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48 hours in Haiti

48 hours in Haiti

By Harry Nadler, August 18th, 2010

Some of you reading this may already have known that about 10 days ago I was asked to go to Haiti to accompany top leadership of several federations to see the projects that were being funded by them. ORT is one of those beneficiaries and we needed to present our project, but more on that in a short while.

Several people that knew I was going have already asked "How is Haiti?" In the paragraphs to follow I will try to tell you how Haiti is, but let me begin by warning you that there are not sufficient words, pictures, videos or any other form of communication that I know of that can really describe the situation.

So, how is Haiti? Haiti is seeing wall to wall tents on what used to be a nine hole golf course that today house 60,000 (that number is correct) homeless refugees including 32,000 (that number is correct) children and youth under the age of 25. Haiti is multiplying that by thousands of other formerly open spaces that today consists of miles and miles of tents interspersed by miles and miles of rubble. It is estimated, we were told, that there are over 1 million similarly displaced people.

How is Haiti? Hot, very hot. The 48 hours we were there over three different days each reached 100 plus degrees, but not to worry, we were comforted by the fact that every couple of hours we could get in the air conditioned bus, when it wasn't going uphill. Not so for the 1 million or more living in tents. The best they can do is go inside their tent and get out of the direct sunlight where the temperature was a cool 98 degrees. We were even able to periodically stop at decent (passable?) facilities for restrooms. Not so for those in tents. In some cases they had portable potties but in most cases they had open latrines.

How was Haiti? In the tent city on the former golf course about 300 children are in a school run by Tevel B'tzedek. There were probably a dozen other schools run on the 'golf course' perhaps serving 2000-3000 of the 32,000 students.

How was Haiti - very dirty and dusty but for us we knew that at the end of the day we could retreat to our decent (passable) hotel and take a shower. For the 1 million - forget it. They got to live in the dust and dirt every day. Forget about the rubble that was everywhere and around the hills, and mountains as fast as it was removed the rains brought new rubble down the hills covering the roads.

Traffic - you think rush hour in Atlanta or Houston (or choose whatever other big city you can think of) is slow and congested - forget it. Thousands of volunteers have descended on Haiti (fortunately) adding to the Haitians that also are fortunate enough to have cars are all rushing around the country at all times. Forget the fact that the roads were awful before. Add to this the fact that most roads developed cracks, potholes, or are littered with rubble and you have at best one - way traffic where occasionally cars going in opposite directions can pass each other. In horrible rush hour traffic usually you can still progress a few miles in an hour, not so in Port-au-Prince.

A word about the government - before the earthquake at best the government was corrupt and inept. Public policies were rarely enforced if enacted, development plans long-range did not exist and virtually everything else that a government is supposed to do, it didn't. There are people in Haiti who actually see the earthquake as a good thing since it collapsed the government and has now forced Haiti to look at itself and to start behaving as a country/government should. By the way the palace - the seat of the government - is in rubble. What you don't see is that directly across the street in what used to be the equivalent of the Washington Mall is now a tent city for 30,000 or more people. Aside from the palace collapsing, the building housing the ministry of education and most of the top level people in the ministry collapsed killing most of the leadership. For this reason UNESCO, under whose umbrella ORT is operating has stepped in and is now coordinating all education in this country.

On the second day we went to an area (town?) called Fondwa. Fondwa is on top of one of the mountains in Haiti that just happens to be very near the epicenter of the quake. We needed small buses to get within shouting distance of the city as we climbed the mountain. Several people were able to clear more rubble off the 'shoulder' allowing our bus and others to squeeze by on the inside - the outside would have been a 500-600 foot drop off the mountain. Further up the mountain we had to switch to 4 wheel drive vehicles because the road got too bumpy and narrow for minivans. Our purpose in going there was to see the effort at rebuilding a school that collapsed completely. Prior to the earthquake the school had 700 students. Today all that remains is the foundation because the rubble has been cleared one rock at a time by workers being paid minimum wage of $5 - that's per day, folks. Our group pitched in and cleared a few dozen wheelbarrows full (for no pay naturally) all taken down the mountain several hundred yards to be used to re-build the road. While the process continues the students today are taught in a nearby tent. They come from around the region some walking up the mountain (and then down at the end of the day) a total of 3.5 hours roundtrip because if their families have cars they can't navigate the roads.

Much of Haiti had been de-forested over the decades due to lack of government policy, poor planning, the need to convert trees to charcoal for heat (and sale for commerce), etc. consequently most of the land has little trees. When the earthquake hit it shook the mountains causing the rocks and dirt to fall to flat land - mostly roadways. Now the sides of the mountains are often barren. When the rains come - they do this almost daily - it washes even more dirt down onto the roads - there are those who see this as good thing because it does provide some work for thousands of Haitians ($5 per day) to clear the roads.

At the dinner the first night (after six hours in Haiti) one member of our group who does a lot of business in India said that while what we were seeing was beyond belief, he actually saw worse conditions in some areas of India. After 48 hours, while he did not say so, I think he probably agreed with most of us that there is no place on earth that we know of that has worse conditions for such a vast number of people.

So what is the future for Haiti and what does ORT have to do with it? First, there will be new elections in November and it is everyone's prayer that the earthquake was a wake-up call to the people. We shall see. Billions of dollars have been pledged to rebuild Haiti and with proper support and coordination of the government there is significant hope among the people. As previously reported there are thousands of organizations and volunteers. Virtually every plane load flying several times a day out of Miami, NY, Atlanta and possibly elsewhere, is full of volunteers coming and going. Each organization and each volunteer is making a difference in one way or another. Most efforts are being highly leveraged to maximize the results because while it is desirable to save one life at a time, there are more than one million lives to save. To fully understand what they are doing would take months of study so I can only address what ORT is doing and to some degree the work of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) one of the other partners of the Jewish federations. First JDC - they have funded schools to re-build, they provided hundreds of large water bladders (tanks) being restocked with water on an as needed basis serving thousands of displaced persons. They have provided ambulances - actually 4 wheel drive SUV's outfitted to be ambulances - so that they could navigate all of what is left of the roads. JDC also set up a clinic in the largest hospital in Haiti that is now staffed by doctors and physical therapists from Tel Ha-Shomer Hospital in Israel. Their expertise (unfortunately) is that they prepare and train people in fitting prostheses. (As you can imagine Israel has had a lot of experience with this.) We visited the clinic and spoke with some of the victims who have been helped. And there is much more mostly geared to immediate rescue and relief.

(Before describing what ORT does some of you may want to know why there is so much being done by Israelis.) Haiti has a 500 plus year history with the Jews directly, and indirectly with Israel since before the founding of the state. Haiti was settled as a slave state as most of us know. There were Jews in Haiti almost from the time of Columbus. Haitians look at the Jews as an example of a people who sought independence (think Moses) and became a free people. Haiti over the years grew closer and closer to the Jewish people. Most importantly in the 1940's it was Haiti that made the decisive vote that allowed Israel to become a State. Haiti was one of three countries that actually changed their vote at the UN in favor of statehood and they cast the final vote. (Is this payback? Maybe so, but probably not the only reason since we have found Israelis responding to other world crises as well.)

ORT - ORT has a long history of responding to crisis focusing on long-term recovery. Two weeks after the earthquake we sent a team of top consultants in education and crisis response to Haiti from Israel (there it is again) to assess what we could do to help. It was not a coincidence that in Haiti so much destruction occurred when two weeks later the stronger earthquake in Chile caused little property damage in comparison. It has to do with the fact that 80% of the students do not graduate high school and that builders are not trained in the proper procedures for building anti-seismic construction. ORT formed a class of 30 masons - mostly illiterate - with the specific goal of training them in 10 days in how to build with proper bricks and techniques. After that group is finished they are expected to train the 4-5 other masons who work with them. The next day we start a new class of 30 and the process continues. As more and more get trained we will expand the number of courses as rapidly as possible. By the end of 2010 we will have trained directly 900 masons. They will have trained 4,500 or so of their colleagues. We expect to continue this for five years and will have directly trained 4,500 who will have trained 18,000 or more masons. Each of these masons will then build perhaps 5 homes a year ultimately affecting 90,000 - 100,000 families within a very short period of time. Each family with 3-4 people translates into safe housing for hundreds of thousands of lives - saved one life at a time.

For those interested the cost of this training which includes paying them while they are in class and transportation back and forth is $300 per student. At the end of the course each graduate also receives a tool kit that includes specialized tools for building in anti-seismic construction and brick molds to make proper bricks without air pockets and so forth (that's why the buildings collapsed). Each kit costs +/- $2,100 and gets shared with the four to five team members they work with. Without actually providing the kits, none of the masons can afford the kits and likely would not be able to implement what they have learned. After the first class of 30 graduated word spread like wild fire and we had 600 applicants. We have already graduated three groups - 90 students.

One of the early graduates is a man named Moises (Moses) Phillippe. He addressed our group on Tuesday. Moises is the president of the mason's union in the northern part of the country and spoke about what the course has meant to him. Below is the summary report sent to the board of the JDC by their field director describing what he said.

Moise Philippe (Moses) age 56, participant of the ORT anti-seismic training program in Camp Perrin for masons/builders.

context: no building codes in Haiti, never have been. as a result, those people building houses are not aware of basic building techniques, engineering, safety, proper equipment, etc. Hence the scope of the disaster. Moses has been building since 1982. He even built his own house which fell to its foundation on Jan. 12th. 15 years to build it, gone in 40 seconds, like thousands of others across Haiti. He heard about the masonry project supported by JDC, through Ort. he felt that he must redeem the souls of all those that were killed in the earthquake and not let their death be in vain. he says it was ignorance that killed Haiti, not the earthquake. and knowledge will change the future. Whereas Moses did not know how to measure a square, or what the importance of exact materials for cement making could mean, he today understands the centrality of it all. An intensive 10 day session in Camp Perrin (the location of the ORT project) has given him the tools he needs to return to his business and rebuild Haiti with quality and integrity. His family is proud of him for going to school for the first time at 56. Now buildings will be built to code. He wants to create a knowledge sharing association. No one else in Haiti is doing what ORT and JDC are doing with this program. ORT will be creating a manual for these masons as well. This also does so much for masons' self esteem. Finally, in my discussion with the masons, they all expressed how important it is for them to learn. But as I parted Camp Perrin, I realized that this training session is providing something much deeper than learning. Camp Perrin is their opportunity to reclaim (or finally claim) there place of professional integrity and significance in their country. They are eager to contribute to their country in a meaningful way, and this is the opportunity that ORT's training is offering them.

So there you have it. I hope this gives you even a bare glimpse of what has occurred and what is happening to help the people of Haiti. For me it was an experience of a lifetime. I have no idea if I am going back, but I do know that over the coming months I will be getting constant progress reports as we raise the money to finish the job. There is a great need for more support, and I am positive that the 22 people that accompanied me will do their part and that we will continue to take people there and try to help them understand how they too can save the world one person at a time.

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