and a half after the quake and people tell their stories slowly and
painfully – the long seconds of terror, the people crushed under concrete next
to the dead bodies of their friends and families, the fear that is always there,
the struggle to survive.
His tone easing, Baptiste continues. “We began
to realize that we have been lacking too much for too long. And if, with all
this international help, we can shake ourselves into action, then at least we
can have hope for the future.”
Like so many Haitians, Baptiste is
critical of much of the international aid organizations operating in Haiti.
“International relief people come here and they tell us what we should do, how
we should do things. And then nothing happens. They bring their own people to
work here instead of giving us work. With all the people who are here, and with
all the money they’ve promised, the situation should be better.” But he is quick
to praise his employer. “I’m proud that I work for AJDC. I see where the
money goes – it’s used smart. Israel and the Jewish people, they
understand us. Their help is worthwhile.”
PETIONVILLE, A WEALTHY SUBurb
in the hills above Port-au-Prince, was spared most of the earthquake’s damage.
Better-built and higher up than Port-au-Prince, the mansions decorated with
fancy wooden latticework known as gingerbread, the expensive restaurants and the
well-stocked supermarkets with wide aisles selling luxury-brand foods flown in
from Miami and Paris are largely intact.
Salsa dancing is all the rage
here, and in his classy club, behind heavy gates, Gheorges “The Gladiator”
Exantus, 30, is performing, his moves long, slinky and sexy.
(Tzaki) Ziv-Ner, deputy chairman of the Israel Medical Association and head of
the Association of Government Physicians, leans back and watches the
performance. He bets a round of drinks if anyone can tell which of
Exantus’s legs was amputated. He wins the bet easily.
earthquake, Exantus had been a national championship salsa dancer and a computer
programming student. He had had a strong career and a solid future. But the earthquake trapped him for three
days under the rubble of his home, his feet and hand pinned under cement blocks.
His right leg had to be amputated below the knee and his left hand remained
Exantus was referred to the Haiti State University
Hospital (HUEH) in Port-au- Prince, where Ziv-Ner runs a JDC-sponsored
rehabilitation clinic in cooperation with Israel’s Magen David Adom (MDA) and
the Haitian Red Cross. From there Exantus was sent to Sheba-Tel Hashomer
Hospital near Tel Aviv, where Ziv-Ner’s team performed micro-surgery to restore
full use of his hand, and fitted him with a state-of-the-art multi-axle ankle
and storedenergy foot.
“Rehabilitation,” says Ziv-Ner, “means that the
person can go back to doing what he used to do before he was injured. If
Gheorges could dance before the earthquake, then rehabilitation should bring him
back to being able to dance.” Ziv-Ner is clearly enjoying himself and gets up to
dance, to the delight of the performers. He and Gheorges embrace.
next day Ziv-Ner is in his clinic.HUEH is composed of a large number of
small whitewashed buildings, once surrounded by grass and trees. Now there is
rubble everywhere and some of the structures are in danger of collapsing. The
open spaces are crowded with people, some begging for money to buy medication or
food, others seeming to have little purpose. The hospital is poorly developed,
understaffed and ill-equipped; most of the staff has not received a salary in
The JDC clinic, consisting of two small examination rooms and a
corridor filled with rehabilitation equipment, is located in a small building on
the HUEH grounds. It is staffed by physicians and physical therapists from
Sheba-Tel Hashomer Hospital who come to Port-au-Prince as volunteers for
The walls have been freshly painted white with
green trim, but the rooms are dingy. Records are kept by hand and on a
particularly hot day, the air conditioning – a noisy unit in the window –
doesn’t work very well.
By March 2011, the clinic had treated some 1,200
patients and the lines are still long. Ziv-Ner examines the patients with
competence and a respectful yet smiling, easy manner that inspires confidence,
even across the language barrier. Collegially, he mentors a new orthopedic
surgeon who will in the future, he hopes, take over as director of the rehab
“We came here not knowing what to expect,” Ziv-Ner tells The
Report. “We came with sleeping bags and whatever we could carry. We learned that
rehabilitation and physiotherapy simply don’t exist here. So while we’re
treating patients, we’re also teaching local physicians and training
JDC has managed, in partnership with other
international and local organizations, to create a full-service rehabilitation
program, albeit scattered throughout the city and its environs. In addition to
the clinic, they have established a state-of-the-art workshop to create
prostheses with the help of donations from a German foundation.
almost childlike glee, the AJDC’s Herscher relates that when the sophisticated,
delicate equipment was finally delivered from the port – after “no small
struggle to convince the customs authorities,” he says pointedly – the staff was
unable to find a forklift to move it in. “So we actually lifted it, a bunch of
us. It was great,” he says, obviously enjoying the “just-do-it” and rakish
attitude that it takes to make things happen in Haiti.
In one of the
camps, JDC, in partnership with Afiya, an American-based medical relief
foundation (afiya means “good health” in Swahili), is training Haitian
carpenters to become adaptive builders and produce individualized solutions for
amputees, such as a harnessed walker-on-wheels for a two-yearold amputee too
young to manage crutches, or a vegetable cutting board for a mother with only
Antoine Yves, 32, used to be an electrical and plumbing
technician, but the company he worked for no longer exists and he now works for
Afiya. “I am lucky that I can help people and not need the help,” he tells The
Report in perfect English. “I’m lucky because no one in my family died. But I
know that none of us will ever be the same.
We all have a symptom now –
even when I don’t realize it, I’m always thinking about the earthquake. I’m
worried that my world might shake again.” He stops for a moment, as if
reconsidering.“Haiti has always been in a bad state. And even with all
the help, we’ll still have all the problems we always had. But at least I have
the same chances I had before, too. At least I don’t have less of a future than
I had before.”
Says Ziv-Ner, “I know that we are not going to save Haiti.
As Jews we are told that saving one life is equal to saving the whole world. So
maybe we are trying to save the world, one leg, one arm, one life at a
“FONDWA,” SAYS HERSCHER, “is a place that really can’t exist in
Haiti. But it does.” Fondwa is a small village about 80 km (50 miles) and
a good two-and-a-half-hour drive on difficult roads west of
Port-au-Prince.Until 1988, it had no potable water, no health care, no
schools, no roads and no access to communication. But then Fr. Joseph Philippe established Asosyasyon Peyizan
Fondwa (the Association of the Peasants of Fondwa, or APF). Over the years,
through APF, he created schools, a credit union, a radio station, Internet
service, paved roads, an orphanage and an order of religious women, the Sisters
of St. Anthony. In 2004 he opened the University of Fondwa, based on a
“workingcollege” model in which students work in jobs in agronomy, veterinary
medicine and management to cover their educational fees and gain
Illiteracy rates are now down, health standards have
improved, and agriculture is more profitable. No less important, the residents
have a sense that they have taken control of their lives and that they may be
able to find a way out of poverty.
More than 80% of the 8,000 residents
of Fondwa are peasant farmers and more than half of the population is less than
20 years old. Twenty-five people died in the earthquake and over 100 were
seriously injured. Most of the buildings, including all institutions,
collapsed; none escaped damage.
Both the JDC and AJWS are working with
the APF and supporting Father Joseph’s efforts, many of which are based on
liberation theology and the best principles of community organization. Through
Heart to Heart, an international faith-based organization dedicated to services
for children, the JDC is financing the construction of a new school in place of
the one that collapsed.
Through Partners in Health, (known in Haiti as
Zanmi Lasante), the international health organization founded by Paul Farmer,
they have brought a “clinic in a can,” a fullyequipped medical facility set up
in a container to provide services to Fondwa and its environs. In the period
immediately after the quake, when the roads were still completely impassible,
the AJDC improvised and procured a boat to ply medical services along the coast;
since Haiti is a narrow island, most of the people in the area were able to
access health care only by moving north or south.
AJWS has worked with
Father Joseph, as he is known to all, to develop a master plan for the Fondwa
region. It also helps to support Fonkoze, the micro-finance bank he founded in
1994 with no capital and few investors.
Today, according to Anne
Hastings, an American ex-pat in Haiti who is an advisor to AJWS, Fonkoze holds
more than $20 m., employs more than 900 people and provides loans to some 70,000
Father Joseph combines faith, knowledge, devotion and
practicality with a robust sense of humor. “As a priest, I am also a teacher,”
he explains. “A teacher has to give grades. I give God the difficult projects
and if God doesn’t get them done, He deserves an ‘I’ for incomplete. Now how can
I give God an incomplete? After all, God has no sense of time. But we humans do.
And we know that if after 200 years Haiti still isn’t independent, then we have
to get to work. God isn’t going to do it all for us.”
sustainability, Father Joseph rejects a plan that calls for using non-indigenous
building materials for construction in Fondwa. Respectful of his demands,
Herscher nevertheless tries to prod him to make decisions, because the grant
money must be dispersed. They clearly enjoy each other’s company,
discussing everything from liberation theology to sustainable
“When you [yourself] have suffered, it is natural to be in
solidarity with those who have suffered,” Father Joseph says. Pointing to
Herscher he says, “You call it tikkun olam [repairing the world].” He laughs.
“See, I’m learning Hebrew from you.”
THE PETIONVILLE CLUB, Port-au-
Prince’s golf and tennis club, located near the well-guarded American
ambassador’s residence, is now a tent camp for an estimated 50,000 people. But
even within the squalor of the camps there’s a hierarchy of luck, and this camp
has been taken over by the J/P Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO), headed by
actor Sean Penn. The tents are layed out according to a plan, and Penn’s group
has organized the residents in pay-for-work programs to dig drainage trenches
and clear rubble.
Thanks to the grassroots organizing that Penn funds,
local teams guard the solar panels that light up the areas around the showers
and latrines, so there are fewer gang rapes here than in the other
Tevel B’tzedek/IsraAID, a non-profit, Israel-based organization
for social and environmental justice that also sends volunteers to Nepal, was
one of the first such groups to arrive in Port-au-Prince after the
Initially, the dozen or so Israeli volunteers lived in tents, but
they eventually moved into the large, ramshackle building that was once part of
the golf course complex. Later joined by the volunteers from J/P HRO, they
worked with the residents to set up schools, clinics, afternoon programs for
children and literacy programs for adults, and even helped some of the
entrepreneurially-minded residents to set up makeshift cafeterias and beauty
salons between the tents.
Feeling that they were no longer needed at the
Petionville Club, most of the Tevel B’tzedek/IsraAID group moved on to the
Leoganne district, some 28 km (15 miles) southeast of Port-au-Prince and the
area of the epicenter of the earthquake. Ira Polak, 32, an MA student in social
work from Haifa, has stayed in the camp, helping her “dream team” to
develop.The dream team, she explains, is what the 35 or so teenagers in
the camp call themselves.
With guidance from Polak, they have become a
leading organizing force in the camp, maintaining order, representing the
residents to officials, and organizing social and educational activities for
children, adults and themselves.
Speaking thoughtfully, Polak recalls
that as a child, she was brought out from Moldavia by the AJDC, and she
remembers the Israeli volunteers who made her feel safe in the refugee camp.
“We’re not building homes here,” she tells The Report. “We’re building
psychological and emotional space – something that each one of these youths can take home to his crowded, awful
tent, so he can believe that the future will be better.”
Polak says she
is proud of what Tevel B’tzedek/IsraAID has accomplished in the camp, and she is
clearly delighted with the dream team’s accomplishments. “I don’t know why we
Israelis are so good at helping people when we’re outside of Israel, when we are
not so great at building our own society. But I do know that here, we’re
doing good and we’re doing it right. We’re not wasting money and we’re not
She uses the term “very Jewish” when describing
what they do. “We pitch in, we’re informal. I know that throughout Jewish
history, Judaism has emphasized difference, but we also have a real ability to
connect, to feel other people’s pain and hopes.”
There are smaller Jewish
and Israeli groups volunteering in Haiti, too. Jewish Healthcare International
(JHI), an organization headed by Dr. Stephen Kutner from Atlanta that recovers,
restores and rebuilds medical infrastructure in communities in need worldwide,
is planning to provide a mobile eye unit to serve the northeastern plateau area
of Haiti. The Israel Trauma Coalition (ICT), an umbrella group created in 2002
at the initiative of the UJAFederation of New York, provides direct
psychological care to trauma victims as well as professional
Since sending the IDF field hospital immediately after the
quake, the Israeli government has not been directly involved in aid or
development work in Haiti. Yoel Barnea of Israel’s Agency for International
Cooperation (MASHAV) at the Foreign Ministry, tells The Report that Israel may
soon be sending Israeli agricultural experts to Haiti to volunteer as advisors
in connection with Tevel B’Tzedek/IsraAID.
ALTHOUGH THEY ARE involved in
some of the same projects, the AJDC and AJWS operate according to different
strategies and objectives.
The AJDC, Herscher explains to The Report,
always remains “one degree removed,” working through local or international
programs and emphasizing Israeli and Jewish involvement whenever
AJWS, Messinger emphasizes, funds local grassroots initiatives.
Neither organization maintains offices or infrastructure in Haiti.
in Israel and in North America, the organizations distrust each other as they
compete for the same funds from the North American Jewish community. But in
Haiti, cooperation among the Israel- and North American-based Jewish
organizations is fluid and smooth, thanks largely to Herscher, who regularly
flies in from Israel, where he is based, for a week or two to coordinate and
monitor the AJDC’s activities and acts as coordinator and mediator, and
Wiry, athletic, intense and talented, Herscher is
always at the center of the goings-on. He seems to know everyone, Haitians and
international aid workers alike, and know everything, from the location of a
semi-secretive orphanage in a church where children were abandoned after the
quake, to how to find a flatbed truck to transport building equipment to the
countryside, and even where the better restaurants in Petionville
Herscher, who was born and raised in California and has lived in
Israel for most of his adult life, manages to be both spontaneous and carefully
analytic at the same time.
Articulate, thoughtful and well-read, he
debates philosophy with Father Joseph, who wants him to teach a course on Jewish
philosophy at Fondwa University (Herscher demurs), and later stops the car to
play guitar on the street with a young Haitian man he’s never met. (“He looked
like he wanted to jam,” Herscher tries lamely to explain.) He is the contact
person for every Israeli and Jew in Haiti, whether taking care of lost passports
or guiding a UN worker who has become increasingly observant of kashrut and
Shabbat. For a Friday night, he persuades a very willing Sharona Natan, daughter
of the late Israeli peace activist Abbie Natan and a resident of Haiti for more
than 20 years, to help cook a Shabbat dinner for all the Jewish volunteers in
Port-au-Prince, complete with Kiddush and a Torah lesson. Somehow, he locates
close to two dozen people.
WRITING IN “THE CHRONICLE of Philanthropy” in
March 2011, development expert Suandra Schimmelpfennig says there are between
1,000 and 10,000 aid organizations currently working in Haiti – no one knows the
exact number. Most of them, she contends, raise money in a vacuum, without
coordination and without consulting the locals. But the Jewish organizations
seem to coordinate efficiently among themselves and with their partner
organizations, thanks to an informal round table that Herscher convenes. In
Israel, most of the organizations meet together regularly. And the Jewish
Coalition for Disaster Relief is a worldwide round table composed of all Jewish
aid organizations, coordinated by the AJDC.
Like the other aid workers,
the Israeli and North American Jewish volunteers stay at hotels in
Port-au-Prince that, because they were constructed more solidly, withstood the
quake. And like all the other internationals, they wear T-shirts emblazoned with
the logos of their organization and hang signs with their group’s name in huge
letters over the projects they sponsor.
Yet they are not part of what
many derisively call the “aid parade” of workers hanging out in the hotel
lobbies and bars. And they are widely admired. Says a worker representing a
large multinational aid company who asks to remain anonymous, “The Israelis are
different. They are more serious about what they are doing. They get things
done. They’re smart and fast and they know how to improvise.
organizations have huge bureaucracies, and many of us are jaded. But the
Israelis try real hard; they care, and they work really well with the
Adds Contave Jean Baptiste, coordinator for AJWS in Haiti, “Some
groups come and try to implement the strategies they used in other countries.
They don’t understand that each country is different and that it takes time to
learn. AJWS respects our culture; they listen to us and they’re helping us get
out of the passivity that has been eating away at Haiti for so many
In numerous publications, Steven Schwager, AJDC executive vice
president and CEO, has emphasized that the Jewish world is indebted to the
Haitians because they were willing to take in Jews during the Holocaust.
Although there is currently no indigenous Jewish community there and few
strategic reasons to remain, the AJDC has committed to a three-year plan. Yet
asked if the work in Haiti is, if only somewhat, “Jewish,” Herscher first
retorts, “Just asking that question is a quintessentially Jewish moment.” Then
he sums up simply. “This really is tikkun olam, repairing the world. It makes
sense; it’s what we should be doing. I see what Haiti could become instead of
merely going back to what it always has been. That is our faith.”
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