Life-changing experience for islanders in Haiti
On Thanksgiving Day this year, a group of Block Island residents — 10 in all — left this island for a more troubled one to the south. They journeyed to Haiti to take part in a Habitat for Humanity (HFH) project to build homes for some of the millions of people made homeless by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010.
David Chatowsky, Terri Chmiel, Socha Cohen, Paul Frantzich, David Kane, Herman Mast, Linda Mast, Jim Rondinone, David Roosa and Todd Tremble were away for seven days on a work-odyssey that, many of them said, altered their lives for all time.
On a quiet December evening after their return, five of these intrepid travelers — Chmiel, Cohen, Kane, Rondinone, and Roosa — gather at Cohen’s home to reflect on their experiences. They are still processing a mixture of shock at the depth of deprivation they witnessed, and surprise at the unquenchable spirit of a people determined not to be subsumed by it.
Having made friends with strangers from many lands, they have returned with deeper connections to each other — neighbors, now friends — and bound by their common immersion into the distressing world that is Haiti.
They find themselves back home, but deeply enmeshed in the process of figuring out what comes next. The question that absorbs them is where they should direct their attention and energies next in order to continue efforts they feel have only just begun.
On a plane with President Carter
Under the aegis of the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project, the islanders found themselves part of a group of 600 people drawn to Haiti from the United States and many other countries around the world, such as Canada, Europe, Ireland, Australia and Singapore.
Delta Airlines donated two charter 757s for the flights from Atlanta to Port-au-Prince and back. The meals they served and care they gave the travelers were “incredible,” Kane recalls. President Carter and his wife Rosalynn were on the plane going over with the islanders and hundreds of other volunteers. Of Carter, Kane says, “He walked down the aisle of our 757 and greeted each and every one of us — not just a shake of your hand, but truly warm, inviting conversation.”
On several occasions in Haiti, Carter and Rosalynn addressed the group. Cohen says Carter shared his personal dilemma upon losing the election in 1981 that would have given him his second term as President. He wondered how he would go on to lead his life in a meaningful way. The answer ultimately came in setting up the nonprofit Carter Center, dedicated to “promoting peace and human rights.”
Involving themselves with Habitat for Humanity International in 1984, the Carters lead the Work Project to areas around the globe for one week each year. This is the 29th year of their project and their second time in Haiti. The island travelers said they were grateful that the Carters’ week overlapped with theirs.
It shouldn’t be this way
Once on the ground in Haiti, Kane describes the scene after boarding a bus to their camp in the village of Santo in the seaside town of Leogane: people laughing, chatting, snapping pictures, generally upbeat about having come on “a mission.” Within minutes of the bus pulling out into the street, however, Kane says they all fell silent.
Chmiel agrees: “As our buses pulled away from the airport, we remained silent on the one-hour journey. We saw poverty that words can’t describe.”
Reached in California, the Masts echo the sentiment: “What we saw from the bus windows in and around Port-au-Prince was abject poverty — perhaps the worst we’ve witnessed worldwide.”
“Travel on the bus was emotionally difficult for all,” Kane says. “No one could possibly believe that poverty of this caliber exists anywhere. Buildings were still collapsed rubble; some were three stories tall and just came straight down. I kept thinking it shouldn’t be this way two and a half years later, but it is. People were everywhere, doing nothing, just milling around in a daze. “
The view from the bus showed large United Nations and United States relief tarps that were draped over loosely constructed cardboard and tin shelters. Roosa adds that many of the shanties did not even have the tarps but were “constructed out of trash, anything: cardboard, plastic, rubble, all with dirt floors.”
On the bus, “You could hear a pin drop,” says Kane. “I think we all thought what we were doing would make a big difference.” But what they saw made them realize the task was so overwhelming it was, as Kane put it, “A needle in a hay stack, a drop in a bucket. We were in shock.”
As the buses neared the work site where the group of 600 was to complete 100 homes, Chmiel observes that some of the volunteers who “came to Haiti last year building 155 homes… remarked on how different it looked — the houses were finished. Lace curtains blew in the doorways and beautiful flowers, vegetables and trees has been planted.”
No basic services
Cohen explains, “Haitian lives are worlds apart from ours, with no water delivery, no garbage disposal systems, no adequate health services. There’s a large channel of waters running down from the mountain rivers effectively becoming huge gutters in the streets in which pigs wallow, garbage floats along with raw sewage, and in which people wash, children play, and from which they draw water.” Unsurprisingly, cholera is rampant in Haiti.
As to the social infrastructure, there is no public education, Cohen says. People have to pay for it, and as a result, many children do not go to school. Of the schools that exist, 99 percent are privately funded by religious institutions.
In spite of it all, Cohen says the Haitians dress themselves and their children well — very colorfully, taking pride in an outward show of dignity. Children who attend school wear spotless uniforms. Cohen says the American group often saw Haitian youngsters dressed in uniform walking hand-in-hand to school, or riding their bikes.
Colleagues from Ireland and houses to build
Among those with whom the islanders made the closest connection while in Haiti were some 100 volunteers from a non-governmental organization from Ireland known as Haven. Kane says it is Haven that actually makes it possible for the traveling workers to accomplish their goals.
“It was Haven that built the camp for us over a compound that spread over two acres," Kane said. "They supplied the food for our meals and prepared the building sites.” These preparations included putting in the water system and plumbing that provided the volunteers with what most of us in the developed world think of as the basic necessities. “Without them we couldn’t have pulled it off,” Kane adds. In fact, Haven put the finishing touches on their camp just an hour before the islanders arrived.
Kane developed a special camaraderie with several of the Haven volunteers, learning after a while that they were firefighters, as he was for many years.
Each volunteer was assigned to work in groups of 10 on two homes. Kane describes them: The outside dimensions of the houses were approximately 17 by 11 feet, with five feet devoted to porches and 12 by 11 feet dedicated to living space. House sizes are meant to accommodate a five-person family. The interior includes one-quarter of the space being closed-off as a bedroom, with an L-shaped living area remaining. “Cooking is always done outside,” Cohen adds.
The bathroom is located outside, as well, with a composting toilet. All the houses are served by a communal well of potable water.
Rondinone describes the building process: “Each house was partially pre-built with a cement floor slab and four concrete block walls that were each about four feet high. Our initial job was to place and attach four pre-built wooden walls on the pre-constructed concrete walls.” After that the group worked to set up roofing supports, and after insulation padding was installed, metal roofing sheets were put in place. Finally, they added siding and shutters and primed and painted the walls and siding.
Investing sweat equity
Usually, families for whom Habitat is working to build homes are expected to participate in construction — putting in what is called “sweat equity” — and are also asked to make some pay-back. However, because of the severity of the poverty in Haiti, there is no payback for this project. But local people are eager to work on their homes.
For example, there was a young pregnant woman working with the Masts to build her home. At the point of completion, when the house was turned over to her, Mast says to her, “We built your home with love in our hearts.” She replied: “I have a new house and a new baby in December. I am happy.”
The Masts speak of their week-long experience in Haiti as "both energizing and disquieting. Helping provide adequate shelter for a fraction of Haitians displaced by natural disasters and political malfeasance was gratifying.” However, the Masts feel “anxious and desperate for the multitudes unaided,” especially since this was one of Habitat's last projects in Haiti.
Kane adds that Haven is committed to continuing its work in Haiti. “That’s what they’re about,” he says. Identifying with that end, Kane and two other island volunteers — Roosa and Tremble — plan to travel to Ireland in January for “Haiti Week,” set aside for fundraising and educational events.
Ownership, identity and citizenship
Pointing out that because people are without any kind of social security, there is a very high birthrate and consequently a high infant mortality rate, Cohen says, “People have lots of kids hoping they will take care of their parents when they grow old.”
As to land, there is very little property ownership because title is so unclear. People can be told at any time they must move on because they have no adequate protections. There are neither birth nor death certificates; there are no passports or documentation of citizenship. Without paperwork, people often don't possess an official identity.
Habitat builds only on land it purchases. In Haiti, the organization purchased land from private owners. So something immeasurably valuable comes with the Habitat homes: ownership, identity and citizenship.
Unlike fellow island volunteers, for whom this trip was their first visit, Roosa has a somewhat different perspective. Having been to Haiti twice before, he has a basis for comparison, leading him to some optimism. He says, “I was encouraged by the progress that has been made in housing the homeless since my last two trips to Haiti [the last in April of 2011].” Noting that “much of the rubble has been removed and thousands of new homes are in place,” he finds Haitians to be “an unbelievably tenacious and proud people.”
He says it was through a reliance on an enduring Christian faith that they have overcome the overwhelming hardships of slavery, natural disasters and political corruption over the past 300 years. Roosa is inspired by “a people with so few material possessions having a positive and often joyful spirit.”
He feels very strongly that he wants to continue to work to assist Haiti.
And Roosa has already done a immeasurable amount of good: He underwrote the expenses for the island group on this trip through his family philanthropic organization, the Roosa Foundation. He explains that those of us who are fortunate to “be blessed with so much more can take lessons from these special people… There is still a tremendous need there for all the basics of life that we take for granted. I encourage everyone to do what they can through numerous charities including Habitat for Humanity… to save lives and minister to the suffering.”
All members of the group have come away wanting to do more. To that end, they have contacted some of the people involved in organizing their project. They will also eagerly await a report from their colleagues Kane, Roosa and Tremble when they return from Dublin. Having come through a unique emotional and spiritual experience, they plan to continue their connection so they may find appropriate ways to respond to the terrible need in Haiti.