haiti in words, no photos

what a start to 2010! so far, half the year was spent working in haiti, alongside some incredibly dedicated people trying to protect the children in their communities. it’s always the people that i meet and work with that keeps me wanting to go back out for more. many of you ask me what it was like there; here’s one story.

when i was there in february, the scenes of huge piles of concrete rubble and the wrenching stories you'd hear were always worse than whatever i saw or heard on television. it’s one thing to hear about 100 nurses who died as they were in a training; it’s another thing to be hearing the story as you're standing next to the collapsed building that still entombs them under rubble and dust. my driver showed me photographs he kept in the glove compartment of his fiancée who died in the earthquake; he showed me where his house once stood, and now these photos that he salvaged from the rubble was his consolation.

as an expat bystander the whole atmosphere wasn’t so much depressing, as just chaotic and overwhelming – only so many ways to help, only so much resources, but everywhere you drove by were immense needs not being met. signs made out of bed sheets, pleading for food, water, and medicine. and when the heavy rains came, it brought relief from the heat, but you knew it brought muddy misery and drenched nights for the thousands others not as lucky to have shelter.

and the fear that lingered in the beating roar from the chopper blades of every helicopter overhead, or the deep vibrations that shook the walls when each mack truck rumbled along on the street, not to mention the real aftershocks that happened on a regular basis. everyone ran in panic, or just stood there frozen, feverishly hoping that this, too, shall pass.

then i went back in april, and the scenes were still the same – everywhere were still huge piles of concrete rubble and twisted rusted metal. nearly everywhere were colorful buildings partially collapsed that still looked ready to tumble into the road, and onto people, any minute. i can't even come close to adequately describing the panorama of physical destruction that still dominates the landscape.

and almost everywhere were those blue and gray plastic tent cities (bed sheet cities for those still not as lucky to have shelter), people camped out with barely nothing, or people being moved by the government to where there was even less – to huge barren fields of gravel with no green trees or natural sources of water, under the hot haitian sun.

the streets of port au prince were choked again with colorful tap-taps, careening trucks, motorbikes, people, mounds of trash, and stray dogs – everything kicking up dust and filling the city's winding mountainous streets with a crash course just waiting to happen.

but one thing was different about the street scenes this time, and you immediately noticed it. as we drove to the office at 7am, you now saw children in bright uniforms, smartly pressed. boys with neat haircuts and girls with pigtails and braids with big plastic colorful barrettes and ties. all wearing a backpack, often too big for their little bodies, and sometimes carrying a lunch bag, too. walking with their caregiver (here in haiti you can never assume that adult is necessarily the child’s parent), or maybe walking with their older sibling, carefully navigating between all the traffic and other people, and on their way back to school.

it’s a naïve cliché to smile at the sight and sounds of small children on their way to school, brightly dressed. but here in haiti, you can’t help yourself.

because you take in this scene like a colorful breath of fresh air amongst all the panorama of gray rubble. even after i kept seeing it every morning, i kept breathing it in, and nothing could temper my feeling that things are going to be ok.

well, alright i admit that often i started thinking about the fact that in haiti only about 50% of children get to go to school, and about 85% of those lucky children must come from families with enough income to send them to private schools because the government so horribly fails at providing anything for its children. and don’t compare that statistic to the public vs. private school debate in the US, because i’m not talking about differences in the quality of instruction; in fact, many haitian private schools are sub-standard compared to public. i mean that the haitian government can’t even provide the basic physical structure of a school and fill them with teachers, and so for families there is no other “choice” than private.

so while i marveled at the children on their way to school, i understood that i was only witnessing half of the situation, and that for 50% of the other children here in haiti, their reality is much more heartbreaking and their future much less bright.

but when you’re surrounded by destruction, you’ll take that dream, even when you know it’s only half realized. i left haiti last week with those same mixed feelings (can’t wait to get back to a nice shower! but i will miss all the work and everyone i worked with!), but this time i left with an image of hope i didn’t have before. i can’t wait to see what new scenes await for me when i go back again.

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