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Archive for May, 2010

No, we’re not pregnant!  But my Dad and Tammy arrived in PAP this morning with Jillian’s birthday present to me in tow.  And let’s just say the fact that it was in a crate made for animals was a little unexpected!

The chocolate lab feasting on my cell phone above is the newest addition to the Thorp household!  Because he is Jillian’s gift to me, it’s my responsibility to name him and I’m finding this harder than I expected.  I want to name him something with a Haitian twinge to it, like Prestige (after the Haitian beer), but it’s still up in the air.  But one thing is for sure, Jillian really one-upped me on birthday gifts this year, as I gave her a small handbag as her gift, and she gave me a pure-bred chocolate lab.

He’s eight weeks old today, and weighs in at just over 10 pounds.  He likes prouncing around aimlessly, playing with car keys, and long walks on the beach.  If interested in arranging a date with him, please call 1-800-D8 OUR-PUPPY.  I’ll (obviously) be posting WAY more on him later, so check back for more pictures, but right now we are just going to play with him, because he is SO FREAKING ADORABLE!

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a story I submitted to MSNBC.com, but I’m not sure if they will use it.  Enjoy.

In Search of a Future

(LEOGANE, HAITI) For Ducarmel Similian, the past five months have been unbearable.  “It’s really difficult to find work now, no one is hiring,” he explains while sitting in the back seat of a car on his way from Leogane to Port-au-Prince.  His mission today is to find a job, but in a country where over 60% of workers have no formal employment, the earthquake has posed an unexpected roadblock in the 41-year-old carpenter’s job search.  “When your house has collapsed, you don’t need a carpenter to make you furniture,” he says.

In the past, Ducarmel could make as much as 5,000 Haitian Dollars a month ($625 US) building handmade tables and china cabinets, but since the earthquake, his income has all but dried up.  He still lives in a small tent with his wife and three children on property owned by his mother-in-law, and with the torrential downpours that accompany the rainy season soaking his makeshift house almost daily, his hope is quickly fading. “The rains are getting worse, and I’m scared of living in a tent when flooding could happen at any moment.”

But he has found solace in a small plot of land adjacent to the property owned by his mother-in-law.  The swatch of land is barely 30 feet by 25 feet, and lies between a crumbling wall and a patch of mango trees.  “I could build a three-room house here, this could be the future for my family,” he explains while inspecting the muddy earth below him.

But the land comes at a price.  For Haitians, owning the land you live on is a dream that few achieve, and at $1,500, the purchase is almost completely out of reach for the unemployed father of three.  If he were to purchase the land, the next step is even more daunting: finding the money to actually build on it.

He estimates that it would take another $5,000 to construct the house he envisions for his family.  It would have running water and a bathroom, a luxury for many in Haiti who often live in just one or two small rooms.  But this house would be different than most: it would have no concrete ceiling.  “It would be corrugated steel instead.  We’re afraid to sleep under the concrete roof after what happened to Schneily,” he explains.

Ducarmel’s 4-year-old son, Schneily, lost his leg when the second floor of his mother-in-law’s house collapsed during the earthquake.  Their fear of concrete ceilings is made abundantly clear when inspecting the first floor, which is still standing.  While small cracks are visible from room-to-room, the vacant home appears stable compared to many of those damaged by the earthquake.  Not even his mother-in-law lives in the house, which is now used as a storage shed for the family’s possessions.

But while day-to-day life for Ducarmel has proven tough, for his three children normal life outside of their tent-home has slowly resumed.  At La Maison des Enfants school in downtown Leogane, Schneily has rejoined his class of over 30 children in learning letters and building puzzles.  “He’s happy here, he’s a very bright boy,” a teacher says while watching him piece together a puzzle of Dora the Explorer.  “He has trouble concentrating, so we try to let him work by himself so that he can focus,” she explains.  But while he may have trouble focusing, Schneily has acclimated well to the prosthetic leg he was fitted with just two months before.  Traversing the hallway next to the schoolroom, he joyfully walks, and even jumps, without the aid of crutches.

But this joyfulness may be short-lived, as Ducarmel is having trouble paying the tuition for all three of his children.  “We’re three months behind on Schneily’s school fees, I’m just hoping they don’t force him to leave,” he says.  He explains that tuition for Schneily is 300 Haitian Dollars per month, or just under $40 US, and that doesn’t include the motorcycle taxi-fare they pay every day to get him to and from the school.  Loans from friends will only take him so far, and soon he will need to pay them back.  For Ducarmel, one thing is clear: he needs a job, and he needs it fast.

So as the car approaches Ducarmel’s stop in Port-au-Prince, he quickly goes over his game-plan: “I’m going to meet with my friend who does work in the city, he may be able to find me something.”  This is a process he has repeated over and over again after the earthquake, without results.  The car stops and just before he jumps out he explains why he must continue the search, “It’s all for my children, they need to go to school, I want to give them that,” he says before conceding, “because I can’t kill myself, and this hurts everyday.”  He smiles and then opens the door, stepping out into the throngs of Haitians searching for the same thing as him, hoping that this day will be different than all the others.

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In Leogane, which was the epicenter of the earthquake, almost 90% of the buildings were damaged in some way.  I went on a trip there today to follow up on a story that MSNBC.com was following a couple months ago, and a few different story lines collided when I wasn’t really expecting it.  For instance, the two children above are the grandchildren of the woman who lives on this property.

They lost their house in the earthquake, so they are staying there until their mother finds something else.  But the grandmother has a business of selling chairs to people holding funerals, weddings, and even voodoo festivals, probably one of the only businesses in Haiti that is not floundering.  And they all sit there in an empty formation, and piled in heaps under tarps, as if waiting for a procession that will never start.

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Well look who decided to grow up and start exploring!

During what has become a somewhat daily trip to Ben and Alexis’ house to visit a bed-ridden Ben (who dislocated his knee-cap in a bicycle accident), I’ve become well acquainted with Luna’s four little offspring.  While once just little turd-shaped balls of fluff, the kittens have opened their eyes, tripled in size, and even gotten a tad adventurous!

Living in a box in the closet can be boring, so they’ve decided to come out and see what all the fuss is about. Getting out of the closet requires them to ungracefully plummet to the ground, typically flipping over in the process.  There are four of them, two that are predominately black and two that are predominately white, and they all have brilliant blue eyes.  According to Jillian, Luna had bright blue eyes when she was a kitten, but they turned yellow as she grew up.

The kittens are only 4 weeks old, so they still have another 2 weeks (at least) before we kidnap one and take it home with us.  I’d give it a week and they will be all over the place, dashing around the house and causing trouble, much to their parent’s dismay.  But at least Ben won’t be doing anything!

There are more pictures if you click on “Continue Reading”:

(more…)

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When considering the people I would want to avoid at night in Port-au-Prince, this guy would probably be near the top of the list.  Little does the boy in this picture know that the man behind him is holding four different ways with which he could potentially slaughter him, if you include his bare hands, of course.  The man is actually a quarry worker in the mountains, and never actually attacked the poor child as witnesses were present, but I avoided taking pictures of him when his gaze met mine as I was sure he would attack me the first chance he got.

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It’s been over four months since the earthquake, and the clean-up continues.  While many of the main roads have been cleared for months, in the tightly packed Port-au-Prince neighborhoods that these roads don’t reach, rubble still fills the streets.  And that’s where the Cash for Work programs come in.  Local Haitians are hired to do work in the communities they live in, and they are paid a wage that was approved by the government.   The daily wage for a Cash for Work employee is 200 goudes, which is about $5 a day, Haiti’s minimum wage.  This was done so that workers are not paid too much, or too little.

There are obvious issues with not paying workers enough, but there are not-so-obvious issues when you pay them too much.  For instance, according to Jillian, because the Cash for Work employees’ daily salary is consistent country-wide, local farmers in the country-side are having problems competing with wages that were set for city-living.  It’s hard to hire workers for the same amount of money you were paying them before the earthquake when they can now work for one of these programs and get 50 goudes more a day.  This effectively raises the wages of everyone where the cost of living is much lower, which hurts small businesses and farms who need employees.

But for all the issues surround Cash for Work, the program is an extremely effective way to clear the rubble and create employment for locals.  World Concern has over 2,000 Haitians employed through their Cash for Work program, and sometimes it’s grizzly business.  The day we went on the visit above, their crews uncovered the body of a 6-year-old boy who had been walking home from school when the earthquake hit.  They showed us his remains, which were nothing but a pile of bones and decomposed clothes.  They had yet to find the boy’s head, and were still searching for the remains of the boy’s father, who was with him when the buildings collapsed around them.

So there’s no doubt that their job is tough.  Any job that requires having body-bags on site is, to me, incredibly intense.  Just the idea of clearing out all this rubble seems ridiculously daunting.  The piles of rubble seem mountainous, and at times you are standing on piles of rubble the size of a football field.

On our site visit, we snaked through the narrow corridors between buildings, and jumping from house to house over rooftops.  But after descending through a random stairwell to the ground level, it’s eerily claustrophobic walking through these neighborhoods.  If there was another earthquake while you were in these hallways, there is almost no where for you to run.

But they continue their work, sometimes 6 days a week, breaking rubble with sledgehammers, pickaxes and shovels, and moving it to the streets.  It’s hard labor that many of us would not be able to handle.  I spoke to one worker who admitted it was tough, but loved his job, “If I didn’t have this work, I’d be doing nothing,” he said.  In a country where many piece together their yearly incomes with a variety of different jobs, a consistent paycheck is pure gold.

So while the recovery for many in the foreign development community is long-term and abstract, for these people, it’s much simpler.  They wake up, pour their sweat and tears into long days moving rubble, and then go home to prepare for another.  For the NGOs doing this work, recovery is done grant-by-grant, but for the Haitians in the Cash for Work programs, it’s done bucket-by-bucket.

One my way back from the site visit, I asked the World Concern translator where he saw the country a year from now.  Maybe that was an unfair question when uncertainty seems to constantly fill the air here, but considering the slow progress of clearing out the destruction of the earthquake, I wanted to know if he thought the clean-up would be complete by January 12, 2011.  “I don’t know, maybe, but probably not…” he responded.  “Unless the government steps up this is going to be a problem for a long time,” he explained.

So while organization like World Concern continue to help in the recovery and clean-up, the people are still hopeful that these problems can be dealt with on their own.  The government has been slow to act on almost all counts.  On Friday, President Preval finally called a meeting with NGOs to figure out a plan to relocate those camped out in front of the Presidential Palace.  It has been four months since the earthquake, and the #1 camp on the priority list is finally being address, leaving hundreds more camps to be dealt with still.  The rainy season has begun, and the government is still behind the ball.

And this frustration has already percolated to the brim, with large protests against President Preval becoming an almost daily occurrence.  Protests have gone from peaceful demonstrations to violent gatherings, with tear gas and gun shots accompanying calls for action.  I don’t blame them, I would be angry too.  These NGOs should not be acting as the government, they should be assisting a strong leadership that, right now, this country is sorely lacking.

While I write these things, the general feel around the capital is not one of fear and danger, but it’s quickly approaching a breaking point.  The rains continue almost every night, and for many, their lives just get worse and worse.  It’s just a matter of time before their desperation leads to a sense of unstableness in a place that has already lacked it for years.

I pray that things turn around, and that those stranded in tent camps are helped before the newest deadline of the impending hurricane season arrives.  The problem is that Haitians deserve so much better, not necessarily from the NGOs, but from their own government.  Because if the government can’t help its people when the only direction they can go is up, then there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason for them to be around at all, and the scary thing is that I think the people are quickly realizing that.

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Just as Pavlov did with dogs and a bell, I feel that the words “Orange Creamsicle Sandwich Cookies” will likely produce an immediate increase of saliva production in anyone with taste-buds.  I mean, look at them!  Jillian and I went to a BBQ at Bryan and Sharon’s last week and our contribution was desert.  After the urging of Jillian’s friend Kristina, we have been anxiously awaiting to try some of the recipes on an amazing baking blog, which is aptly named Baked Perfection.

Jillian and I slaved in the kitchen for hours making them, and while they didn’t come out exactly the way they looked on the blog, they were delicious, and ridiculously rich.  Jillian also made the executive decision to replace the buttercream frosting with cream-cheese frosting, something I supported completely.  If you’re interested in making them too, the recipe is here.

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