Thursday, February 11, 2010

New Blog

For future updates, please visit the following blog:

Haiti: Recovering from the Quake
Reports from the ground with the American Refugee Committee

American Refugee Committee team members in Haiti will be collaborating to post updates on our continued relief and recovery work.

Thank you for your support!

Friday, January 29, 2010


I heard someone say that most of the Catholic churches in Port-au-Prince had been destroyed, while all of the Baptist churches remained solid and standing. Disasters of this magnitude throw faith into utter disarray as inevitable questions return each time, based in one simple question, "Why?"

When I first moved through some of the worst-hit areas, in search of an old friend and colleague, I came into earshot of one sound that felt inconsistent with the scenes of off-kilter and smashed buildings and bewildered-looking residents sifting through belongings. It was singing....harmonious, passionate singing....wafting through the din of more typical, harsh post-earthquake sounds. I looked up to locate the source of the musical reverie, and caught a glimpse of a group of Haitians, locked arm-in-arm in a circle of worshippers, spontaneously erupting in song to praise their Lord, swaying back and forth just outside a broken house.

Multiple scenes like this played out throughout Port-au-Prince in the days following the Catastrophe. Electrifying the search for meaning were the time and circumstances of the quake: just about 5pm, right in the middle of rush hour. "I normally left the office at 4:30, but I decided to stay late that day to get a few things done. My house collapsed, but my office was OK." These common stories have rendered a common Haitian greeting especially poignant. How are you? "On est la..." I'm here.

Having served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal in the late 80s, I found and befriended a contingent of Nepali troops who formed part of the UN stabilization forces here. Any reminder of home pleases Nepalis beyond measure, so I when I spoke even a few words of Nepali with them, I was welcomed with open arms. They invited me to my first real meal since arriving (daal bhat! for those who know Nepal). These soldiers had their own story of survival, which affirmed their faith, whatever their personal beliefs. Alas, other country battalions suffered terrible losses among their ranks. But on January 12th at 5pm, all Nepali soldiers in Port-au-Prince were invited to a party in the open space of their camp to celebrate the 105th anniversary of the Sher Battalion. They all lived....and want to believe there is a reason for it.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Baby Born Homeless Saved Her Mother's Life

Today I held a tiny baby, outside a temporary shelter in Port-au-Prince. She was born on Saturday, four short days after the earthquake smashed her mother's home into rubble. She was sleeping in my arms silently, peacefully, so contrary to the chaos around her. I couldn't take my eyes off her perfectly formed fingers, gripping my own with extraordinary force. Her mother told me that the little girl had saved her life, before she was even born. When the terrible shaking began, she heard screams of "Get outside, get outside." All she could think about was that her baby was in extreme danger. In a way that only mothers could fully understand, she said that the thought of her daughter gave her the force to jump through falling concrete, out of the building, before it all collapsed in complete destruction. Now they live in a tent, and they are surviving together, one week into this new child's life.


Port-au-Prince is now a city where most people are sleeping outside at night (estimates put it at 80 percent of the residents). I drove back to our camp just after dark a couple of nights ago, rushing to meet our own night-time curfew. At street corner after corner, people had blocked access to their blocks by placing stones in the way. They didn't want vehicles rushing blindly in and injuring sleeping families. I looked up these blocks and saw winding ribbons of re-created bedrooms, demarcated with bedsheets and string, as far as my eyes could see in the dark. So many homes were destroyed or severely weakened, and the fear of aftershocks remains palpable.

Informal settlements have popped up wherever open space allows. ARC is working in the Delmas area of Port-au-Prince, which is especially congested and limited in open areas. I've visited several settlements, and Haitians talk about wanting to stay connected to their neighborhoods, their homes, and any family and friends who remain alive. We've started a partnership with a small community-based organization called AES, Aimer Egal Servir (To Love = To Serve). Soon after the earthquake, they quickly identified settlements that they could help with resources from within their own community. We are working together to train leaders in the settlements to organize their sites and return to a more normal daily existence -- dedicated spaces for sleeping, cooking, hygiene, praying, children playing, and trash collection.

These are the seeds of recovery that, planted now, will build Haitians' self-confidence and enable them to take back control of their lives, rebuilding communities that reflect their values and vision of the future. It takes time and patience, which are precious commodities in the rush of goods and people arriving in the name of genuine caring throughout the world. But we must avoid further tragedy, on top of today's intense suffering, by stripping Haitians of their rightful role in decision making and recovery, today and into the future.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Chaos of Relief

Some signs of improvement today....the makeshift emergency hospital at the UN compound finally shifted to a proper medical facility where proper hygiene and treatment could be assured. Kids in their ad hoc outdoor settlements ate MREs (meals ready to eat) then slid down a hillside on the plastic trays. We delivered medical supplies to refugees in the Dominican Republic and prepared to receive large quantities of donated relief materials in Port-au-Prince...hopefully the terrible supply chain bottlenecks ease in the coming hours and days. The shock is wearing off and some semblance of normal street life has returned as a few businesses reopen, tentatively. But vast swaths of the population continue to sleep in the open air, on streets and in any field where they can stake a claim. The grief over what has happened here has only just begun.

We see an enormous amount of generosity flowing into the country. The increasingly interconnected and aware citizens of the world are quite amazing in their reaction to disasters. The media loves a good emergency...cameras are everywhere. It supplies a feast of emotional imagery and fascinating stories of tragedy and survival. If it stopped there, at stories, we could fault humanity for crass voyeurism or addiction to an emotional fix. But the reaction to what people have seen in the news about Haiti, and so many disasters, has revealed quite wonderful things about human nature -- that people want to take action to help care for their brothers and sisters, suffering far away in an unknown land.

I'm sitting in the middle of the result of all this caring. Over the years, countless institutions and organizations, some nonprofit, some for profit, have emerged to channel the generosity of the world into responses to emergencies. They scramble for attention and peddle their approaches, trying to look unique but fitting into the consensus on how things are done -- even as 'creativity' and 'innovation' are officially encouraged. It's an alphabet soup of acronyms and clever names, logos, and branding. And lots of aggressive, if charming and fun, people.

Relief work helps people in desperate situations -- it's a far cry from the days when whole populations suffered alone, without attention. However, my feeling in observing the ant farm of relief, all moving around chaotically yet somehow achieving common ends, is that the results aren't good enough. Better leadership and true coordination mechanisms need to emerge, and survivors should not be bit players in their own futures. It's insulting and ruinous to their long-term recovery. We all speak that language, but it's just so much easier to get stuff out and design how people should live. But we'll get up tomorrow and talk to Haitians about how they want to live.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Living Nightmare

Only a few days have passed since I arrived in Haiti, but it feels like months. Michael, my intrepid colleague, and I left Minneapolis just two days after the earthquake to assess how the American Refugee Committee could support the people of Haiti in their moment of greatest need. We traveled through the Dominican Republic and caught a US military plane to Port-au-Prince, picking up a tent on the way. We're now camping out at the UN base, sharing water facilities with a growing crowd. We're not getting some meals here, but have plenty of peanut butter for when we don't.

I lived and worked in Haiti in the 90s and loved it. I arrived uncertain about the fate of my friends and former colleagues -- I had no way to reach them. In the last few days, I've learned that three friends from my former staff are alive, and I've recruited one to work with us. Just this evening, we were driving back to the UN base, laughing about old times as we turned to view a haunting scene -- blocks and blocks of people sleeping the street, bedsheets hoisted with string to demarcate their space, homes destroyed or too terrified to stay inside.

The scale of what the Haitian people are experiencing is unfathomable. I can't stop thinking about two other old colleagues, who died in the collapsed UN headquarters. They stayed all these years because they loved the Haitian people as I do. I'm grappling with basic questions about life and suffering -- why so many people here must continue to face tragedy without end, this one more devastating than anything they have seen before?

Nepali soldiers form part of the UN security forces here, and I've had dinner with them at the base -- as a former Peace Corps volunteer there, they help me out. Our first 'tent neighbors' were a crew of firefighters from the Dominican Republic...they came for search and rescue but found few alive. They drove off in their fire truck a few days later because they were running short of food, but they left us water and few snacks. In a day, I was communicating in Spanish, Nepali, French, and English.

I have a book of thoughts racing through my head. We need to get support to those who need it, but what a logistical nightmare....a perfect storm of obstacles. The port was badly damaged, so nothing comes through it. Everyone wants to ship through the airport, the overland connections from the DR are potholed and slow. The US military took control of the airport and has organized shipments, but the backlog is enormous. Meanwhile, Haitians gather in any open space available to them, desperate for support. Today, the waiting list for surgeries at the main hospital was 1,200 names long.

Our expanded crew is arriving tomorrow from the DR, and we can step it up and build on the prep and staff we've begun to assemble. We need to get support directly to communities. This is a living nightmare, and I want more than anything to relieve this suffering. Today, doctors at the UN compound were doing amputations without anesthesia (i.e. ‘bite down on this’) because supplies are short everywhere. The docs end up in debates about whether to amputate on a person they are quite sure is going to die. These are the big, established organizations....we’re going for a community approach and, within all these limitations, will try to burn through and get things done.

It just started raining -- hard. I hope it doesn't last.