Donate to DRN Here!

New York Post Sandy

New York Post Sandy

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Gift of Water...

Fe'm cardeau yon ti gout dlo. This is what I heard every single day for the last week. Please give me a gift of water... It's crazy how water is seen as a gift to some....

Last week I along with 15 other people took a journey to my motherland, Haiti. I would first like to say that I couldn't have gone with a better group of people. I think this is an experience that will bond us forever.

Before we arrived in Haiti we spent the night in the Dominican Republic. The experience there was great. The next morning we took a bus ride into Haiti and as we approached the border, it was like we entered into a whole new world... It's crazy to me that this is literally one island. We crossed no bridge, we just crossed a check point and boom we were in Haiti.

Going down the bumpy dirt road I saw faces of impoverished people bathing in the same water they clean and cook with. Ironically enough the picturesque view of mountains and ocean were beautiful, but the sight of people living in these conditions were heart wrenching.

As we approached Port-au-Prince it didn't seem all that bad. I knew it was a poor country, the television had prepared me for the shacks and the tent cities.... So I thought. We didn't spend long in PAP that day. It was only a pit stop to where we would actually be working. A town called Cabaret.

Upon arriving in Cabaret, it still didn't feel real. We unloaded the bus, ate and then began to pitch our tents. Unlike other mission groups, we did not get the luxury of sleeping in doors on a bed. We slept in tents outside on the rocks. If I had to make one complaint about this trip it would be about the rocks. Granted I am lucky to even have a tent to sleep in, but those rocks deprived me of sleep lol. But I digress...

Many of us had the outhouse experience on the first day. They had built a bathroom for us, that seemingly flushed, we had a shower that gave one strand of water. I'm sure most of us would have rather bathed in a bucket and used the bushes which many of us ended up doing any ways. Even with these amenities I believe we had the real outdoor experience.

The first day of camp was really a test run. No one knew what to expect, but we made it happen. The first day we received 110 kids. In the morning we had icebreakers where we would gather the children together. The icebreakers were basically a sing a long session. The children loved Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. The last few days we had talent shoes in the morning where the children would come up and sing or rap. We then divide the kids into different groups where they had a choice of arts and crafts, sports, English and Spanish language and games. Although we had planned to cater about 100 kids I don't think any of us took into account the water crisis.

The first day we had only enough water for one water break. Mind you these water baggies were only about 5 ounces (if that). We also realized that we had to give these kids with 2 meals a day. We were told that these children would come to us already fed, that was definitely not the case. The next day we provided breakfast (which was bread and butter with some juice) and lunch was usually spaghetti and ketchup or rice and beans.

Even with these improvements, providing enough water was still a challenge. We gave them 2 water breaks over a 7 hour period. 2 baggies per child per day is not enough water. I May have drunk 2 bottles a day and I still felt dehydrated at times. Every half hour a child was asking me to give them the "gift" of water. All I could do is say I'm sorry but there is no water... I think the reason I deprived myself of water was because I could not sit there and hydrate myself while knowing these kids are dying of thirst.

Every day we received more and more children. I believe the most we received was 175 in one day. Each day it got a little easier. The children warmed up to us and we did what we had to do with what we had. At the end of the day we can say that we made a difference. It wasn't about the food, or the water that we provided to the kids. It was the time spent with them. Several people from the community told me that they were happy with the job we were doing.

We are gone now, and the kids will probably go back to having less than one meal a day, but they will not forget us. They can't forget us. Someone stated that they never saw the kids take to any of the earlier groups the way they took to us. We are the only ones who focused on the children.

I do not say this to brag, but I say this to make a point. For those of you who said that going to Haiti was pointless and that there was nothing you could do, well you were wrong. We were a bunch of law students with practically no medical training or real experience with kids. We went to Haiti because we believed that we could make a difference. I am proud of our group for standing up and taking this risk. Most of the law schools canceled their trip to Haiti and opted to send money instead. I'm not saying that money is not important, but what we did with those kids will last them a lifetime.

The children were poor and they could have asked for anything, but instead they asked for water. Fe'm cadeau yon ti dlo... Give me the gift of water... Water is a basic necessity. It should never be considered a gift. We all donate to these fancy organizations thinking that the money we send will give these basic needs, but I was there and honestly I do not see where your money has gone. The children are still asking for water. They desperately need food. Malnutrition is real over there. Two year olds look like 7 month olds because they are malnourished. I spent the day in the medical clinic, translating and "triaging" and the things I saw I would never thought I would see... All because they are not getting the basic needs.

I know we cannot save the world and our one week trip may have been a tease, but if it did anything at all, it brought awareness. It is one thing to hear about the poverty and watch it on TV but it is another to live and breathe it. To see it face to face. To play with it. To sing with it. It is a different experience. Seeing these children in the dirt, half-dressed, diseased. it is just hard to swallow especially since I have a child myself.

This was definitely an experience to say the least. I hope that all you get an opportunity to experience what we saw. Watching it on TV will not get the job done. Whether it is Haiti or Togo I really don't care, just get out there and make a difference. You will be surprised at the good you can do.

Reflection on Haiti

I did not cry when I was in Haiti. I almost did but I did not. Now that I am back in the states I want to cry every day. Every time I see the pictures I want to cry. There is a sadness in my heart for Haiti. But my tears will not make the situation better. It will not provide water for the children. It will not provide medicine for the dying. I can’t waste my time shedding tears. I have to think of the next step. What will my next trip entail.

If there is one thing that stood out to me on this trip, it is the disparity between the rich and the poor. Haiti has no middle class. You are either rich or poor, and honestly this is something I cannot understand. It does not sit well with me.

As we drove down the streets of Port-au-Prince looking at the devastation. I thought to myself what are these people still doing here? This city needs to evacuated. Especially since there are still after shocks. People are literally setting up shop right under the rubble and outside their tent cities. In watching this two things came to mind. 1. How are these people making any real money when everyone is selling side by side the same products? 2. I thought about how the government is so crippled that they can’t even provide relief to the people. What I found to be puzzling was that if you drive a little further to petionville you will find exclusive restaurants, hotels and stores filled with rich tourists smoking their cigarettes and enjoying a drink while people are right outside the walls sleeping and begging for money.

Interestingly enough not far from the poverty I was living in rested the most beautiful beach I have ever seen in my life. Attached to it a gorgeous hotel with a restaurant and bar. For a few dollars men in boats will take you for a ride to see millionaires row…

I don’t get it and I probably never will, but that is why I urge you guys to go and see for yourselves. Many of you think that the Red Cross is taking care of business. Well I don’t see it. Red cross is not going to help Haiti, Mercy Corps is not going to help Haiti, even the UN is not going to help Haiti. I hear America raised millions if not billions of dollars to help Haiti, but I don’t know where the money went. I no longer see those images that were all over the news of people receiving food and water. As a matter of fact I don’t recall seeing anyone from the red cross. I don’t want to discredit these organizations because in reality even if it is just the president and his cabinet receiving the aid its better than nothing right?

I worked in a clinic where I had to dispense my own pain killers as prescription medicine because the clinic did not have it to give. We brought medication to this government operated clinic and unfortunately a lot of the stuff we brought was gone. What I find disgusting is that in the midst of disaster, you will always find those who take it as an opportunity to make money. Apparently pharmaceuticals is a big business in Haiti and because there is such a great demand in Port-au-Prince, many will take to go and sell. This clinic only has one real doctor, one lab tech that does everything and I believe a pharmacist or two along with maybe two nurses. By no stretch of the imagination is this OK. Especially since there is an outbreak of malaria. The doctors are burnt out and there just aren’t that many resources to cater to the needs of the locals.

Many of the patients were children. For some reason every child in the area had red hair which is a sign of malnutrition. Malnutrition leads to a host of other diseases and because their parents were probably also malnourished, many of these children are born with defects. I saw one child that looked like she had something called Turner’s syndrome. Honestly probably the scariest looking child I have ever seen. But what do you do in a situation like this where the people are sick because of food and water deprivation? The mother of this child was pregnant herself. This seemed to be a re-occurring theme throughout the clinic. Parent is sick with child, which leaves the current sick child neglected…

Turner's Syndrome Photo by Hatnim Lee

How do we even attempt to fix this? Is this an education issue? Some of my colleagues would say YES! I agree. Prescribing antibiotics to women in Haiti for vaginal issues is futile. Why because somewhere along the line someone told them that after every menstrual cycle, they must take antibiotics to cleanse. Little do they know this practice is harming them. Stripping their bodies away of the good bacteria and making them immune to the medication itself. The same medication that is suppose to cure them. What about the teachings that certain types of fruit consumed during a certain time of day and season is harmful? Haitians are very superstitious people, and quite frankly the culture maybe killing its people. You have food but you can’t eat it due to an old wives tale?…

So if education is the way how do we go about doing it? Right now the earthquake has crippled the education system. According to my aunt who is a teacher in Haiti, the schools are filled with “refugee’s”. “They are not leaving the site. Some of these people were renting homes or living in the alley, they will not give up their living quarters. In the meantime there is no space to have school. What will happen, we do not know.”

In Cabaret many of the schools are still closed because the teachers are from Port-au-Prince. They cannot leave because they have to handle their business. When it rains the clinic is closed because the medical professionals cannot travel due to the condition of the roads. So it seems even if you wanted to educate it cannot happen because there are all these external issues… For those of you who are in to developing third world countries, you may want take a stab at this puzzle because I really have no clue. What I do know is that something has to be done to protect the future of Haiti.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Dlo? Boul?

I was a rock star in Cabaret. Although I'd like to think it had something to do with my awesome rendition of the classic "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes," or my sweet Latin dance moves, I suspect it had more to do with how exotic looking (read: pale skin, varying from translucent to Lobster Red) and sounding (read: speaking only English or French) I was to the campers. I also realize it had less to do with my arts and crafts prowess and more to do with my ability to provide simple things.

Everyday in camp, little hands would reach up and tap me on the arm. Faces with puppy dog eyes, broad smiles, and small white teeth in various stages of coming in or falling out would look up and ask one of two questions: Dlo? Boul? Water? Ball? A basic necessity of life and a near-necessity of childhood are two things that the children of Cabaret often lack. Although we tried our best to provide plenty of both, it never seemed like enough.

Potable water, sold in plastic pouches of not quite 8 oz., could only be barely enough to quench a child's thirst in the hot Haitian sun or even under the shade of the mango trees, which produced the sweetest mangoes I have ever tasted. Water struck me as something I had never really given a second thought to having. When I went to camp I took a frozen water bottle, but that was just because I preferred cold ice water, not because there was no basic plumbing or an ample number of water fountains on the grounds of the camps I attended. Other times, I brought my own because I wanted iced tea instead of water. I had never seen so many children ask for plain water. I would have asked for soda, juice, or any other sugary drink I desired.

As it was when I was a kid in camp and a counselor was holding a ball in his or her hands, the children of Cabaret wanted to play with it. Except as a camper, I'd want to pick out the best basketball from the rack of 20, the one that was perfectly worn in, the right size, and inflated just right. Or I'd want the soccer ball that was the Size 5, the official size that the pros played with, not the junior sizes 3 or 4. Forget about the balls that were worn, ripped, or in other ways less than perfect.

In Cabaret, it was different. These kids wanted to get their hands on any ball we had and would have entertained themselves for hours with rocks for goal posts until we stopped them to eat lunch or change activities. Pastor Mario of Voices for Haiti told an interesting story that demonstrated the power of a simple ball. The essence of it was that the town had no public park until Voices gave some children in town a ball and the children began playing soccer on a small plot of cleared land so often that they essentially annexed a dirt patch into a public playground. The story ignored the fact that this plot of land is also used as a donkey parking lot, which leads to potentially slippery hazards on the field and a very serious out-of-bounds line that might try to kick you or the ball back in play if you're not careful.

I could go on for a lot longer about how the trip made me realize the privileges I enjoyed growing up and how I took them for granted, but that would draw a much starker distinction between my campers and myself than I truly experienced. As I discussed with another counselor, Frank, one of the most comforting parts of this experience was knowing that no matter where we were and how different Haiti was from Queens or San Francisco, kids are still kids. You still had bullies, tattletales, line-cutters and combinations of all three. There were the bad sports and good sports and the criers and the laughers.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

a land of contrasts...

Since the earthquake, the once-burgeoning tourism industry north of Cabaret is now almost non-existent.  Although hotels and restaurants remain empty, local fishermen still pop up to offer sightseeing tours to the sporadic diplomat, aid official, or volunteer group that manages to visit the breathtaking beaches.

The main hall in the the Cabaret orphanage was severely damaged by the earthquake.

At the end of the week, the group took a few hours to enjoy the serenity of the nearby seaside and reflect on our trip.  Although only an hour and a half from capital, it seemed like we were worlds away from the crowded streets and stark poverty so often used as the sole depiction of the country.

Haiti is not only the poorest country in the western hemisphere, it is also the most unequal.  Alongside these descriptions, I would argue that it is also among the friendliest, proudest, and most breathtaking places on the globe.

Making our way through Port-au-Prince, we saw many concrete skeletons of former homes crushed on January 12th and the tent cities that now replace them.  These images, however, were seen against a backdrop of swaths of slums, open sewers, crowded markets, and children hawking and begging in the streets.  Pockets of opulence- luxurious hotels, boutiques, and guarded supermarkets- stood out intermittently among this poverty.  In the countryside, donkeys and ancient pick-up trucks lined the mostly unpaved roads while families worked the mango and banana fields.  Not far off, we saw spectacular beaches enclosed by walled-off resorts and occasional vacation homes.
In Cabaret, most of the children we spent time with did not own shoes.  Many were not accustomed to eating more than once a day.  Some had never held a pencil or pen before.  

These conditions are not caused by the January 12th  earthquake, but are products of a long history of colonization, slavery, foreign interventions, dictatorships, corruption, greed, racism, and unfair trade practices.  

The history also includes remarkable stories of resistance and resilience- most notably the 1804 revolution, the only successful slave-led revolution in the world.  This resilience was apparent during our stay in Cabaret.  The children eagerly welcomed us into their community, taught us Kreyol songs and jokes, learned English, showed us local farming practices, and engaged us many cultural exchanges.  Although the needs in Cabaret are dire- schools are closed, the clinic has only one doctor, the orphanage has been badly damaged- the community has not given up.  I hope that we don't either.

portraits in cabaret..

Nadége Nénecy, 9

Handral Jule, 7

Ericka Roberts, 4

Guerda Romulus, 51

Sasia Louis & Branda Beldor, cousins 4

Rosilia Rosier, 85

Sherlanda Jules, 10

Bertiq Pierre Louis, 11

Anelson Previlon, 9

Barthelemy Bensley, 2

Revney Pierre, 6

Miaulken Michel, 13