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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Post-Earthquake School Days in Haiti

To help the people of Haiti, click here to donate.

One Year Later: Haiti’s Devastating Earthquake Leaves Permanent Scars

Asma Yousef, media relations representative for Islamic Relief USA, is in Haiti for the one-year anniversary of the earthquake that devastated the island nation. She is blogging and tweeting about her trip and IR USA’s work in Haiti.

I awoke at 6:00 a.m. today to the sound of street noises of children rushing to catch their school buses. In retrospect, I needed to have an early start in anticipation of Haiti’s notoriously unpredictable traffic jams. Our agenda included visiting three camps set up by Islamic Relief in Port-au-Prince: Parc Saint Clair, Acra Nord and Yasin Camps. The people we met were incredible, and their stories eye opening.

The first to greet us at every camp are the children. While some are very shy and try to avoid eye contact, others eagerly want us to take photos of them. In Haiti, while the population speaks Haitian Creole, communicating in French can go a long way; I found out mine needed a serious refresher course.

Nothing Worse Can Happen
At the Acra Nord camp, a Haitian girl held her schoolbook while sitting in front of a tent that housed her mother, father and four siblings. Through an interpreter, I found out that even though she normally attends school, this week she was staying at home with her family. Baffled as to why she was not going to school this week, but unable to get answers, I decided to move on to visit other families in the camp.

As we walked away, my translator turned around and explained, “Asma, because this week marks the one-year anniversary of the earthquake, her parents, like others, are afraid it will happen again, and therefore, they want her to stay with them.” It occurred to me that as an outsider it is difficult to understand the level of sheer trauma and distress experienced by Haitians on that fateful day.

On January 12, 2010, homes were leveled, loved ones lost forever and families uprooted and relegated to the realm of “transitional” where uncertainties are endless. They did not know when they would get a home, job or food. The earthquake was a national tragedy felt by everyone in this country. Many Haitians we met had a blank look on their faces. They seemed unfazed by the presence of NGOs and foreigners, especially this week in their country. At times, they seem indifferent, as if nothing worse could possibly happen to them.

At Parc Saint Clair, we encountered Alexander, who had lost his left leg during the earthquake. He was holding his 4-month-old baby and proudly showing us his newly acquired prosthetic leg. A painter by profession, Alexander is hoping to save enough money to buy supplies to paint so he can generate income for his family.

When medical or water distributions take place at the camp, Alexander told me he is often late getting to the truck, so he has to rely on help from his neighbors to get his family’s share. Despite the fact that he currently has no job and lives on help offered by others, Alexander expressed a sense of gratitude certain to humble anyone. “It could have been worse,” he said. “Other people are living in worse conditions than me. I do not worry about what tomorrow will bring me. It is all in the hands of God.”

Struggling, Working to Make Ends Meet

Inhabitants at the camps are happy they have a roof for their families, but due to laws enacted by the Haitian government prohibiting the distribution of food items by any NGO, many camp inhabitants have had to fend for themselves. The law was enacted when in the aftermath of the earthquake, a mass influx of people from outside the capital sought to take advantage of food rations distributed by relief agencies to the camps. This influx caused the camps to overflow and created chaos and disarray. In addition, the law was intended to encourage camp inhabitants to seek work opportunities as means of generating income for their families.

As a result, many are struggling to make ends meet. They are not, however, incapable. They will find something to do and sell. A Haitian woman packs and sells coal for cooking at the entrance of the camp. She sells a bag of her coal for 100 goods (equivalent to $2.50), which is sufficient to cook a single meal for a family. Another was selling grapefruits, peeled and ready to eat, to workers waiting to ride a pickup truck. A group of men was taking apart an old wrecked car to mold its metal as a cooking surface. And judging by the number of customers, business was pretty good for a man selling lotto tickets.

As the end of day approaches, vendors pick up what remains of their merchandise, carrying everything on their heads and head back home. Whether it is a basket full of produce, a ladder or a bucket full of cold soda, they find the strength to hoist it on their heads. And they find a way to survive another day.

-- Asma Yousef

Read more from Asma in Haiti here. And see a photo gallery from her first day in Haiti here. To help the people of Haiti, donate now.

Photo Gallery: Life Goes On in Haiti

One year after the earthquake, life goes on in Haiti. Click here to read about Islamic Relief USA's trip to Haiti this week, and click here to read Media Relations Representative Asma Yousef's post about her first day in Haiti.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Life Goes On in Haiti, but at What Price?

Asma Yousef, media relations representative for Islamic Relief USA, is in Haiti for the one-year anniversary of the earthquake that devastated the island nation. She will be blogging and tweeting about her trip and IR USA’s work in Haiti.

As I arrived in Haiti, the airport was teeming with staff from the NGO community in preparation for the one-year anniversary of a devastating 7.0 earthquake that struck the island nation in January 2010.

As my Islamic Relief USA colleague and I headed to our hotel, we drove through the narrow streets of Port-au-Prince. One of the first things that struck me was the abundance of tents and makeshift temporary shelters all over town. The vast quantity of them is so overwhelming. Haiti’s poor don’t just live in isolated urban or rural areas. Poverty is everywhere here.

Life is hectic in Haiti. Everywhere you go there are posters for candidates running for public offices, remnants of the now-postponed national elections. The walls of buildings are covered with graffiti of campaign slogans supporting one candidate or denouncing another. The hustle and bustle of pedestrians going about their business is never ending; street vendors are selling everything imaginable, soliciting customers to their tables or arguing with neighboring vendors.

It is an undeniable lesson that life goes on. Despite the chaos and destruction, Haitians are trying to make the best of their lives today. They are constantly on the move. Workers are waiting for, riding, or disembarking from the local transport called the “tap tap.” Sometimes there are more passengers than this modest mode of transportation can handle, but apparently, nobody seemed to be bothered. My local guide pointed to big white buses in the downtown area and said, “These are called the Obama buses because they were sent to us from America after Obama became president.”

I was also struck by the sight of homes that collapsed during the earthquake but were never rebuilt. They stood suspended in time as a reminder of what happened here a year ago. Some of these were either completely abandoned or inhabited by displaced families who have claimed the ruins as their makeshift shelter.

After driving around for an hour, I finally saw a traffic light. On streets designed to fit two cars, often four cars were seen trying to squeeze by. Sometimes, drivers had to take turns passing because half of the road had either collapsed or was blocked by rubble.

Later, we went to a medical camp run by Doctors Without Borders to get some medicine for a Haiti-based staff member. An emergency appendectomy had to be performed on him at this makeshift hospital on New Year’s Day because no doctor was on call at the main hospital.

With the passing of my first day in Haiti, I’ve come to realize that this is sadly part of everyday life for the majority of Haitians.

— Asma Yousef

Monday, January 10, 2011

IR USA Staff Members Travel to Haiti for Earthquake’s One-Year Anniversary

One year ago, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated the island nation of Haiti and nearly destroyed its capital city of Port-au-Prince. The January 2010 quake claimed more than 200,000 lives, according to the Haitian government, and left nearly two million people homeless.

In the days immediately following the earthquake, Islamic Relief launched a fundraising appeal and coordinated an aid shipment with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The shipment contained $293,000-worth of food, water, filtration systems and medical supplies. As one of the first responders on the ground, Islamic Relief staff began distributing food and water in the wake of the disaster and also opened one of the first makeshift camps to house displaced people.

But now, a year later, despite ongoing international support, an estimated 1.3 million Haitians are still clustered in makeshift camps and relying on foreign aid for survival. This week, Islamic Relief USA has sent two staff members to Haiti to assess the situation, conduct case studies, and visit IR programs. IR USA will also be launching a new $1.5 million initiative to rehabilitate a school and build 400 transitional shelters. Finally, the organization will be starting a Cholera Prevention and Control project to address the current cholera epidemic.

In the coming days, check back with our blog to read posts from IR USA’s Media Relations Coordinator, Asma Yousef, and Karim Amin, IR USA’s programs coordinator. They will also be tweeting and providing updates on our Facebook fan page about the trip and Islamic Relief USA’s work in Haiti. Amin was part of IR USA’s emergency response team post-earthquake last January.

Find out how you can help the people of Haiti -- because they need our help now more than ever.

Friday, January 7, 2011

WFP Founder Visits IR USA as Anti-Hunger Partner

Hunger, food shortages and food security issues continue to be some of the most consistent problems being addressed by charity and relief organizations like Islamic Relief (IR). With IR’s food distribution programs in Ramadan and during the Qurbani season, and its various income-generating projects for beneficiaries worldwide, the organization is no stranger to the desperate need for effective solutions for the overwhelming worldwide hunger problem.

On Monday, Richard Leach, director, CEO and founder of World Food Program USA (WFP), visited IR’s headquarters in Alexandria, Va., to discuss the decade-long strong partnership between the two organizations, the initiatives being put forth by the WFP today; and the challenges facing humanitarian organizations working to address hunger and food security issues.

More than 950 million people are affected by chronic hunger today in the world, Leach said. And while the need to fulfill immediate food demands is great, Leach believes programs and solutions must be put forth to address the chronic hunger issue.

One effective example is WFP’s “Purchase for Progress” programs, which allow WFP to use its “purchasing power to offer smallholder farmers opportunities to access agricultural markets, to become competitive players in those markets and thus to improve their lives.” Such programs give small farms the chance to thrive in their local agricultural markets, Leach said.

Hunger itself isn’t just about the lack of food, Leach asserts. It is closely intertwined with the economic development, stability and security of countries, especially developing nations. And in countries hit by natural disasters and conflicts, the challenges of producing and providing food become greater as such countries have difficulty transitioning from emergency to development mode.

The problems of world hunger and food security are ones with no easy solutions, Leach said. But progress is happening through the hard work of the WFP and IR USA, and the only path forward is to come up with new and effective long-term solutions to the problems.

--Dilshad D. Ali and Asma Yousef

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Reflections on Day of Dignity 2010

The impetus behind "Day of Dignity" can be drawn from our mission here at Islamic Relief USA, which includes "… to alleviate suffering …. and to provide aid in a compassionate and dignified manner." Over the course of the 2010 Days of Dignity, I’ve often been asked, “Why Day of Dignity?” My response is that events associated with the Day of Dignity provide an opportunity for people of all persuasions to be of service to people in need, at least one time, one day, one month of the year.

The last Day of Dignity event in Capitol Heights, Md., on Dec. 18th completed nearly a year of efforts and events that began last spring with training sessions for coordinators who, over the next eight months, would manage thousands of volunteers and serve many more thousands of beneficiaries.

Since the first Day of Dignity event at Fort Thompson in South Dakota last June, volunteers have worked selflessly to ensure that the event(s) in their respective cities went well. So engaged were they that, on occasion, volunteers ventured from one event to the next, from one city to another, to participate. To witness this was a blessing from Allah (swt).

Invariably, volunteers would gather early for work, long before the day was to officially start. And likewise, beneficiaries would begin to line up in anticipation of what was to come. Once the day’s events would get under way, I would witness the smiles on the faces of both those who gave and those who received.

To watch people queue up for a meal, health screening or a haircut and a few personal supplies reminded me of the adage, "But by the grace of God, there go I." I remember thinking that in a country so blessed with natural resources and human capacity, it was almost unthinkable that people would be homeless, that children would go to bed hungry and that too often some of our senior citizens would find themselves faced with the decision of whether to eat, pay their utilities or buy much-needed medication.

While Day of Dignity wouldn’t make any of those realities disappear, I encourage people to look upon it as a model.

It’s a model that packages concern and compassion and partners it with unbridled volunteerism, which then creates the synergy that has the capacity to help us find solutions to everyday problems facing our society. Ideally, people would look at Day of Dignity and see it as a concept that provokes action and begets positive results. If they find any pleasure in that activity, then I would encourage them to work to see that it is replicated, in some form, in other areas of the country.

As the last 2010 Day of Dignity event wound down last weekend, I went through the mental exercise of recalling favorite moments or a favorite moment from the different cities where the events were held. A volunteer in Washington, D.C., a young Christian college student, summed it up best when she said, "I just wanted to come and give. [I want to] acknowledge, if possible, some of the blessings I have received in life and try to provide some relief to those facing difficulty today. I have what I need, and so, I and others in similar circumstances should be willing to share with those less fortunate."

And I was then reminded of that tried-and-true saying: "To those that are given much, much is expected."

-- Saleem Khalid, Islamic Relief USA

At Last Day of Dignity, A Community Comes Together

As I walked up to the Oak Crest Community Center in Capitol Heights, Md., the cold wind hit me in the face. But the chill was soon replaced by a warm chant—“Day of Dignity, Today is Your Day”—sung by the volunteers as they welcomed beneficiaries at Day of Dignity event in mid-December.

It was the last event of Islamic Relief USA's 2010 Day of Dignity season, the final city out of 22 we visited this year. And the time spent at Oak Crest was as meaningful and special as the first 2010 Day of Dignity event in South Dakota last June.

Recipients were lined up throughout the community center, waiting patiently to receive their passport, which signified their entry into the Day of Dignity event. The beneficiaries’ first stop was the gym, where they were treated to a large cadre of services and gifts, ranging from International House of Pancakes coupons to community college registration forms.

After they left the gym, they went into the next room where they were welcomed with warm meals, cotton candy, and children’s activities, including entertainment from local school bands.

The next room housed a medical clinic. Dentists and doctors provided checkups while volunteer nurses administered flu shots. The journey ended in the clothing lounge, where recipients choose whatever they wanted from racks of clothing, including shirts, coats, and socks. The beneficiaries who came out to this last Day of Dignity event left with smiles on their faces and bags of goods.

One gentleman stopped me and said, “Thanks I really appreciated this,” and then walked away with his groceries. But the funny thing is, I appreciated him giving me the opportunity to give to others. It is a beautiful way to live.

This was truly a community affair—a symbiotic relationship between the volunteers and the beneficiaries, and I felt truly blessed to be a part of Day of Dignity 2010.

-- Karim Amin, Domestic Programs Coordinator at Islamic Relief USA

Gallery: "A Night for the Love of Palestine" in Florida

Islamic Relief USA's "Night for the Love of Palestine," a dinner in Tampa, Florida, was a beautiful evening of love and celebration featuring Egyptian actress Hanan Turk. All proceeds from the event are going to IR USA's projects in Palestine. Check out the gallery below.