To my daughter,
I think that most new parents worry about the state of the world their children have entered. Your mom and I are no different. You're not even a year old, but here's what I'd tell you if you could understand me:
Your mother is Haitian. You were born in Haiti, a beautiful country with an incredible history. I'm from the United States, also beautiful, but much bigger, richer and more powerful than Haiti. These two countries have a long, complicated relationship. Eight years ago I left my home country to live in Haiti, and I fell in love with it, just as I fell in love with your mother.
Five years ago, an earthquake caused massive damage to the city where we lived, Port-au-Prince. I always will remember the people running, screaming and digging through rubble for survivors. Many believed it was the end of the world.
On that day, many of the concrete walls that separated private homes from the public crumbled, and the ones that didn't crumble didn’t matter anymore because everyone took their bed sheets out to sleep in the middle of the street. They didn’t want the concrete structures to fall on them during the aftershocks. Before the earthquake, Haitians were divided by all kinds of barriers, class, religion and race. But that night, and for weeks afterwards, everyone, even us foreigners, slept under the stars together.
Even the world, led by the U.S., seemed to share in the pain of the country your mother and I love. Haitians were used to feeling despised, pitied, and isolated by the rest of the world, but people from many countries and their governments committed billions of dollars and sent supportive messages after the earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010
We were hopeful along with many Haitians and other workers for nongovernmental organizations. This, we thought, was the wake-up call that Haiti needed. No more haphazard building -- so no more corrupt, unresponsive government. No more overpriced building materials and other basic necessities -- so no more monopolies and controlling business networks. No more abandoning farmland for miserable slums -- so no more letting foreign powers dictate Haiti's development policy for their profit.
Excitement around these ideas grew, even though 1.5 million people were living in tents. Most of the schools and government buildings were gone, and yet we thought that this was Haiti's moment to shine. We thought that people wouldn't just rebuild houses; we would witness the rebirth of Haitian society. This was the time to reclaim some of the promise of freedom and justice that had been deferred since the revolution more than 200 years ago.
But the weeks wore on. Heavy rains came in spring, and many tent camps flooded. In spite of the billions that countries had pledged to help Haitians rebuild, nothing much happened that we could see. Rumors spread that everyone under tents would get a new house, which drew untold thousands of new people to Port-au-Prince.
In the camps, parents weren't able to supervise their kids the same way they did when they lived in their own apartments. Lots of teenage girls got pregnant. You are so precious to me, and it breaks my heart to think of the thousands of babies just like you spending their first months and years in a tent.
Then cholera broke out because of a United Nations peacekeeper. This was especially frustrating because the UN did not need to be in Haiti. Then the commission to manage the recovery was mismanaged. Then there was an election that turned violent. All this before the first anniversary of the earthquake.
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the organization that I work with did as much as it could. Haitian staff brought food, blankets, water filters and other supplies to some of the camps. MCC brought engineers to look at schools, churches and houses and tell people if they were safe or not. But primarily MCC used the money people donated to support Haitian organizations as they did the important work of relief and recovery. They are close to the people they work with, and they know their needs better than we do.
And their work changed the lives they touched:
- Hundreds of families now have strong, safe homes
- Construction workers learned how to build homes that will be much stronger if another earthquake comes
- Thousands of families used a financial boost they were given to help them get back to work
- Thousands of kids were able to go to schools because their buildings were fixed and their programs strengthened.
- Thousands of Haitians now understand what trauma is, how to heal from it, and how to help other people heal as well.
In the countryside, MCC’s partners provided latrines and a system to deliver drinking water. With Canadian government funding, an MCC partner expanded a trade school. MCC protected watersheds, and we planted millions of trees. One partner is training thousands of people how to make a decent living from farming, as your ancestors did. That way they don’t need to move into overcrowded Port-au-Prince for economic opportunities. We hope that the next generation, your generation, will see a future for itself all over Haiti. No need to leave Haiti for New York, Miami or Port-au-Prince.
These partner organizations did great work at the community level, but it was a small part of a big, overwhelming picture. The structural problems were too big for our partners to change. Your mother and I believe that small is beautiful - just look at you! Still, some problems require big solutions, government solutions. But so far we've been discouraged by the Haitian government, as well as the U.S. government, which promised so much help.
Little by little, rubble got cleaned up, and the big, visible tent camps were relocated. But most of those people ended up packed into slums. The money promised to Haiti could have built new homes with access to electricity, water and sanitation for every displaced family. Instead, the government chose cosmetic fixes to try to encourage private investment and tourism. It may always be a mystery what happened to all those billions of aid dollars. The Haitian and American governments have not been very transparent.
We haven’t given up on big-picture changes and neither have our Haitian partners. They were just in Washington D.C. in November urging the U.S .and Haitian governments to be more transparent and fix the root causes of the housing crisis in Haiti. Many Haitians are suspicious of the U.S, with good reason. But these two countries are tied together by history and geography, for better or worse, and they have to work together on long-term solutions. Like it or not, neither country has the option of ignoring the other.
One of the biggest differences between Haiti and the U.S. is that in the U.S., almost everything looks nice and clean and finished. In Haiti, almost nothing looks finished. The roads, houses and markets all seem to be in a state of construction or decay or both. But when I look at you, I'm reminded that something unfinished can be something beautiful. Something full of potential. I believe the same is true of Haiti.