Haiti tent life

Chances are that the first voices you hear in post-earthquake Haiti will have that self-assured twang of Southern Baptists from Houston, Atlanta, Tallahassee or Nashville. They land in bunches at Toussaint Louverture International Airport wearing T-shirts that read “Healing Haiti” and other rather proud claims.

They’ve come to be with the people of Haiti in whatever way they can. Many of them have real skills, from engineering to medicine to construction. They may be mostly unilingual and perhaps culturally tone deaf, but we should remember that the first Bible translated into Creole was a mostly Baptist effort.

Haiti is 80-per-cent Catholic, but Catholic visitors are rarely seen.

Catholics are there however, said American Dr. Peter Kelly.

“We need to do a better job of educating the world about all that Catholics are doing in Haiti,” he told The Register by e-mail.

Kelly is the president of the board of the Crudem Foundation which founded the Sacré Coeur Hospital in Milot. The hospital is supported by three American associations of the Order of Malta, and the board works closely with the Maltesers, the Knights of Malta’s international aid organization.

“There are many Protestant groups in Haiti and they are doing a good job providing health care and education,” said Kelly. “However, the Catholic presence in Haiti is much greater but doesn’t seem to get the publicity.”

Some of that may have to do with a preference for deferring to Haitian leadership and expertise whenever possible.

“Our philosophy has always been to teach the Haitian medical personnel to provide the best care possible for the Haitian people. We have been very successful in our goal and now have 20 Haitian physicians on staff as well as 90 nurses,” said Kelly. “We bring volunteers to our hospital to work side-by-side with Haitian staff providing care to the patients as well as teaching the Haitians and learning from them.”

The cholera outbreak in November was a case where Haitians took the lead. Volunteers simply couldn’t get into the country quick enough to help.

“Our Haitian administration developed an emergency plan for treatment of the cholera patients and became a cholera treatment centre,” said Kelly. “They did this without any volunteers present in the country, although we provided guidance. When the (Atlanta) Centre for Disease Control inspected our centre we were told that it was the best in the northern part of the country.”

When volunteers got there, it was Haitian staff who told them where to be and what to do.

“The challenge for the many countries and organizations that are willing to help Haiti is to understand that they need to work with the Haitians, and not dictate the way things need to change and improve.”

- RAISING UP HAITI -
a Catholic Register special report

Haiti's churches need healing [slideshow]

What now in Haiti?

Post-traumatic stress proves difficult

Catholic aid organizations fly under the radar

Canadian engineer to oversee Haiti’s Church rebuild

Haiti must take this opportunity to change

Crisis makes D&P rethink how it operates

Bold education plan held up by a lack of funds

Church holds community together

D&P-funded program provides pro-life solution to Haiti's sexual violence

Haitians must look to themselves to rebuild their nation

Published in Features

Haiti camp boy

Children, lost and disoriented, looking for a safe place after the earthquake found it in the courtyard of the Holy Cross Sisters. For more than a week the children were crowded in, occupying the driveway and the garden and reluctant to spend much time under the Sisters’ rather sturdy roof.

Of course they were troubled and traumatized, said Sr. Marie-Pierre Saint Amour. She didn’t need her training in psychology from the University of Ottawa to tell her that. She heard the children’s cries at night when nightmares woke them. She saw the angry face of the devil in their drawings.

Since then, Saint Amour has come to realize her whole country is suffering from a sort of mass post-traumatic stress disorder. She’s had some success treating the young people, but how do you administer psychotherapy to a nation?

“Everyone is focussed so much on the medical, but forgetting the psychological,” said Fr. Michel Martin Eugene, a Holy Cross priest and psychologist.

There are fewer than six psychiatrists in all of Haiti, Dr. Peter Kelly said. Kelly is president of the Crudem Foundation, which runs Sacre Coeur Hospital in Milot with the support of three American groups of the Order of Malta and Catholic Relief Services.

Kelly and other volunteer doctors in Haiti after the earthquake observed widespread post-traumatic stress syndrome. They also saw that most Haitian medical staff were reluctant to diagnose depression or PTSD.

“I believe it has something to do with their culture, as well as the fact that they have faced so many hardships throughout their history that they accept it as normal and move on with their lives,” Kelly wrote in an e-mail.

Unlike the doctors, Haiti’s religious see psychotherapy as an essential, missing piece of the recovery. Working with students in education and social work, the Psychosocial Support Network of the Haitian Religious Conference has created a program to help people face trauma that has often been ignored for months while they dug out their neighbours, tracked down lost family members, went back to work and managed life in a tent. In many cases, depression, anxiety and all-pervading fear hit people months after the earthquake, said Saint Amour.

“They never dealt with the trauma, then they are hit with a lack of energy, depression.”  

“It’s a big crisis,” said Eugene. “They wander the street — broken people.”

Eugene’s assessment of the situation is rare among Haitians, who “are so stoic,” said Kelly.

“It is also difficult to institute training of Haitian medical personnel to treat this problem when they tend to deny its existence,” he said.

The Haitian religious network’s psychosocial program, aided by $83,000 from the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, concentrates on Haitians supporting each other — talking through problems with each other in their native Creole.

University student Marguerite Charles credits the Sisters and the psychosocial program for helping her. On Jan. 12 she spent between four and five hours trapped in rubble. When she got out her home was gone.

“There was shock, trauma. I didn’t feel at ease any more.”  

Like many Haitians, Charles was afraid to remain indoors for any length of time. The education student now leads a group of teenagers who gather to discuss their experience and their fears. She is passing on the experience of psychological healing she received from the Sisters.

She credits Sr. Matilde Moreno with restoring her confidence so she could go back to university. Moreno led the young people in dances and encouraged them to draw and paint, and then got them talking about their fears.

Edna Genvieve lives in a tent beside her former home with her daughter. At one point she thought she and her daughter would always live in fear.

“After the earthquake, I thought life was over,” she said. “When it rains, I’m still very afraid.”

She was even more afraid for her daughter, who over and over drew pictures of the devil.

“It’s what she was living,” said Genvieve.

Only after her daughter overcame her dread did Genvieve begin to think about the future.

“Slowly, slowly I saw that life was still possible through my daughter — that there still is a future,” she said.

- RAISING UP HAITI -
a Catholic Register special report

Haiti's churches need healing [slideshow]

What now in Haiti?

Post-traumatic stress proves difficult

Catholic aid organizations fly under the radar

Canadian engineer to oversee Haiti’s Church rebuild

Haiti must take this opportunity to change

Crisis makes D&P rethink how it operates

Bold education plan held up by a lack of funds

Church holds community together

D&P-funded program provides pro-life solution to Haiti's sexual violence

Haitians must look to themselves to rebuild their nation

Published in Features
January 6, 2011

What now in Haiti?

Haiti build

From inside a brown, battered SUV, with the doors locked and the windows up, and in the company of a seasoned Haitian driver, the Petionville Market after dark is as frightening as any place I’ve ever been.

I have in my time been pushed around and spat on in a back alley in Xian, China. I wandered after dark through Harlem, Times Square, South Bronx and the Bowery in my student days. I’ve crawled over piles of garbage and explored the unlit streets of Nairobi’s slums. I’ve tried photographing the slums of Rio, while the taxi driver yelled at me to get back in the cab. I’ve walked by guards with machetes and automatic rifles to interview people in El Salvador. I’ve questioned people inside homeless shelters and prisons. I’ve been threatened by Toronto drug dealers who didn’t like the presence of a camera on their street.

I’ve had good and sensible reasons to be scared in my career.

But I’ve never been any place where the level of threat was as pervasive and constant as it is in Haiti. I’ve never been in a place that could make me feel afraid while sitting with three other people inside a locked car as it crawled along the street, with a crush of ghostly bodies slipping by our windows in the darkness.

No doubt, pre-earthquake Haiti was a dicey sort of place for outsiders. In 1994 Haitian gang members scared off the U.S. Marines with machetes and stones before America’s elite soldiers had even landed on Haitian soil. The earthquake, I believe, has raised it all up a notch or two.

There’s nothing like the uncertainty of chaos to make us afraid. The piles of rubble, the half-collapsed buildings, the razor wire stretched along sections of cracked and crumbling walls give no indication of order in Haiti’s capital. The market outside Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral in Port-au-Prince looks like a tidy, predictable, suburban shopping mall compared to the Petionville Market at night, but still every little pile of goods from used auto parts, to  cigarettes, to batteries, to discarded office furniture, shoes and on and on looks like contested territory. And every merchant is accompanied by a scowling, oversized partner sizing up each customer who approaches and every non-customer who passes by.

I did not go to Haiti to hear another recap of the shock and distress of Jan. 12, 2010. Of course I spoke to people who lost their children, their grandfathers, their wives and their husbands. I spoke to a young woman who spent five hours trapped in the rubble.

I also spoke to peasant farmers as they were recovering from torrential rain brought by Hurricane Tomas — hours and hours huddled under a sheet of tin where their house used to be, as rain threatened to wash away everything. Then they reached back 10 months and told me about the terror of seeing their houses collapse and walking to Port-au-Prince to search for their families.

“While we were walking to Port-au-Prince we had to walk around cadavers,” said Fritz Ner-Sérénium.

With 230,000 dead, more than half of Port-au-Prince still in ruins, over a million people still living under tarpaulins or in tents, there are far too many of those stories to even begin. And repetition adds little in the way of insight.

The Catholic Register wanted to know, what now? After a year, what has happened and what direction is Haiti taking?

If there were a simple, definite answer the question wouldn’t be worth asking. Journalists ask questions that have more than one answer because multiple, even conflicting answers are closer to the truth of a complex world.

But some truths are unambiguous. One of them is that 10 months living in a tent is hard.

Redemptorist Fr. Adonai Jean-Juste sat with me on a bench in the midst of what used to be his home staring straight ahead, hardly able to gather the energy to answer questions.

“Living in the tent is not easy. I want to get out of the tents. It’s too much for me now, living in the tents,” he said.

A construction crew of five men was busy on the other side of the line of tents where four Redemptorists live, mixing cement, piling up rebar, getting ready to start rebuilding the walls that will house the four religious — two men studying for priesthood, a brother and their superior Jean-Juste.

“I see the presence of God in the earthquake. Many people died. Many, many people died. We didn’t have the means to bury them,” he said. “But everyone was living in the open air and it didn’t rain. That was a surprise. I think God was with other people who died. I think maybe it was His will. It was their time.”

Haitians are the world champions of the brave face. They make British stiff upper lips look look wobbly as Jello.

The Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception are all business — entirely consumed by their mission to educate the girls and rebuild the school. Meanwhile the nine sisters are living in four tiny classrooms, their possessions piled up in an old box car, praying the morning office in a crowded little corner next to the one sink they all share. They spend all day outside under the cruel gaze of the Caribbean sun or under the Unicef tarpaulins where they teach 40 girls at a time.

They will only talk about the school, the girls, the community. The closest they come to talking about themselves is when Sr. Josette Drouinard lets slip her dream that one day the students will have a chapel and auditorium — some beauty in their lives and not just dust and desks and sun. She doesn’t say that she and her sisters could use a refuge for prayer.

Downtown St. Antoine’s school principal Sr. Saint Anne Jean-Baptiste answered my questions with that same distant stare and weariness as Jean-Just. Except that in the sister’s case no cement is being mixed, no plans are being spread on a wobbly table under another patch of tarp, no promises have been made that the Sisters of St. Anne will have their own school again.

We tried to hide from the sun in the only bare sliver of shade available, while the students in their pink dresses dart around us and line up for lunch.

Jean-Baptiste allows it is a “difficult situation.”

My notes are full of sentences that begin with “no.”

“No office.”

“No space to work with students.”

“No land to build a new school.”

“Not getting enough school hours.” (Students that is, whom she fears for the first time in St. Antoine’s history may not pass the state exam that qualifies them to go on to Grade 7.)

“We have so many needs, it’s overwhelming,” she said.

But each and every Haitian has a memory from the earthquake that doesn’t fill them with horror or overwhelming sadness. After the earthquake Haitians stood together atop the rubble and dug. They moved hunks of concrete together, passing the pieces of their former city from hand to hand. Haitians were together. They cared for one another.

“It brought people together. There was solidarity,” said Yolette Jeanty.

That concrete memory of post-earthquake Haiti stripped down to it’s core, when Haitians had nothing but each other, is not a memory of violence or greed or humiliations or vengeance. For lack of any better word, it is a memory of love — true love, not sentimentality. It was the love that binds us together and makes society possible. It is the love that makes God present and promises a future.

- RAISING UP HAITI -
a Catholic Register special report

Haiti's churches need healing [slideshow]

What now in Haiti?

Post-traumatic stress proves difficult

Catholic aid organizations fly under the radar

Canadian engineer to oversee Haiti’s Church rebuild

Haiti must take this opportunity to change

Crisis makes D&P rethink how it operates

Bold education plan held up by a lack of funds

Church holds community together

D&P-funded program provides pro-life solution to Haiti's sexual violence

Haitians must look to themselves to rebuild their nation

Published in Features

Haiti buildingOn the anniversary of the 7.0 magnitude Haiti earthquake that killed 230,000 people, The Catholic Register has compiled a special report on reconstruction efforts in the impoverished nation.

At 4:53 p.m. on Jan. 12, 2010, Haiti was devastated. The quake’s epicentre was 16 km west of the capital of Port-au-Prince, home to 3.5-million people. Large sections of the city were flattened and virtually every building damaged. Hospitals, schools and government buildings collapsed on their inhabitants. The city’s cathedral crumbled, killing Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot. An estimated 1.5-million people were made homeless.

The international community sent emergency supplies, money and manpower, and pledged $5.3 billion for long-term reconstruction. Canadian Catholics contributed more than $20 million to Haitian relief.

To mark the first anniversary of the quake, The Register dispatched Associate Editor Michael Swan to Haiti to document the reconstruction effort. He saw a nation still clearing rubble from streets, still coping with tent cities, still flinching from crime, still living day to day. The rebuilding has begun but it is sporadic and not always well co-ordinated.

But The Register’s veteran reporter also witnessed hope and resilience and even some joy.

“Haitians are the world champions of the brave face,” he writes. “They make British stiff upper lips look wobbly as Jello.”

One year on, we should pause to remember Haiti. Its needs remain great. In the articles listed below, Swan tells Haiti’s story in words and photos.

 

- RAISING UP HAITI -
a Catholic Register special report

Haiti's churches need healing [slideshow]

What now in Haiti?

Post-traumatic stress proves difficult

Catholic aid organizations fly under the radar

Canadian engineer to oversee Haiti’s Church rebuild

Haiti must take this opportunity to change

Crisis makes D&P rethink how it operates

Bold education plan held up by a lack of funds

Church holds community together

D&P-funded program provides pro-life solution to Haiti's sexual violence

Haitians must look to themselves to rebuild their nation

Published in Features

A tour of churches in Port-au-Prince shows how the destruction left by the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake remains undistrubed. The earthquake killed Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot inside his cathedral instantly, and Vicar General Charles Benoit later. Bodies remain under much of the rubble around the capital city because Haiti lacks the heavy equipment and other resources to clean up.

View a larger version of the slideshow by clicking the "expand" icon in the bottom right corner of the player. You can also turn on captions and credits.

Published in Features
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