the rain is coming

February 17, 2010

More than a million people are now said to be sleeping on the streets of Port-au-Prince. Most are in large internally displaced persons’ camps or outside of their homes. Many others are literally sleeping on the asphalt. As darkness approaches each night, the bustling city transforms into a bizarre scene where sections of major streets are completely shut down by the population to provide space for rest. You can roughly make out exhausted faces in the flickers from small fires of those trying to make some final Gourdes for the day. Individuals lay whatever they can find on the road and sleep without a cover; others have a small blanket to drape over them. Some try to establish a private plot by placing rocks around themselves and their kids. The stars are the only roof for scores of people who try to sleep while mangy dogs and cars shuffle by. 

Makeshift communities have sprung up everywhere, but life in close proximity to so many others is hard. “You have to live with all kinds of people from all different backgrounds,” said one of our staff members who lives with dozens of others. There is no personal privacy, for one. People have to sleep in shifts because reports of theft and rape have increased. Latrines are in short supply, if available at all. Hygiene is challenging to maintain based on limited access to clean water, soap and safe bathing areas. People are at greater risk of typhoid, dysentery, tuberculosis, dehydration and diarrhea.  And there is little to no protection from the elements.

Amongst countless other challenges, the rain is coming.

It has already rained several times within the last week. The rainy season, normally taking place March to June, seems to be arriving early. In a city full of those displaced from their homes, it is a desperate race against time to ensure people have adequate temporary shelters.

“This is one of the most serious conditions that we as a community are experiencing,” said the same staff member. “Some people are so desperate they retreat into condemned buildings to escape the rain. It’s very difficult.”

In this dust-ridden city, it seems like the rain should be refreshing and life giving. But it is quite the opposite. Each day we watch the sky with dread, anxiously observing the gathering clouds. Rain will bring more disease and more misery if families are not quickly reached. Even during the normal rainy season, children are at greater risk of death from respiratory illness, malnutrition, malaria and dengue. People will not only get sick, but their remaining possessions may be destroyed. This morning someone told me that his simple covering was destroyed last night by the water and the wind. He and his children crouched to one side for the remainder of the night, trying to preserve their now-wet possessions.

One of the clichés of relief workers in these situations is feeling guilty and powerless. I can now see why. I often think of all those I care about who are sleeping outside night after night. I listen to the stories of loss. I nod my head empathetically. I note the needs. And I leave.

When two of my friends pointed out and explained their tent lives to me, piece by piece, I felt helpless in the face of such great tragedy. As I drove away from them, a friend reminded me that sometimes, just sometimes, simply walking through experiences with people is the most important thing we can do. When so many are trying to flee the country, thousands more from around the world are flooding in to be here. I have to believe that counts for something. 

This ministry of presence is subtle—and never seems enough—but it can be powerful. My hope here is just to be with people where they are—amidst the good, the bad and the very ugly. I try to believe that even my tears can be a gift to those hurting. So I will continue to listen. I will continue to pray. And I will remain confident that things must and will get better.

2 Responses to “the rain is coming”

  1. cynthia Says:

    I cried with you as I read this. The ministry of presence, sometimes it is all we have. Your words, your tears, your gift of listening, your blog, your smile, your presence, is a gift to those there and those of us who are traveling with you. Be encouraged amidst the despair.

  2. Becca Says:

    Best post yet. Thanks for wearing your heart on your sleeve. 🙂 You are bringing change.

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