I am sitting in my hotel room after my first trip to Haiti in ages. I have stayed away for too long.
I arrived a few days ago at the airport to the usual chaos that is Port Au Prince, a noisy city that seems to sound like a banging drum and crashing cymbal all day, a vibrant slice of life at its rawest. What I expected to see was what I always knew of the town, arriving with an overconfident air of someone who has, as he thought, seen and done it all. I love Port Au Prince. I always have. I have always had a sense of belonging once I land. What I found this time however, was not what I expected, unfortunately.
The city was literally floored by the earthquake over a year ago. At the time, 1. 5 million lost their homes. 15 months later 680,000 are still displaced, living in temporary shelters scattered across the city with the most basic services. I was shocked by the sights , sounds and smell of those camps. I was speechless and supressed tears seeing babies with barely a ragged shirt on them, sleeping in the mud outside the door of their tiny excuse for a tent, a piece of sheet plastic covering them topped with a torn blanket. It is something that I will always hold in my mind. It will change me forever.
The buildings of the city vary from houses that were rough shod to being with, now crumbling on one side to high rise buildings completely collapsed on themselves that are now essentially tombs for thousands of nameless bodies. The empty spaces that are left are sites for mass graves. The parliament building, a ramshackle excuse for a palace but the shining symbol of leadership in the country is folded on itself and completely useless. The city's cathedral now looks no different to an ancient roman site and holds hundreds of bodies inside. A blind man in that roofless church was singing in creole. "welcome to the foreigners who come to help us".
The most vulnerable of this fragile society were left without health services, clinics, nutrition units, schools, access to food and clean water. Families were left without mothers , fathers, children.
I came to Haiti with the absolute knowledge that Concern, already a dynamic force in Haiti for 16 years now would be ready for what the earthquake brought to them. However I was not prepared for the show of force displayed by the great group of people. What I found was a very organised, system in place dealing hands on with the emergency and planning with locals to build a better future in a way that was sustainable, long term, motivated and above all full of optimism. They shine a light for the future and better still is helping Haiti build it's own future.
In the temporary shelter camps built and managed by Concern there was a huge focus to Water, Sanitation and Health. There was permanent structures built to ensure provision of clean water, showers, latrines, sterilization units, education in disease prevention, the importance of hand washing and supervised help by skilled and caring engineers leading teams of locals who were putting their own organised systems in place to ensure a disease free future. Incidence of cholera is down.
I saw a mother and baby unit run by Concern within the general hospital catering to undernourished babies. The unit had 18 babies this week. Nearly all the babies had nutritional deficiencies, complicating conditions like HIV and presented with low weight / age ratio when they arrived. It was obvious to see the new arrivals who were so thin and frail in comparison to babies who were strong , robust, content and playing. These kids had obviously spent some months in the unit and were strong and ready to get home. The joy in that tent was tangible. Mother's were delighted to have happy and healthy children again.
I went to a temporary learning center managed by Concern. The school had over 300 kids all of whom lost their place to learn when the earth quake flattened schools across the city. It was a thrill to be in classes and see the joy in those kids lives being able to learn and play together. We sang songs and danced. Really i am child at heart so it made me happiest man in Haiti. The kids not only learn the basics of French, Creole Math but are also educated in disease prevention and sanitation, skills that will help them reduce disease in the future.
I was approached by 2 teenage guys to ask if I could find them a job. Both were eloquent and respectful to a fault, presenting a strong case in their hope that I could get them work. It broke my heart. There is simply not enough work for them and the only way to get that step up in education would be through Concern's help. Concern's Cash for Work schemes built in to all their services are a way, not only to earn money but to build esteem and interest in building a brighter future.
I had heard about a new residential development on the outskirts of the city that was managed by Concern. I remembered that after the earthquake Concern had sourced a large meadow and brought in engineers to essentially build a new town for people who had lost their homes. I was astounded by the rows of really lovely new houses with gardens, indivually decorated providing not only secure shelter but dignity. Built to order depending on the size of the family and built with the input of the family involved, these shelters offered hope for the future for people who have lived in tents for the past year. The homes are built using cement with wooden framing. All the labor is local and that local labor is heavily invested in building their own new community. The men and women involved in this project are a credit to Concern.
Overall I cannot believe what Concern has achieved in the past year. The team , already there for the long haul has increased in size dramatically both in International and local staff but the spirit remains the same. Fr. Aengus Finucane would be so proud of everyone . I know I certainly was. I am proud to be part of the Concern team and will continue to urge you to learn about what is going on in the world, learn about issues of poverty, learn about Concern. The more you know and talk about it, the less of a problem poverty will be.