Guest Columnist: Rebuilding Haiti

A year after the earthquake, there is a huge disparity between the country’s noxious politics and the spirit of most of its people.

Tevel b'Tzekdek volunteer in Haiti 521 (photo credit: Tevel b'Tzedek)
Tevel b'Tzekdek volunteer in Haiti 521
(photo credit: Tevel b'Tzedek)
A year after the January 12 earthquake took 220,000 lives and left a million people displaced in Haiti, crazy rumors sweep through the country like tropical storms, carrying with them their own form of devastation: distrust and despair.
“The cholera epidemic [several thousand Haitians have died of cholera since an outbreak began in mid- October] is manufactured, genetically engineered so that only Haitians are infected” is one rumor that was spreading during my last visit there, three weeks ago. Or this one, told to me by a wealthy, educated man, but a man driven nearly mad by his country’s misfortunes: “I heard the earthquake was artificial. It’s a new weapon being tested by the US government.”
“And you believe this?” I ask.
“I’m just about ready to believe it,” he answers. “I’m ready to believe anything.”
And then he points to one of the well-appointed supermarkets that dot the wealthier hilly areas of Port-au-Prince. They are filled with brand-name cereals, fancy cheeses, snacks and other luxury items flown in from Miami. “Do you know why there are so many supermarkets like this? Do you really think they make enough money from the luxury items to justify the expense of their business? They are all covers. They shuttle back and forth to Miami under the guise of getting products for their supermarkets. But their real purpose is to carry cocaine from Colombia. Cocaine, and now heroin too.”
“Heroin?” I ask. “Where is the heroin from?” “I have no idea. But I know it’s true”
THIS IS one Haiti – chaotic, unstable, affected by hidden international forces and by conspiracies of the powerful. It’s the Haiti whose buildings were built without the approval of engineers, so that they collapsed in an earthquake that many of them should have been able to withstand. It’s the Haiti that was forced to sign the North American Free Trade Agreement that Bill Clinton pushed on it, allowing a flood of cheap American rice into the country that undercut Haitian farmers – most of whom grew rice – and put them out of business.
Now Clinton admits this was wrong: “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake,” Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 10. “I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did, nobody else.”
This is the Haiti in which many survive on money sent by family living abroad, in the US or France. It’s the Haiti whose crucial presidential election on November 28 was marred so badly by inefficiency and apparent corruption, attested to by international observer organizations, that people took to the streets, shutting down the capital, including the airport, for three days. The government agreed to recount the votes, and when and if these new results are announced – many, including the US government, are now hinting strongly that a new election is in order – more violence is expected.
This is the Haiti in which the political vacuum and the machinations of the super elite have so far created an unstable atmosphere that has prevented the great bulk of the aid money from being allocated and used.
But this is only one Haiti, and it’s not the one I came to visit when I arrived on December 15. Yes, I saw that Haiti too, but I also saw a Haiti of hard work, faith and enduring hope for the future. I was in Haiti to assess the progress of the IsraAID-Tevel b’Tzedek project.
IsraAID, which is funded by Jewish federations in the US and Canada and organizations such as American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith International, has been involved in Haiti from the moment the earthquake struck, when it first sent medical and search and rescue teams and set up a field hospital, one of the first, along with the IDF’s.
Tevel b’Tzedek, the organization I head, has been on the ground through IsraAID since three weeks after the earthquake. From the moment the team arrived we received extraordinary help and welcome from the population. The first teams – Israeli and American Jewish alumni in their 20s of our Nepal learning service program – partnered with a Haitian organization called Prodev and quickly got schools for 460 children operating in two of the massive, crowded tent cities that provide provisional shelter to the earthquake victims.
They then created a community tent, the first public space in a camp housing 50,000, that quickly filled with Haitians eager to become active, including a group of some 30 teenagers that our volunteers called the Dream Team. After rain and mud slides collapsed many of the tents, the Dream Team put them back up again, stronger than before.
Trained by our volunteers in first aid and in health education, the Dream Team continues its volunteering mission, despite its members own rough circumstances – many of their families don’t have enough to eat or money to send the children to school. The Dream Team ends each of its meetings with achingly beautiful gospel hymns in Creole, and joins me, surrealistically, in a Shlomo Carlebach niggun after asking me to recite a Hebrew prayer.
Since late August, IsraAID-Tevel b’Tzedek has also been working in the area of Leogane, a town 30 kilometers southeast of Port-au-Prince, which was at the epicenter of the earthquake. In partnership with Prof. Eli Schwartz from Sheba Hospital’s Center for Tropical Medicine, it has established a primary care clinic – the main hospital in Leogane collapsed in the earthquake and is only now beginning to return to life – with Israeli, North American Jewish and Haitian doctors and nurses. The clinic serves 1,000 people per month, and the Haitian medical staff, working alongside the Israelis, are dedicated and compassionate.
The Israeli/North American/European team is also working in three village areas around Leogane, helping to establish adult schools, income-generating projects and, in our next phases, which we are just beginning, we all hope to bring knowledge and resources to boost agricultural production, filters that will curb water-borne diseases and much else.
The response from the villages has been amazing. Forty volunteers are teaching in the adult school, including classes in basic literacy and numeracy, French and English. Though unemployed and often hungry, the Haitian volunteers, all more educated than most of their peers, are eager to contribute to their community. Our volunteers, some of them young women just out of the army, travel alone to the villages and back, deep into the rough terrain on dirt roads and yet feel safe and protected.
From the leadership of the villages, one gets the sense that whatever knowledge or help we manage to bring will be received with enthusiasm and used effectively for the good of the community.
Is Haiti hopeless? There is a huge disparity between its noxious politics and paralyzed macroeconomic system and the spirit of most of its people. It is critically important to “fix” the economy and political system on a macro level, to revoke trade agreements that destroy local food production and to ensure true democracy.
But it is on the grassroots level that the true source of hope can be found. As long as we remain working in the communities, we can play a role in connecting the dedicated local leadership to the massive sources of funding and support that have not yet been spent. Haiti’s hope is in its grassroots, its villages and communities, and in the ability of the world to connect directly to the great resources of spirit that are to be found there.
The writer is founding director of Tevel b’Tzedek.