Posts Tagged ‘Feature’

The 6-month anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti has come and gone, and after heavy media coverage and a slew of government events, the Haitian people have been reminded, yet again, that their situation sucks and nothing has really improved.  I’ve been trying to think about how to sum up the events of the past 6 months for a while now, considering we all knew it was coming weeks before the day arrived, and it’s still hard to comprehend.  Just over 6 months ago the earthquake in Haiti destroyed over 180,000 homes, killed hundreds of thousands of people, and left millions homeless.  Unfortunately none of those things have changed.


When Jillian and I returned to the States after the earthquake tons of people asked how long it would take to recover.  “Months? Years?” they would ask.  The answer was always a disappointing one, “More, probably decades,” we would say.  Haiti was already a place that seemed without hope, and now it appears to be almost irreparably damaged.  The infrastructure that was already sorely lacking has been torn to shreds, and the poor have just become poorer (and homeless).

With the help of tons of international money, work has begun trying to pick up the shattered pieces of an already broken country, but there are so many compounding issues that stand in the way.  Both the Haitian people and the NGOs have desperately waited for some sense of leadership from the government here, but let’s be honest, there is not a single person in this entire world who could single-handedly grasp the enormity of the issues that now face this country.  Elections are scheduled for November, but who would want to be the President of a country that has hit absolute rock bottom.


So like I said before, there are a bunch of issues to deal with, none have just one quick-fix, and they all depend on each other in one way or another.  Let’s start with the tent cities:  1.5 million people are still living in spontaneous camps throughout the country, left homeless after their houses were damaged or destroyed.  Just after the earthquake the heat was on to get them into shelters before the rainy season, and while NGOs earnestly worked to achieve this goal it was quickly realized that moving that many people, and building that many homes, was impossible in just a matter of months.  The rainy season has been upon us for months, hurricane season starts in earnest soon, and both the Haitian people and the NGOs have now admitted that the tent cities will be here for years.


But part of the hang up is there is just no place to build the homes.  Land-rights issues have slowed an already sluggish process, and with no one knowing who owns what, the building of transitional homes has been slow in coming.  Of the 125,000 transitional shelters planned, just under 4,000 have been built.  These shelters are produced to only last between 2-5 years, leaving the looming question of what happens next?  Supplies to build these houses is tough to come by, and shipping containers filled with the necessary tools to do the job sit stuck at customs, waiting for a simple signature that may take months to obtain.


But even if you have the supplies, and you know who owns the land, it might be impossible to build simply because the rubble of the house that stood there before has not been removed.  As you already know, Cash for Work programs (like the one Jillian is managing) are working everyday to clear the rubble that fills the streets and neighborhoods throughout the country.  The problem?  There is too much rubble, and not enough resources to move it.


One estimate says it could take 1,000 trucks 1,000 days to move all the rubble out of PAP.  That’s over 3 years, just to move the rubble.  But yet another problem jumps out, as there are just over 300 dump trucks operating in the capital doing this work.  You can do the math, but I went ahead and did it for you: at this pace it will take over a decade to move all the rubble out of the city.  If the rubble is still there, there are no transitional homes, and if there are no homes then people aren’t moving out of the tent cities.


Even though I’ve painted a pretty dismal picture, there are some bright spots.  80% of the schools in PAP were damaged or destroyed in the earthquake, but since then they have reopened 80% of those affected.  That’s a huge accomplishment in just six months.  While over 50% of the children in Haiti still don’t go to school, I think we can all agree that education is key to a proper recovery, so getting those kids back in the classroom helps immensely.  Also, because of a huge push to vaccinate Haitians, and particularly children, from infectious diseases right after the earthquake, there has yet to be an outbreak.  This is great news considering that if just one family catches something bad in a tent city, it wouldn’t take long for the rest of the tightly packed families around them to catch it too.


So we are left here, 6 months after the earthquake, with little progress.  I’ll be the first to admit, everything in Haiti takes about 5-times longer than anywhere else, so the slow pace of recovery isn’t shocking.  And you also have to give the NGOs slack simply because rebuilding an entire city, or country for that matter, takes an enormous amount of time.  The phrase “Rome wasn’t built in a day” resonates well here, but that’s hard to explain to the people who live in tents that seem to hold heat better than our oven.  Life is miserable for them, and time is something they just don’t have.


For Jillian and I, this 6 months has proven to be an enormous test.  Jillian used to say “the earthquake was the easy part,” and it’s totally true.  In that situation, for her at least, it was life or death, black or white.  It was ‘get home and get help’, and knowing what was best was pretty clear.  But now we are posed with questions that always tend to have a slight tint of gray to them, whether it be Jillian managing her programs for WC, or just questions about us.  Nothing comes easy anymore, and whether that’s a reflection of living in Haiti or the residual emotional effects of what happened to us during the earthquake, it’s hard to tell.

We have made some major progressions.  We moved from a tent in Ben and Alexis’ yard to our beautiful Ti Kay.  Jillian went from newly unemployed to being a rockstar at her new job managing programs that are really helping Haitians in need.  I went from an unemployed freelance journalist to NBC’s man in Haiti.  Olie went from a tiny little fur ball into a teenage punk of a puppy.  These are all good things, things we can hang our hats on and say, “not bad, all things considered.”  But it’s funny how all the external things can align perfectly when the pieces inside just don’t seem to fit.


For a lot of people, when they heard that the 6 month anniversary was here they were shocked: “I can’t believe it’s already been 6 months!” they would say.  “I can,” I would think to myself, it’s been the longest 6 months of my life.  It’s hard not to resent the earthquake for doing what it did to us, as I’m sure is the case with almost every single person in Haiti.  Our life was so simple before, it was just Jillian and I, in love, newly married, and living a comfortable life in our tiny little apartment in DC.  Back then all we had to worry about was the cockroaches that pranced around the floors while we ate dinner.  Now our decisions have ramifications, like whether people will be living in miserable tents for the next couple years.

And while many things have moved on, some have stayed the same.  It’s been 6 months since the Mission House we lived in collapsed, and all of our possessions are still sitting (finely pressed, we’re assuming) under the rubble.  I’ve asked to go back and simply dig (without putting myself at risk), but have been turned down time and time again because of a not-so-simple reason.  You see, Haitian Ministries forgot to pay their earthquake insurance for more than a year before the quake, making the house a pile of worthless rubble instead of a fat insurance check to use on the next Mission House.  Because of that no one has been allowed to dig in the house at all (they made an exception when we dug Jillian and Chuck out, thank goodness), as the lawyers overseeing the case have asked to keep it just the way it is until the case is resolved.


Jillian is over this, and I can understand why, the house brings bad memories and she’s ready to move on.  But for me, this is something that I need for closure, just to know that all our stuff is gone (or not…), to know that that life is over.  It’s the watch that my Dad gave me when I graduated from college, it’s all the pictures that are stored on my computer, it’s the hard drive that I backed up all my pictures on and set next to my computer (woops!).  It’s not so much getting those items back, it’s knowing that I can just move on and get on with the future, and not live in the past.  It’s so incredibly frustrating to not be given that chance, to be held back when practically everyone else here has had that opportunity already.

But now we look ahead, at the next 6 months, after which we will look back at what has been done here and scoff at why more hasn’t changed.  By then Jillian and I will have decided if we will stay here for another year or make the move elsewhere, whether it be back to the States or to another country.  Olie will be HUGE, and probably injuring us constantly by thinking he is still a puppy that can jump on our laps like he does now.  Haitians will still be living in tents, and our stuff will probably still be sitting in the rubble of the Mission House.  6 months from now lot’s of things will have changed, but I fear that many will stay same, leaving Haitians with yet another round of media interviews and government events reminding them how bad life after the earthquake really is.


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On January 12th, when the ground in Port-au-Prince started to shake violently, Jean Tibert (or Handy, as his friends call him) was teaching a class on video production in a large building on the main drag that funnels through the city.  The walls started to shake, things started falling off the walls, and the class dispersed into the dust-filled street.  The world was coming to an end.

When you talk to Handy, you get the sense that he know exactly what’s going on around him, at all times.  He stands about 6 feet tall, has a warm smile and a small gut (he’s trying to lose 40 pounds), doesn’t drink soda, and is deathly afraid of heights.  NBC has used him for every trip they have taken down here, because if you had to describe the way he works in 10 words or less, it’s simple: he’s just incredibly reliable.  He knows the city like the back of his hand, and he likes that he knows WAY more than you.  You want to find the Haitian Soccer Federation HQ?  “Of course!  It’s just off John Brown on ‘blah blah blah’ street.”  The streets in PAP rarely have street signs, but he somehow knows the names of all of them.

But not only does he know where everything is, he knows everyone that matters.  The chief of police? “He’s my godfather.”  Laura Silsby’s lawyer? “He’s my uncle.”  The president of some random tent-city? “Oh yeah! I used to play soccer with him!”  It’s ridiculous.  If you need a sliver of information, or a short interview with the Prime Minister (Handy’s distant relative is his PR rep), it’s done after just a few quick phone calls.

About 3 months ago, Jillian and I were grappling with the issue of having to pay our rent in cash, as they don’t take international checks here.  Handy took me to a local bank, talked to the clerk, and after skipping the enormous line that snaked around the building, he had me sitting at the desk of one of his (3 million) friends.  20 minutes later I had a local bank account without the required Haitian Residency Visa, something I couldn’t have done myself even if I would have bribed the guy.  Handy shook his hand, said he’d give him a call sometime, and we left.  Simple.

But if Handy doesn’t know anyone at the hospital we are doing a story on, or the tent city we are touring, someone is likely to recognize him anyways.  You see, Handy is a Haitian movie star, a serious, honest-to-God, local celebrity.  Before the earthquake he had starred in a handful of Haitian movies, some shot locally, others in Miami.  In one he played the poor local boy who seduced the daughter of a rich, bourgeoisie family.  So in PAP he’s the closest thing to a heart-throb that you can find, and the ladies love him.

Jillian and I were watching the Brazil World Cup match with him last week, and on our way out two young women stopped him to ask for his autograph, all while flirtatiously batting their eye-lashes.  During a trip to a local hospital where we were looking for a particular patient who had been dispatched months ago (a close to impossible feat as records from after the earthquake are non-existent), the only reason we found him was because the women at the counter told Handy where the patient lives…but only after he let them kiss him on the cheek.  No joke. The judge in the Laura Silsby trial was even giving him regular updates on the case “because he likes my movies,” Handy explained, with a huge grin on his face.

But what’s so amazing about Handy is that even though he could probably run for President in Haiti, and win, he’s incredibly cool and down-to-earth, and his number one priority is ALWAYS his family.  He’s constantly making sure his schedule allows for him to take his daughter to school, and if his wife needs to use the car, he takes public to make it work.  I asked him one day if he had girlfriends outside his marriage, as so many Haitian men do, and he simply replied, “No! My wife makes me happy.  And to be honest, she’s enough work as it is.  I don’t need another woman to worry about.”

So when the building Handy had been in after the earthquake survived unscathed, his primary objective was to get his family.  “A lot of my friends were going around trying to save people from buildings, but I couldn’t do that without knowing if my family was OK,” he explained.  He ran to his mother’s house, where his daughter was supposed to be after coming home from school.  The house had also survived, and his family was outside, scared and unsure what to do next.

He quickly thought about his options, figured out his next move, and told his family to follow him.  After the earthquake everyone who wasn’t digging out friends or family members was simply looking for a safe, open area to stay.  The medians of streets were filled with people with nowhere to go, so an alternative had to be found.  The golf course at the Petionville Club was the first thing that came to mind.  It was open, safe, and clean, and let’s be honest, there’s no chance that a building can fall on you while sitting on one of the fairways of PAP’s only golf destination.

The family walked the short distance to the course, put down the possessions they carried with them, and relaxed for the first time all night.  Handy looked around, and there was no one else around.  They were the only ones on the golf course, but in just a few days more than 40,000 displaced Haitians would be calling this their home in what is now the largest tent city in Haiti.  They slept through the night, and when they woke up, others had taken his cue and filtered in to spend a night filled with screams and sorrow on the lush grasses that have now been trampled to dirt and mud.

But they couldn’t stay there forever (like so many people have), so the next day Handy walked to his car, drove back to pick up his family, and traversed the streets on their way to his home in the mountains of Thomassin, where his wife was anxiously waiting for him.  Their house had also made it through the quake, but the next night they slept in the courtyard in fear that another earthquake would finish what the first one could not.  After a few days they returned to PAP to check on his Mother’s house, and on friends.  The movie studio that he owned had collapsed, he now had no way to support his family.

He then made the tough decision to send his family abroad, so he took his wife and two children to the border of the Dominican Republic, saw them through, and then returned to PAP to find work.  “It was go time,” he said.  A friend of his (I know, another friend!) was working for NBC as a driver, and Handy just happen to run into him, as the phones were still not working.  They needed another driver to pick up NBC staff from the airport in Santo Domingo, and bring them over the border to Haiti.  He was hired the next day.

Since then he has ascended to be the go-to guy for everything that NBC needs.  When a team comes to cover a story, no matter what it is, I hire him knowing that we will get exactly what we’re looking for, no questions asked.  And if he says it’s not possible, I know he’s not just saying that to get out of doing work, it’s just not possible.  Every time I work with him I learn something new, and he’s one of the only people who I feel I can talk to candidly about the situation here in Haiti, whether it’s my own frustrations or just questions about why things are the way they are.

He’s always thinking, always trying to be one step ahead, and always gets the job done.  Whether it’s his family or NBC, he’s a guy you want on your side, no matter what lies ahead. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Handy, and I am lucky to be able to call him my friend.  And while I think it’s safe to say that the tent city at the Petionville Club would have started without Handy, it’s still pretty amazing to know that he was its first resident.  It’s proof that he knows what’s best, because 40,000 people can’t all be wrong about the same thing.

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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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