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Reflecting on my time in Haiti

By: Chris Tidey

Haiti, February 19, 2010 - The one month anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti has now come and gone, and so too has my time in that country. Since my return to Canada, I have been in a state of near constant reflection on what I saw there, the people I spoke with and how the relief efforts will continue to unfold.

Upon my January 26 arrival in Port-au-Prince, I was immediately struck by the scale of the disaster. It seemed as though every second or third building had collapsed into a heap of debris. It is estimated that 20 million metric tons of rubble must be cleared from the city and surrounding areas.

Walking the streets over the ensuing days was like floating through a strange dreamland where I could almost feel the city’s past haunting each and every destroyed home, shop, school and government building. With every breath, I could taste the dust of what once was.

Much of the physical history of places like Port-au-Prince, Leogane and Jacmel is now destroyed. But the people, Haiti’s living history, are still very much alive and living each day as best they can despite the enormity of their loss.

The January 12 earthquake affected approximately 3 million people, leaving over 1 million homeless. In virtually every neighborhood of Port-au-Prince and other affected areas, I saw these people – living in sprawling temporary settlements under makeshift tents; looking for work on the streets to support their families; and digging through the rubble of their former homes.

I visited many of the temporary settlements where newly homeless children and families are now staying. More than 15,000 people are living in downtown Port-au-Prince at the Champ de Mars camp alone. To describe the living conditions in the settlements as difficult would be an understatement. Families are sleeping crammed together under shelters made of bed sheets and scrap metal. During the day, there is little reprieve from the heat, and at night, there is no electricity to light the darkness. The overcrowded conditions mean there is little to no privacy and the spread of opportunistic diseases is a very real threat. 

 And then there are the children. With roughly 40 percent of Haiti’s population under 15, this disaster has impacted children disproportionately. Many children in the earthquake affected areas have lost any combination of their homes, parents, siblings, schools, teachers and friends.

I met 11-year-old Bergeline at a UNICEF-supported orphanage in Port-au-Prince. Her entire family, including both parents and all four of her siblings, were killed when their house collapsed during the earthquake. I also met seven-year-old Jean Pierre. I found the young boy on the side of a dirt road in Port-au-Prince selling cigarettes for money to help his homeless family. There are now thousands of Bergelines and Jean Pierres, each with their own heartbreaking story, living in Haiti.      

I wonder what will become of them – what will become of their country. There is no obvious answer, but I did see progress amidst the destruction and despair. That progress has given me reason to believe that a bright future is possible for Haiti’s children.

When I arrived in Port-au-Prince, UNICEF and its partners were distributing clean water to about 300,000 people per day. Within a few days, I saw that number climb to more than 550,000 people per day. As of yesterday, clean water was reaching a daily average of 850,000 people across 300 sites in Port-au-Prince, Leogane and Jacmel. That is progress. Safe drinking water is essential for the survival of children and families and for preventing the spread of waterborne illnesses to which children are particularly vulnerable.

I also saw UNICEF and its partners respond quickly to the emerging threat of childhood diseases in the teeming settlements by launching a massive immunization campaign that will reach approximately 500,000 children in the coming weeks. During my second week in Haiti, I saw children being vaccinated against diseases like measles, rubella, diphtheria and tetanus at each and every settlement I visited. That is progress.

By my third week, in settlements where I had not previously seen any evidence of humanitarian relief, I followed UNICEF teams conducting nutritional assessments of children and mothers. I watched as they provided young mothers in the camps with nutritional counseling, high energy biscuits and blanket supplementary feeding for their children. That is progress. 

I saw community leaders being trained to identify and register unaccompanied children so that they will be kept healthy and safe while UNICEF and its partners work to reunify them with their families. I saw UNICEF building latrines and hand-washing stations in settlements. I worked with a mission high atop a mountain outside Port-au-Prince that was preparing to reopen its school and medical clinic with the help of UNICEF educational and medical supplies. That is all progress.

In the face of such a devastating disaster, these signs of progress might not seem like much. Compared to the scale of the destruction and preexisting poverty, they may even seem insignificant and inconsequential. But they are not.

Progress in Haiti will unfold and be measured in small steps – another family with access to a dependable source of safe drinking water; a school reopened; a single child vaccinated against measles. These small steps are incredibly important because each is a building block in the country’s transformation into something greater than it was before. Each step is built on the one before it.

Since returning to Canada, I haven’t been able to shake this feeling that I left a part of myself in Haiti. Images of the children and families I met there flash daily before my eyes. I wonder about them and I worry. It is because of them that I too feel invested in the country’s future.        


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