Hope in the Ruins: Helping the Survivors of the Haitian Earthquake

Article excerpt

Hope in the Ruins Helping the Survivors of the Haitian Earthquake by Laurie Leitch

January 12, 2010

As we're bombarded daily with the unending stream of news of fresh catastrophes from around the globe, sometimes it seems like natural disasters take place almost round the clock. I first learned the news about the devastating earthquake in Haiti as I was getting ready to make my sixth visit to Sichuan Province, the site of the 2008 earthquake in China. My colleague Elaine Miller-Karas and I had been going there regularly since the quake to provide training in our biologically-based Trauma Resiliency Model (TRM), which focuses on teaching nervous-system stabilization skills for trauma survivors to local physicians, nurses, counselors, teachers, and first responders.

Once in China, we'd watch the coverage each evening of the Haiti disaster, in which an estimated 230,000 or more people died. There was something surreal about witnessing a country in the acute stage of an earthquake's aftermath on television from a country still dealing with the longer-term effects of the same kind of disaster. We later learned that the people of Sichuan, having themselves experienced what it's like to suddenly lose so much, provided the largest number of contributions for Haiti from all of China.

Within just a few weeks after our return from China, we were invited to Haiti to help deal with the enormous psychological aftermath of the earthquake. What follows will give you some picture of what it's like to set foot in an already impoverished country, in which the difficult conditions of daily life have been transformed for the worse so abruptly.

Late February 2010

As we start developing the plan for our multiphase project in Haiti, I begin researching Haitian history and culture. Once again, I'm embarrassed to realize the extent of my ignorance about other countries. Where was I in geography and world history class? Again and again as we've traveled to other disaster areas, I've come up against my lack of information about the legacy of colonialism and the other sociopolitical forces that have shaped our world. From my reading, I learn that while the popular images of Haiti dwell almost entirely on its desperate poverty, the country was the first created after a revolution by enslaved people of African descent. I discover that even while the United States was refusing entry to European Jews fleeing the Holocaust, Haiti was welcoming them. I find out that although Haiti has been a nation almost as long as the United States, in certain ways, it's still a young country: children under the age of 18 constitute almost half of its population of 9 million.

Arriving in Haiti

As our plane descends into Port-au-Prince, I can see military vehicles, boxes of aid materials, and warehouses dotting the area around the airport. Inside the arrival terminal, a mariachi band is playing as we make our way through the chaotic baggage-claim area into the blazing hot mob-scene outside. UN vehicles, a snaking tangle of cars, and throngs of people jam every inch of space. Dust and automobile fumes are everywhere. Soldiers and UN peacekeepers with automatic weapons patrol the street.

It takes more than an hour before we spot the people who are supposed to meet us. They're holding a sign saying "Welcome TRI," the name of our ­nonprofit group, Trauma Resource Institute. We never go into a disaster setting without a sponsor--an organization with strong ties in and knowledge of the area--and a source of funding. This collaboration between TRI and the sponsor--here in Haiti, it's the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC)--helps us contact survivors and potential trainees, and helps assure that whatever we offer will fit with local customs and norms. Breathing sighs of relief when we finally find the crowded UUSC van, we settle in for the three-hour journey to Papaye in the Central Plateau, one of Haiti's poorest rural areas. …