July 19th 2010
From June 1 to June 10, a group of eleven people, most of them college students, visited Haiti under the auspices of the community service group, Youth for Humanity, which is based in Rockland County, under the aegis of the Jerrahi Mosque.
They were hosted by a Turkish relief group, Kimse Yok Mu, which has been in Haiti working tirelessly since three days after the earthquake. The youth group worked at orphanages, and bought and distributed food to those orphanages, as well as to people living in dire distress in outlying areas of Port au Prince. They also bought and distributed tarps and other supplies for camps where people were sleeping out on rubble. They organized and sponsored the repair of a ruined school. In addition, they sponsored an entrepreneur to start a fruit shake business that will hopefully succeed and offer employment to others. The young people also talked to Haitians, many of them using their high school French, in an effort to gain cultural awareness and understanding. Collectively the group took over 2500 pictures. Many of them would like to return in the near future, feeling that there is still so much they could do. Here are some journal excerpts from their trip.
The people are what make this country great. The people are amazing: warm, welcoming and loving. Distressed, yes. We will put a roof over a school hopefully tomorrow, and we are going to provide food for an orphanage for a month, which may turn into an ongoing thing. Waste management is most important; they burn garbage day and night. It's horrific the amount of trash that has accumulated. Then there are millions living in tents, and unemployment is at 80%. It was at 70% before the earthquake.
The best mangos in the world grow everywhere, as do corn, coconuts and many other kinds of fruits; the coffee is amazing. You get eaten alive when you sleep, even under multiple mosquito nets and sheets. We are receiving two meals a day, and I feel bad that that is what I get. We talk to people who eat maybe once every three days....
Tarik Morgan, 19, Chestnut Ridge
Before we left, Doctor Burak had spoken to us about how there is something about Haiti that pulls you towards it; there is a hidden beauty behind all the destruction and poverty. As we drove from the airport to where we would be staying, we witnessed the piles upon piles of rubble, and the locals selling various items in markets molded by mounds of garbage, and I only saw despair and overwhelming hopelessness. Every bumpy bus ride through the disintegrating roads was like hours and hours of a heart-wrenching documentary. Children clung to our windows asking for spare dollar bills, and women waded through murky waters washing themselves or traveled to their tents.
The most striking thing I witnessed was a row of tents set up on the road-divider between two lanes, which could not have been more than three feet wide. Haitians were living in the middle of the road, stepping outside to wash themselves in the streets. Yet soon enough, we noticed that in spite of these unimaginable living conditions, there was rarely a local who would not smile or respond to our "Bonjour" or "Comment ca va?" They did not show sadness and despair. Most of the locals we saw seemed to live in the moment, taking life as it is instead of enveloping themselves in grief over the past. We found them eager to laugh, crack jokes, dance to music, and support our attempts at making conversation. Even in near-disaster traffic encounters, where cars almost scraped each other, the drivers would frequently converse with each other like old acquaintances. They moved us with their attitudes and brilliant smiles, which immediately put smiles on our faces as well. These qualities were magnified in the beautiful children, who welcomed us with warm hugs and beaming smiles. Their tenderness towards us made it very difficult to leave. Along with this beauty came frustration, because we were aware that no matter how hard we tried, we could never do enough. Yet when I look back on the trip, though there is sadness, I do not feel despair. Rather, I remember the incredible people we met and how positivity can thrive amidst so much destruction. It is this striking contrast that makes Haiti such a beautiful country and fills me with hope for its future.
Zeynep Doganata 19, Chestnut Ridge
They work to survive, Life is a breeze where I’m from. Who is living more?
Evan Rulfs, 19, Chestnut Ridge
I did not know what to think about Haiti before we went. I was not nervous about what we were going to experience, but we could never have been prepared for what we saw when we got there. Joselyn (a teacher who had come to speak to us about the history of Haiti before we left) talked about how the people were beautiful and how the country was beautiful. It took a few days to see this but by the third day I was in love. Peoples' smiles were unending, their spirits astonishing, considering all that had happened. The children were the best part of the trip by far. The children at the one big orphanage we went to stole my heart within the first ten minutes. They were deprived of attention and love, and just clung to us the moment we got off the bus. Each one of us had our own three or four children that stuck to us physically, and in our hearts as well. Every time I look back at the pictures of them, tears come to my eyes with the memory of their sweet sweet innocence. Every night when we would come back to the house where we were staying, I would feel guilty about what was waiting for us: a roof, a hot meal, a shower, safety, and place to sleep. I would try to eat, and really remember what I had seen that day, and then reflect on what I had waiting for me back in New York. The worst of us live like kings compared to what the people have in Haiti. Sure, there are some that live well, but those are very few. The main population is living in tents, or worse, with barely anything to their names, yet all of them walk with poise and hold themselves with a serenity that makes my heart clench.
Yunus Lowenthal, 21, Chestnut Ridge
Haiti, Day 9
“What will you be doing there?” I suddenly became flustered with uncertainty; I didn’t have a clear answer. “Well…can you tell me what you want to do there? I told him that I wanted to be selfless, for a change. He laughed. “Oh you martyr. Do you really think that ten days in Haiti will change anything at all?”
There were eleven of us. We were the representative members of Youth for Humanity, a small philanthropic group originating in Chestnut Ridge, NY. As a group, we have been to post-Katrina Louisiana, Alabama, Chile, Iraqi-refugee saturated Syria, Kosovo and Bosnia. Haiti would be the next notch on our humanitarian belt, as many cynics would phrase.
Are they right? Is everything truly in vain? I asked this question as I posted “In Port-au-Prince, Haiti” as my status on Facebook.
In the week prior to our departure, Dr. Burak Alptekin, an anesthesiologist who had traveled to Port-au-Prince in January, warned us of the inevitable sense of frustration that accompanies serving the people of an impoverished nation. There would be too much to do, and too little time. It was on our ninth day that I understood.Today was meant to be a day of success. Instead, it was a day of jaded truth. We arrived at Jemal’s camp (the worst camp we had visited) with rice, beans, flour, cornmeal, ponchos, mosquito nets, water buckets and purification tabs. Makeshift tents made of torn cloth and leaves were supported by thin spars. Pregnant women and children laid straw over cement blocks to prevent drowning in the rainwater as they sleep. The location was bad - there must be flooding every day.
As I exited the van, I could see that the people were quietly forming a line at the back of the truck. The food distribution went smoothly until Sabri, our translator and guide, notified us that many outsiders were coming for food and supplies. This issue intensified when we began to allocate one tarp per family. Suddenly the people began yelling and pulling me in all directions. Children were scrambling to create new shelters in an attempt to represent their families. We simply did not have enough for everyone.
Now that I’ve returned, I feel that the time is right to respond to my friend’s question:
Ten days in Haiti was a drop in the sea of rehabilitation. But will I become demoralized and crippled by this? Never - frustration motivates and burns until satiated by action.
We were fortunate to have enough money raised and connections established to support two key individuals. The first is a trustworthy entrepreneur that envisions opening a fruit juice business in downtown Pétionville. The second is a schoolteacher that wants nothing more than to teach again at his own school. While our donated food and supplies will soon be consumed, these two planted seeds have a strong proliferative capacity; the Haitian people need jobs and education. While this will not undo governmental implosion and centuries of strife, at the very least this is movement in a constructive direction.
Adam Nassery, 25, Pearl River