Friday, January 12, 2018

Reflections on Haiti, eight years on...


Eight years ago today, the sky was falling in Port au Prince.

I wasn't there when it happened, but, when I got there eight months later, it looked pretty much the same.

And, again, when I returned after another twelve months.  But, at that time, the government was dispatching clean-up crews who were just hitting the streets. You knew they were the “official” government crews because they had bright green government-issued t-shirts and a square scoop-shovel. They were not issued work gloves.

Many of the t-shirt wearers were kids, about the age of the ones I teach in high school.  I won't forget that there was a tiny girl wearing white capri pants and flip-flops, leaning backward to counterbalance her heap of broken concrete. I won’t forget that at lunch break, the crew pulled sandwiches out of their pockets and sat on their rubble-piles to eat. And, I won’t forget that, after eating their dusty sandwiches, they picked up their shovels and went back to work. 

Every so often, pickup trucks would come by and they would re-shovel their piles into the pickup trucks.  I don't know how they broke up the pancaked pieces; I never saw the guys with the sledge hammers, or maybe even jack-hammers. I wonder about that, but I never saw them. There must have been a crew for that.  I can’t see how those kids could have broken up the bulk of those buildings with their scoop-shovels.

At the time, experts in the States had been saying that it would take twenty years just to get the rubble cleared from Port Au Prince. That sounded crazy, until I saw it. Twenty years of that shoveling.  You have no way to realize what that meant, unless you had been there to see it.  It was an unimaginable job.  But, they were getting it done with what they had… because that was what they had, and it had to be done. 

And, so, in flipflops and bare feet, in shorts and skirts, and in white capri pants, the Haitians, hired by their government and outfitted with a t-shirt and a scoop-shovel, began working to clear the path for their country, so that they could move forward.  And so, they began to move mountains of broken concrete, and shredded wire, and shattered glass, into piles in the street, with their government-issued scoop-shovels.

I was, and remain, in awe.

Those kids, they scooped up what remained of their fallen homes and schools; they scooped up the remains of their fallen families and friends.  Those kids would help scoop a city bigger than Chicago with their shovels.  Without gloves. 

I didn’t return for two more years, and when I did, I could see all of the progress made in the wake of their shovels.  Roads were passable.  Some sewers and ditches had been cleared. Electricity was functional in some areas.  People were thinking about building.  In the villages, those kids were now spending their days behind their fractured homes, pounding chunks of concrete with fist-sized rocks. I learned that concrete is recyclable; it can be pounded back into sand, and reused for construction. Or sold. Or traded. I mean, People have to eat.      

And so it was another year, and another, and another two. And each time I go, there is more progress. 

But there are setbacks, too.  Even before the big quake, there had been Hurricanes. There was Faye, Gustave, Hanna. And Ike.  Four Hurricanes in three weeks caused about $8billion in damages and wiped out 60% of the country’s crops.  People were hungry.  Then there was the earthquake.  Then there was cholera. Brought by UN soldiers to the heart of Port-Au-Prince, over 300,000 people in the tent cities suffered in the epidemic.  Then came Hurricane Thomas.  Then flooding, and more cholera. Then in 2016, Hurricane Matthew. More farms wiped out and crops lost.   Another $2.8billion in damages.  And a plague of ants.    

But each time, when I go back, the people have already dusted themselves off and picked up the pieces and have begun to move on.  They don’t complain. But, they will tell you their stories, if you ask them. You just better make sure you really want to know.  You cannot predict what that shy young man with the book in his pocket… or the welcoming woman who clears her bed, inviting you to sit down… or those rowdy boys you saw in the street… or the little girl with the bucket of water on her head… have been through.  And, you may not be able to process it when they tell you.   

So, on each trip to Haiti, I am amazed. I am amazed by the joy of people who have survived experiences that surpass my worst nightmares. I am amazed by the generosity of people who have next-to-nothing, but willingly offer to share it with you.  I am amazed by the warmth and kindness of people who have been repeatedly shut out in the cold and abandoned. 

And every time I go, I am still in awe.  I am in awe of the Haitians, these people who have been knocked down over, and over, and over again; who still get up and brush themselves off;  who dig out themselves, and immediately turn to dig out their neighbors.  I am in awe of these people, who can create something out of nothing; who can build without materials; and who can find solutions where I would swear none exist.  And I am so incredibly in awe of people who are willing to repeatedly start over, when all of the evidence predicts that they will, someday soon, again lose all of their work.   

The world has moved on. The people of Haiti have once again been abandoned and forgotten. When they are thought of, it is often in a negative way, as we were reminded this week. But the Haitians continue on. They have pulled themselves and each other out of the mud, and out from the rubble. They continue the work to rebuild their lives and their country.  Each day, the Haitians I know face a daunting struggle against overwhelming odds, and they celebrate their small triumphs.  They struggle. But they love each other and they live with Joy.  

They are people who I am proud to know.  They are people who I am proud to stand with. 

That is why I keep going back.  That is why I take students. 
I  want my students to learn to practice charity and compassion, of course.   But, far more, I want them to learn about courage, and hard work, and about how to stand against all odds, and to learn about finding Joy in the places you least expect it.


Usually on the anniversary of the earthquake, I start a Haiti unit in class.  

My boys were eleven and nine, when made the video that I linked at the top of the page.  They made it for me to use in class because the local newspaper hadnt picked up the Haiti story at that point. It was a throw-away paragraph on page 8. The front page had a headline about the school board.  I was furious, and I wanted something for my to contextualize the information for my classes.  Riley and Brady worked on that video for three days.  It isn't perfect at all, but they were little boys and they were so sincere and worked so hard, that I still use it.  Even with its flaws, I find that it resonates with a deeper truth.

And, so  I still use it in class every year, on the date of the Earthquake, to kick off a mini GeoCulture unit on Haiti. And the kids still respond to it as they did eight years ago.  When the video clicks off, there is silence in the room. And then we learn the basics about the history of Haiti, and about the Earthquake. We look at the geography and talk about the music, and the food.  We also have a discussion about social justice and plan an in-school fundraiser that will go towards our next service project in Haiti.   

But, we had a snow day today.  And then there was the whole thing about Haiti in the news. 

And I thought about those kids clearing the rubble with their shovels.  And, I just could not let it go. All day. I felt like I had to do something, or say something.   
SO.... I am posting here to share my experience with the Haitian people and their country.  

I hope it will make me feel better.   I hope that it will make you feel better, too.

 For more information about my students' service projects in Haiti, or about service-learning trips to Haiti, please check out our webpage:

A pancaked building

Rubble on the city street

tent city

Children play outside their tent home in 2010

Tent city in Port Au Prince

Friday, July 28, 2017

On the ground at DTW

Can't deplane yet as they seem to be caught by surprise at our arrival ???
Really... this has been a crazy trip as far as air travel has been concerned.

However, I suppose that we will see you soon!

On our way (with wireless)

It has been so long since I have had wireless, that it feels funny to connect.  But... here we are back in FLL (Although, we really spent enough time here the first time.) 

We are at the gate and are going to make our connection. 

See you soon

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Let’s Stay Longer - Gabby Linker
Hello everyone!               
As this mission trip comes to an end, the days feel as if they are getting shorter and our relationships are getting closer, making it harder and harder to think about saying goodbye. A lot of us have made connections and friendships with the Haitians in the villages, orphanages, and even among our fellow classmates. We all have been through so much together during this trip from being thrown up on and repeatedly asking them if they threw up on you to being peed on because someone got stung by a sea urchin. We have become annoyed with each other but as soon as someone asks if they can get some help there are 12 right by their side asking what they need help with. When we were at the airport that was our very first day of being a group and we all seemed very overwhelmed by the unconnected relationship between us all, but after 5 flights and 2 detours a connection was made. I am so grateful to have gone on such a big trip with people that have such great big hearts.
Relationships, along with service work (of course) have become a huge part of this trip for all of us. Some of us have found ways to make it easy to communicate with the people here when we return home which might make saying goodbye a little easier. The service work has also made saying goodbye hard in my eyes because as soon as I get home I will feel as if I should be here instead of there. That was one of my biggest hardships about leaving the last time I was in Haiti. After being here and constantly doing work and playing with the children who just want all the love in the world every day, it makes it difficult to be at home and know that there are children not only here in Haiti but all over the world that want love and affection from someone.
The first time I was in Haiti I was just a little freshman and did not really take in everything that was going on around me. Now that I am going to be a senior and this is my second time here, I am more emotionally attached to the people and the work we are doing every day.

Monday, July 24, 2017

July 24, 2017, Monday: Reflections from Mallori

July 24, 2017
Religion Reflections (Mallori)
Today I was given the opportunity to experience the blending of the Catholic cultures. While at St. Luke Foundation's children hospital, I saw the similarities and differences between Catholic and Haitian masses. The preparation of the mass included the gathering of all the children that died in the middle of the night, to give them one final blessing. This experience filled me with emotions that are difficult to express in just a few words. Each child was laid in a casket (similar to a cardboard box) in front of the alter. As mass began, we started with a prayer for the dead; a prayer for the innocent children that were not given enough time for a full experience of freedom and youth. The priest went around to each casket with incense and blessed the children. The actual mass was said mainly in Kreyol; however I was able to keep up with the use of hand gestures and beautiful tunes of worship. Although there were a few alterations, it still felt like Mass at home. I know the Catholic church has always been described as universal but it wasn't until this trip that I truly understood what that meant- its not about the place, language, traditions, or cultures, it's about being united under one faith, worshipping together as one. We joined hands to pray the Our Father, creating a circle around the children that had passed. I was completely connected. Moved by the losses, but more moved by the sense of community it created. American, Haitian, it didn't matter. Our only concern was being present with God. How often do we let our differences keep us from truly "seeing" each other? 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Water Delivery - Friday 7/21

It was a good day today, but hard.   Another long hot day in Haiti, so we went up to the village of St Christopher's to make a water delivery.   In Haiti, water is life.  And the people of St. Christopher's don't have any.

Prior to the earthquake in 2010, Port Au Prince was home to about 3,000,000 people -- nearly one in three Haitians lived in Port Au Prince area.  As a result of the earthquake, nearly everyone in Port Au Prince was left homeless.  It was impossible for that many homeless people to survive in the wrecked city; disease was starting to spread; and there were not enough resources for that many people to survive... so many of them just started walking.  When they stopped, they set up shelters, and that is how St. Christopher’s came about.  It is a barren hillside, where people stopped because there was no where else to go.   

They scraped together shacks out of what they could find and have been living there in exile from Port Au Prince since then. For seven years, they have survived on this is a sunbaked, dusty slope.  There is no infrastructure -- no roads, no power, and no water source. This means people are thirsty, and dirty.  It means that they can't grow gardens.   They can't wash clothes, or clean cuts.   The people were walking miles to a dirty river to fetch water in buckets every day.  Which also means that they were spending a lot of time on that which could have been used in better ways.    IYF Ministries found out about it and set up a clean-water program about a year ago.  For $165 a sponsor can pay for a week of water. This covers 10,500 gallons per week and is used by 500-600 people   

This is such an important thing. We were so happy to be able to fund raise to be able to pay for the water truck for both weeks that we are here!   

This morning we helped with the water distribution. This is how it goes: 

There are about ten large 100gallon rain barrels lined up.  And the villagers begin to gather.  Young and old, they come, carrying 5-gallon buckets, and 1-gallon pails.   The crooked grandmothers, they come.   And the tiny toddlers, barely taller than the buckets they carry.   They form lines clutching containers whose labels testify to their past lives: laundry soap...vegetable litter...paint.... Anything that will hold the water that will sustain life for another week under the hot Haitian sun.  

And, so they gather, bearing their old bleach bottles and grasping their gasoline cans. And they form lines. And they wait. 
Today, the truck was late.  

There was no grumbling, no outward signs of impatience, just waiting.  But when the truck arrived, the mood started to change.  As ten or twelve 100-gallon plastic rain barrels were quickly lined up, the village stood, still in line, watching. There was no visible change that I can point to, so it is hard to describe, but there was a... tension. The air was just a little bit charged with the palpable tension of unanswered questions: Will I get enough water for the week?  Will there still be water by the time I get to the front of the line?  Will there be enough water for everyone? For me? Will there be any problems?  

A large fire hose was laid out. A valve turned.  The hose grew plump and a man wrestled its end to the farthest plastic barrel.  As the barrel filled, he grasped the hose with both arms and used his torso as leverage to flop the end to the neighboring barrel. A wave splashed out onto the front of the line.  They remained impassive in manner, showing neither interest nor concern about their now soaked clothes. (I may have imagined this, but it seemed that they were deliberately impassive -- and I  had a flash of both pain at their situation and admiration for their response; it is not my forte to bear wrongs patiently.)   The filling of barrels continued with the fire hose being directed at each for as long as it took to fill it and then moved immediately to the next, and up and down the line.   In the meanwhile, we had smaller buckets and as soon as each barrel was filled, we were to fill the buckets of the villagers by scooping water from the barrel into their containers.  This is where the jostling began, as each person hastened to the front of the line, anxious to ensure that they received the water to sustain them until the truck returns again.  The kids scooped water as fast as they could into the buckets.   And as each bucket was filled, a new one was presented.  

 It is hot hard work. The kids did a good job.  They helped deliver water to people for whom water means everything.  And that is a big deal. But, as is so often the case in Haiti, I think today was another day where we actually received far more than we gave.  I think that the biggest gift here was in the opportunity our kids had as a result of this experience.  It is hard to have a day like today, without it resulting in some real growth, mentally and spiritually. I think it was great for the kids to be in a situation to reflect a little on how we live.  This was a chance to reflect a little on just what access to clean water means. On the ways in which we sometimes take the simple things for granted.  On what it means to have. have not.  And, on how things that are "simple" for us - like serving water - are actually far more nuanced when we view them through the lens of solidarity.  

So, as I said... 

It was a good day today.  

But, hard. 

Some Bench Building Action!