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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

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.
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