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.
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.
For more information about my students' service projects in Haiti, or about service-learning trips to Haiti, please check out our webpage: http://bubbblhs.weebly.com/knights-for-haiti1.html
|A pancaked building|
|Rubble on the city street|
|Children play outside their tent home in 2010|
|Tent city in Port Au Prince|