Rubble and Repair

Israeli and Jewish organizations continue to give aid to Haiti. The 'tikkun olam' efforts are an opportunity to repay a debt to the Haitians - a nation that took in Jews during the Holocaust.

1.6 million Haitians live in make-shift camps (photo credit: REUTERS)
1.6 million Haitians live in make-shift camps
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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.
Some 60,000 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 independence.
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 non-functional.
Tents donated by the People’s Republic of China have been tethered to the Neg Marron’s outstretched arm. A makeshift antenna sprouts from the conch.
“Human beings deserve better,” says Gideon Herscher, field representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC).
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 Haitian government.
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.
Only 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.
For 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 facilities.
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.
Jerry 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 after.”
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.
It is 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.
Dr. Yitzchak (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.
Until the 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 severely twisted.
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.
The 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 months.
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 three-week rotations.
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 clinic.
“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 professional personnel.”
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.
With 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 one arm.
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 time.”
“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 experience.
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 recipients.
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.”
Committed to 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 development.
“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 camps.
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 quake.
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 creating dependency.”
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 training.
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 possible.
AJWS, Messinger emphasizes, funds local grassroots initiatives. Neither organization maintains offices or infrastructure in Haiti.
Back 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 occasionally, referee.
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 are.
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.
Our large 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 locals.”
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 years.”
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.”