Brad Rowe, a Master of Public Policy student, traveled to Haiti earlier this year to perform work with J/P Haitian Relief Organization. He wrote the following blog about his experience.
Just 600 Miles from Miami
Taking off from Ft. Lauderdale to Port-au-Prince, Haiti I note the time: 9:36 a.m. I arrive in less than two hours and wait to clear customs. A suspicious flying critter buzzes past my head. The battery of inoculations I got before left has made me a cautious man. I stop in the bathroom and lather up with Deet bug repellant. Am I really prepared for what awaits?
It is January 1st, 2013. Thanks to the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs who is supporting me with a rigorous academic and practical base for understanding governmental and non-governmental systems, is also stepping in as the fiscal sponsor for my trip to Haiti.
My host is J/P Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO), which has a simple mission: It is dedicated to saving lives and bringing sustainable programs to the Haitian people quickly and effectively. At their behest, I am going to offer professional development classes to camp agents, relief-workers and teachers.
Working with their staff, which is 95 percent Haitian and 380 members strong, I bring a decade of volunteer working experience. I have been deeply involved with LA’s homeless population and its providers to address issues such as stress management, goal setting and relapse prevention. I am spending the last year of my Master of Public Policy program as a Rosenfield Fellow at the United Way of Greater Los Angeles exploring policies and programs that increase graduation rates to stem the cycle of urban poverty. Violence reduction theories and practice have been central to my coursework, my Applied Policy Project and the papers I have written. This background experience gave me a sense of confidence before my departure.
But none could have properly prepared me for the extreme variations on all of these themes that I was about to encounter in Haiti.
J/P HRO has sent a driver to pick me up. David, which in French sounds like “Dah-veed.” He gets around in an all-wheel-drive truck, which is essential in Haiti, where even city roads are more potholes than surface. As we pick up speed my jaw rattles. Once, we reach approximately 45 mph the ride smoothes out. We coast over the craters. David turns to me and smirks. He is like Han Solo hitting light speed.
David speaks French and Haitian Creole. I half understand French. We try to chat; we are only semi-successful. It is 90 degrees and the humidity makes the air soupy. From the small opening in the window come scents and sounds of the city: diesel fumes and pine trees mix with West African diva Viviane Ndour’s hit song “Waaw” as we pass a streetside makeshift cell phone repair stand. Block after block, a line of roadside vendors unfolds — selling eggs, and sandals, and toothpaste — making this hustle a way of life. A helmetless teen rides by on a motorbike; pedestrians engage in conversation in the middle of the road; a couple in our path shifts six inches to let our side mirrors whiz past, then shift back. The street is engaged in a dance with the uncertain: once a threat passes people step back in to fill the space. I’ll learn that this is a dance Haitians have mastered here and beyond the street.
We climb into the hills of Pétion-Ville, a neighborhood once storied and the envy of Port-au-Prince. Here, many of the larger homes and apartment buildings survived the quake and have been purchased or rented and converted into command centers for the relief effort: rubble removal, medical treatment, camp management, water delivery, security provision, and temporary government offices.
Other empty lots are still occupied by those left homeless from the earthquake. Further up, I see adjoining hillsides stacked precariously with 10’ x 15’ cement homes. The structural integrity is dubious and they are unlikely to withstand another quake, if even just half the magnitude of the last.
David honks his horn vigorously, as do many Haitian drivers. We are waved in. I sign a sheet to confirm that David has delivered me to the J/P HRO office compound.
I am introduced to, Kathryn, a tall, motivated college psychology professor and veteran volunteer at J/P HRO. She provides psycho-social services for displaced people and camp workers. She shows me to a second story porch and my tent. This will be my home and where I will sleep for the next five nights. The terrace overlooks Port-au-Prince, which anchors a broad valley. Minus the water feature, would look like the San Fernando Valley in north Los Angeles. But it is not.
A New Path in a Country Too Rich to Be Poor
The average Haitian makes $790 per year, just 1.6% the average income of an American, who lives just a 2-hour flight away. According to the World Bank, life expectancy in Haiti is 62 years, nearly 16 years less than a typical U.S. resident. The United Nations ranks Haiti 158th in the Human Development Index.
These stats make my thoughts percolate a little deeper: Though I have been to a few developing countries, this one is different. More extreme. I was born into a world of abundance. Ironically, though the numbers don’t show it, Haiti also has abundant resources — especially a resilient population — and is often called a country that is too rich to be poor.
At the edge of the terrace, Kathryn points across a ravine to where J/P HRO began: The top of a hill that used to house a golf course. Teams are now working to redevelop the surrounding neighborhoods, to support families as they create a durable, sustainable prosperous community for homeless earthquake survivors to return to. The golf course became the impromptu command central for a medical facility for treating earthquake survivors and expanded quickly, eventually home to as many as 60,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). A school for 500 kids soon followed.
Sean Penn found himself in Haiti with the knowhow and access that could energize and reshape the recovery and reconstruction effort, while providing basic — yet important services such as access to emergency shelter and health care — to hundreds of thousands. Three years after the quake, he has not let up. Meeting the team, I see the imprint of Sean’s leadership. Hailing from all corners of the globe, they are committed, innovative, and tireless: a young Jordanian who developed a system to effectively manage IDPs’ information through iPod and iPad technology, a British finance guru who drove a cab in Oslo and served cocktails to Queen Elizabeth, a Trinidadian education and sustainable community development specialist, the Montreal designer/builder/engineer who is also a semi-professional dancer, an American nurse, the Italian camp and relocations program manager. Some have been plying their multi-hyphenated trade around the world and others have deep roots in Haiti working across sectors trying to build a better country—in some cases for decades.
They took me under their wing for nights of conversations, meals, and laughs, peppered with attempts to solve the problems of a post-disaster context.
Here crisis is the new "normal.” There are many challenges, little happens as planned, yet targets must be met despite the most unexpected odds. The difference can be life or death, comfort or misery, ensuring human dignity for all or the loss of our shared humanity.
I sleep in a tent, on a Thinsulate pad, with a flat sheet and mosquito net over my cot. I’m given strict showering instructions, tailored to the chronic water shortages here: Get wet, turn off the water, lather, then turn the water back on to rinse.
The night sounds of Port-au-Prince waft up the hillside and mix with voodoo drumbeats, truck horns, and confused rooster calls. I tuck the edges of the mosquito net under the sleeping pad and drift off.
The next morning, I sit in a temporary, plywood-framed structure the size of small social hall, where staff members coordinate activities and management of Pétion-Ville Camp. Several dozen Haitian camp staff are here for a briefing on registering resident children for an upcoming cholera vaccination campaign. This is carried out in partnership with the government ministry of public health and population and Partner’s In Health, the internationally renowned global health organization launched by Dr. Paul Farmer.
I partner with Richard, J/P HRO’s deputy camp manager, and a Haitian who knows the residents well. Richard greets many passersby by name and introduces them to me, and when I smile and say hi, everyone responds in kind. We carry blue registration cards and a clipboard. At first, mothers come to the door with a measure of caution. I give out the colorful cholera prevention cartoons from my stack. Camp kids have easy smiles and real interest in getting to know a weird white guy coming to visit for the first time. Their resourcefulness is impressive: A half-inflated soccer ball entertains five kids at a time. A Styrofoam sandwich container and a piece of string draped over a laundry line serve as a kite. A wheel from a broken stroller is rolled like a bowling pin down a dusty walking path.
Teachers on the Frontline: “We Don’t Get Rattled”
Back at the J/P Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO) office I settle into the conference room ready to welcome a dozen camp agents, community center teachers, and field coordination staff who will join my stress management, goal setting and violence reduction class. The workshop draws on ten years of courses I’ve taught to the homeless in LA and their providers.
I’m happy to see that more than 20 local community leaders and staff show up, all intelligent and accomplished. I’m also surprised. As it turns out, the men are much more open to delving into this conversation than the women. They share stories: residents that have PTSD, who have suffered domestic abuse and rape, who struggle with frustrations of camp life, the desire to find permanent housing — but the lack of resources or safe, secure communities to move back to — and the desire to return to the rural countryside.
Signs of stress are evident. And I’m thrilled to see that J/P HRO has the foresight to offer professional development courses — like the workshops I prepared — to allow for reflection, learning and the opportunity to develop the much-needed tools to deal with their daily challenges.
I asked the teachers if they were rattled when a group of rambunctious teens threw rocks at the Christmas carol performance. One female teacher said "No. We are teachers and guardians. We are the kids’ heroes. We don't get rattled."
The class culminated in a goal-setting session. One young man stated that he wanted to start a family with his new wife in a bigger apartment than the one he currently resided in. We talked about start up costs, maintenance, proximity to work and social resources, fertility, relationship, safety and good schools. After working though the obstacles we outlined a path for him.
Another teacher talked about going to Cuba or America for a Master’s degree in project engineering. We created a timetable and a grocery list of resources that he would need to accomplish just such a task.
The last goal was for a field agent who wanted to see all of the residents of the camp relocated to housing in the surrounding community by December 13th. After considering community relations, capacity awareness, willingness to move, and resistance to change; one of the women in the room who had been previously quiet raised her hand. She pointed out that everything her colleague had stated he wanted for his family was what the residents wanted too. It was a simple, profound statement, and it was absolutely true.
On the cholera vaccination registration effort the next morning, Richard and I set out with a more efficient plan and registered many more families. At the end of the day, I watched small barefoot kids play soccer just feet away from an open dry riverbed. Moody adolescent males sat nearby, perched on a former tee-box on field — now totally devoid of grass — that once was a golf course. They have hardened as they make their way to adulthood. The earthquake stole their opportunities to carve the path they had envisioned. Now, I can imagine, they are coming to grips with what a new path must look like.
Later, at Kay Kominote, the J/P HRO-supported Community Center, a cadre of Haitian primary school teachers greet me. In a modest, basement classroom we discuss a myriad of education issues: the challenges of parent and student engagement, recruiting and retaining quality teachers, finding resources for the classroom, encouraging creative and deep learning in children. In many ways, it feels like a typical day in Los Angeles, a U.S. city also challenged by underfunded education.
Sean was sitting out on the terrace with a cup of coffee when I made my way out to have coffee the next morning. He had flown in the night before for a meeting with J/P HRO managers, who updated him on progress made in 2012 and a vision for 2013. He asked about my stay and how my classes had gone. I told him about one of the teachers who had pulled me aside to tell me he had secretly started writing some goals for himself that he was going to accomplish in 2013. At that point, I told Sean, I knew I’d accomplished the goal of my trip. He agreed.
My ride arrived and I left him with well wishes. I rode to the airport inspired by how both locals and internationals came together to recreate, a stronger Haiti for all, and glad that I had the opportunity to play a role.