an uncertain future

February 21, 2010

Driving through the city today, I was once again shocked into silence seeing the ruins. It does not matter how many times you go through, the degree of destruction slaps you in a fresh way each time. You notice more buildings. You notice more belongings. And you notice the now pieced-together lives in between. Huge cranes were out clearing huge piles of debris, but President Preval has stated that it will take three years to clear all the downed cement.

As we slowed to a stop in yet another traffic jam, I saw a man who had lost the lower half of his right leg sitting on top of a mountain of rubble. His loose grey trouser pant leg was crudely tied up just below his knee. His crutches lay awkwardly next to him on the crushed pile of concrete, tables, chairs, clothes and trash. I do not know when he had his amputation, but he looked like he was still in shock. He stared dumbfounded yet resigned out into the world, surrounded on every side by fallen buildings. He looked like a man without hope, wanting an answer for all that had become of his life but too wary to ask. Our eyes met, and we tiredly stared at each other without expression. After about 15 seconds, without any movement in his face or his eyes, he subtly turned his palm to face upwards. It was a simple gesture, but one that meant depths. He did not seem to be begging. It was almost like he just hadn’t a clue what else to do. It was a small petition for help while faced with such hardship and confronted with someone who just might care. I do not know this man’s name, nor do I know his story. But in those brief moments, he impacted me almost more than anybody else has yet during my time here.

The unspoken exchange placed on me the reality and the pain of all those who have lost limbs during or after the earthquake. There are estimates of 300,000 injured. The number is hard to comprehend, and it is even more than the number who died. It represents all of those who brushed closer to a similar fate and emerged with wounds to prove it. I do not know how many of those are amputees, but you see them everywhere you go. A child with heavy bandages over his hand; a man with a single leg sitting outside his fallen home; a woman with a slings over her twisted arm. They are those who are certainly blessed to be alive, mostly because of the aid that was delivered quickly after the earthquake in the form of skilled surgeons from Haiti and around the world. Many lives were saved in the first crucial days through World Relief’s partnership with King’s Hospital.

But these individuals now face an uncertain future in a country where the handicapped are often second-class citizens. Life post-earthquake in Haiti is challenging as it is—but it is harder to be disabled. A staff member told me about his concern for those who are recently handicapped. He said the Haitian government does not have policies in place to protect them, and that the buildings that still stand are not designed for them to be able to access. It worries him as he looks at all of those affected around him. “It’s disturbing. It’s a big problem for me,” Claudener said. 

Another co-worker of mine provided relief work during the tsunami. He said the lingering effects of the earthquake are far beyond what he experienced in that situation. “The tsunami doesn’t maim people for life. There are hundreds and hundreds of people here who are crippled, and they’re going to suffer for the rest of their lives,” Warren said. “The suffering is staggering. People who have lost a limb and lost their ability to make a living.”

I am not sure what type of work the man I saw today did before the quake, but I would guess he now cannot continue it. Some people have already lost everything they have worked for in the form of land, houses and belongings. But those who cannot earn an income in the aftermath will be far worse off. The stigma for people with disabilities is high. The man may not only have challenges with employment, but he could be discriminated against and placed at the social periphery. In a country where hierarchical norms and tiers still exist, he could be bumped to the bottom—affecting all of his hard-earned networks and relationships.

I try to believe that God means it when He says He will hear the righteous and deliver them out of all their troubles. That He is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. I need to believe it for the hurting ones that I see, and for the many, many I do not.

My eyes stung as the car lurched forward again. I slowly turned to look behind me. The man was again staring blankly in front of him, his right hand now resting back on his incomplete leg.

(See Monday’s feature in New York Times to read more.)

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shelter now

February 18, 2010

Pastor Sergo

Pastor Sergo Saint Germain is one of about 70 church leaders currently being supported by  World Relief to distribute tarps to the neediest in their communities. Approximately 10,000 individuals have already been provided tarps to shelter them from the elements and address some of the needs outlined below. Thousands more will be reached in the coming weeks. Read more at  http://worldrelief.org/Page.aspx?pid=2402.

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.

silent ripples

February 15, 2010

Jeannite

It pains me that there is no need to go looking for stories here. They are everywhere. Everybody has been acutely affected. If it is not deaths in the immediate family, it is relatives, close friends, coworkers, neighbors or teachers. As a result of living through what so many others did not, each person bears the scars of trauma. They carry their own terrifying memories and images that continue to haunt them a month after the earthquake. And, unlike food, water or shelter needs, the trauma effects and needs are not estimated in the shared statistics—nor is a response coordinated at the United Nations compound.

One of our staff members, Jeannite, shared her earthquake experience with me. She survived, but as she walked the streets in shock, stumbling past fallen buildings and hearing the cries of those still alive underneath, she was wounded in a different way. She said she still feels in shock from what she saw—people dying on the road, debris flung around as if a bomb had gone off. “It was tragic for me,” she said, nervously cracking her knuckles as she relived January 12th. “I didn’t realize it was really happening. It seemed like I was dreaming.”

She lost a cousin, an aunt, two youth from her church, a program volunteer. She now sleeps with around 65 others in her mother’s yard, with only two plastic sheets hung above some of them. Despite having so many around her, Jeannite said there is one memory of the fateful day that she cannot shake. There were three different pregnant women dying or dead on the streets, and she could see their babies still moving inside of them. She was powerless to do a thing. One woman was removed from the debris by a medical doctor, but even he was too affected to act on behalf of the baby. “It will take time to delete the memories from my mind,” she said.

Another staff member talked of seeing people in a terrible panic in the hours following the quake. Daniel saw the dead, the wounded, and those desperately trying to get to the hospital or in touch with loved ones. “It greatly increased my suffering,” he said. “I was happy to be alive, but there were others who were suffering—others who were dead.”

One mother told her pastor about being at home with her three children—nine, six and one.  When the earthquake hit, she grabbed the youngest and ran out of the house. The other two did not make it out before the house collapsed. She heard the six-year-old calling to from her within. She could do nothing to save him, and that became his grave.

The daily effect that living through the experience has had on people is incomprehensible. Many cannot sleep. Many live anticipating the next aftershock. Many whose homes are actually structurally sound are still too terrified to reenter buildings. Jeannite, though, does not feel sorry for herself. Most people do not. A strong sense of solidarity exists among survivors.

“You don’t have the right to complain so much, because everybody is affected the same way. I can’t complain,” she said. “This helps me consider the situation with a wider perspective—I’m part of a big group that is affected.”

For a country reeling from disaster, churches can be a tangible expression of God dwelling among the broken. Throughout this city, they are already proving to be a beacon to those in need. They are providing shelter, food and spiritual nurture. Daniel said the only thing that has kept him sane the past few weeks is his church. His pastor engaged him in reaching out to those in their community. “I knew I had to help others. It forced me to resolve things within myself in order to be effective for others.”

Over the weekend, the hurting and confused flocked to churches. They sang, they marched the streets, and they prayed, prayed, prayed. People are expectant, and churches have a rare opportunity. They must be supported and encouraged as they act on it.

“I’m not thinking about the future,” said Jeannite as tears welled up. “I’m not imagining what the future can be. But I’ve found hope in God.”

February 15, 2010

The children of King’s Garden are a daily respite from the suffering and sadness all around.

songs rising

February 14, 2010

I am daily humbled and inspired by the strong faith of Haitians all around me. Yesterday marked one month since the earthquake, and the nation honored those who died by declaring three days of mourning. As I woke up, I was greeted by singing rising up from surrounding streets. Everywhere we drove throughout the day, we saw hundreds of people clothed in white praising God outside of their churches. They were a sea of arms stretched high to the sky, eager to give thanks—and desperate to be heard.

This was not merely a formality for the holiday. It is the way people have lived, and how they now live amongst the ruins—relying entirely on God. “We are in the street, but we still worship the Lord there,” said one pastor to me, as World Relief provided tarps for the neediest in his congregation.

One of our program managers, Dr. James Vilus, told me of living through the quake. As it struck, his car was immediately surrounded by a cloud of dust from falling concrete. He said that as it settled, the first sight he saw was people all around him, dropping to their knees, praying and raising their arms. “When humans are experiencing very difficult situations in their life, they are pushed to think about someone that is greater,” he said.

I met one lady who had lost her home, those she loved, and was unsure of how she would get a next meal for those living in her yard. When asked if she still had faith in God, she looked me straight the eyes and said, “So much, so much, so much.”

“I’ve realized that in this situation, no one can save you,” said another staff member, Jeannite Ciguene. “Not your mother, not your friends. The only one who can save you is God. This has renewed my confidence in God and my hope.”

Today we visited some Haitian friends who are caring for 52 children in addition to their own son. They are all sleeping outside in two small shelters, and they have no place to use the toilet. As we arrived, they were gathered outside their cracked home singing and praying. They had been doing this since 6 a.m. and would not quit until 6 p.m. They did the same yesterday and are planning to do the same tomorrow. With their problems surrounding them in the form of furniture and mattresses strewn about the yard, the children clapped and sang powerfully. “Things are getting better, things are getting better. When the Lord is on the throne, things are getting better.” I cannot imagine many sweeter sounds in the world.

Driving home yesterday, we passed a large internally displaced persons camp. We could see a small tarp at the periphery packed with people crying out to God. I was struck to the core. In the midst of now-chaotic and uncertain lives, individuals chose to come together simply to pray.

“It is in your courage that we will find the strength to go on,” President Rene Preval told crowds of people mourning yesterday. Singing still floated through the air late last night. As I lay in bed thinking of the brave and faithful souls all around me, I had no doubt that Haiti will go on.

in the midst

February 13, 2010

Yesterday we traveled through what was the epicenter of the earthquake to reach the city of Jacmel. Not surprisingly, the scenes were some of the hardest yet to stomach. Huge sections of neighborhoods lay flat, sloping down toward the ocean. The narrow, hilly streets of Jacmel were not much better. Driving through the little lanes meant we were closer to the individual homes—and able to see inside each mangled mess to identify remnants of what used to be people’s lives. As we went, we had to delicately dodge improvised tent homes blocking the roads.

The daily struggles of people in the aftermath of the earthquake are unimaginable. On one busy street outside of Port-au-Prince, hundreds of families have set up their shanty houses—made up of anything that can be found—on the median in between two crowded lanes. As we drove past, beige dust swirled everywhere, coating the ragged sheets, blankets and plastic bags and slipping in between them. Noise, dirt and cars surround these homes at all times of the day. All are at risk of significant respiratory damage, and children have to brave the traffic each time they leave.

As we entered back into the capital, the staff continued to point out additional decimated sights to me—the high school they attended; the large primary and secondary school that collapsed killing many kids underneath; our partner churches. And more homes. Many, many more homes.

In between the piles of rubble, I caught glimpses of people working to survive. My heart broke for the tens of thousands of families living in internally displaced persons camps. I watched people wash themselves at the curbside because they had no private place to go. I saw men emptying small buckets of trash and human waste into the streets. I watched as women sat on the demolished corners of buildings they once knew, trying to sell fruits to passersby. And I worried about the kids sleeping on the median.

It all started to weigh heavily. It was if it had been slowly creeping over me unnoticed for the past few days, and suddenly it was suffocating. As the city grew dark and the sad scenes began to blur past the window, I silently told God I could not carry it all. Almost immediately I felt that God was gently but firmly replying that I was not required to bear this load. Instead, I was simply asked to be here—because He is here, in the midst of it all.