Haiti: One Month Later, Need is Still Great
By Laura Braden
A little over one month ago, Haiti was rocked by a devastating magnitude-7.0 earthquake. Many Americans stepped up to the plate and opened their hearts – and their wallets – to help those who were left with virtually nothing. Today, progress has been made, but family members are still missing, homes are still in rubble (the Haitian President estimates it will take THREE YEARS to clear all the rubble), and aid workers are still trying to provide the most basic services for survivors.
It’s an unfortunate tendency of humans to start to forget, or move on, when they don’t have to directly face such a horrific tragedy on a daily basis. The media’s coverage was diligent in the immediate aftermath, but now more and more are pulling out and moving on to other stories. I, for one, can’t stop googling the latest news, photos and video…and I suspect that I’m not alone.
And while this blog is specifically designed as a forum for local women, organizations and businesses, I hope you’ll permit me to stray waaaay off the grid because I believe that one of the best ways to keep an issue on the front-burner is to allow readers to hear from someone who lived it – and is still dealing with the implications of her experience.
Which is why I wanted to bring you my good friend Anne MacDonald’s (or “Annie Mac” to her friends) story.
Anne has lived in Haiti since January 2009, and was in Port Au Prince that fateful day. She works for an amazing HIV/AIDS clinic (the first in the world!) named GHESKIO (The Haitian Group for the Study of Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Opportunistic Infections).
After the earthquake, GHESKIO (pronounced “Guess-Que”), lost several key staff and almost all of their staff lost their homes. Currently, they’ve built on their expertise as an AIDS clinic to extend care as simply an “aid” clinic, providing food, water and shelter to thousands of Haitians living on its campus, along with continuing its care for those living with infectious diseases (see WSJ story HERE). Annie is currently back in the U.S., working in GHESKIO’s New York City office at its longtime partner Weill Cornell Medical College.
This is her story.
Q-How did you end up living in the Haiti?
Anne–Haiti is a beautiful, mesmerizing country that I fell in love with after going for a work trip in March of 2008. I initially went to highlight the work of the PEPFAR initiative, and in the process, became close with several Haitians. Haitian culture is incredibly vivacious, fun, and creative in the face of as many challenges as one country has ever had to bear. I also wanted to sit at the feet of the incredible Haitians because they’re getting very impressive results in their field – in one of the most difficult environments in the world.
Q – I can only imagine the shock you must still feel. Where were you when the earthquake hit?
Anne – Shock is definitely still with me. I’m a little nervous for the day when the shock wears off…because in some ways shock is a blessing in not allowing me to completely feel everything…I can’t begin to process some of the larger parts of what happened and new pieces of it come up day to day. I was sitting in my French class, which for the prior 9 weeks had been on Wednesdays but that week, had been moved to Tuesday (the day of the earthquake). I was incredibly lucky because I would have most likely been in my apartment at the Hotel Montana (video of Anne’s apartment) which was one of the first buildings to completely collapse.
Q – We’ve all seen the photos and news coverage, but what was it like to actually live through it?
Anne – Initially, it took me longer than I would have expected to realize what was actually happening. When the building started shaking, I thought a tank had hit it. The shaking was so violent that I felt like I was churning and that my feet could as well have been on the ceiling. People were screaming out to God and tearing down the hallways as they cried. But I didn’t realize the full extent of the damage until I ran downstairs and outside and saw every car’s windshield shattered and every building around me imploded. The dust was so thick (from the concrete blocks being demolished) that I couldn’t see more than 30 feet away from me.
Q – What sort of damage did your clinic suffer?
Anne – GHESKIO’s structures have a range of damage, but the largest change has been the arrival of thousands and thousands of Haitians that have taken up residence on our campus. I think the biggest damage (in the long-term) will be to the psyche of the staff who make up the soul of GHESKIO – many are living outside their homes that have collapsed and many have lost family members and friends. They are champion survivors and continue to amaze me with the innovation they bring to our relief efforts, especially since they’ve suffered so much themselves.
Q – Now that you’re back in the US, how have you been handling the transition back to “normal life”?
Anne – You just do the day – but I miss Haiti and my life there every single one of them. In some ways, it’s gotten harder the more time goes by and as I hear more of the effects on my friends who stayed (and are doing awe-inspiring work). But at the same time, I’m energized by the ways that the refugee camps are organizing themselves to speak to the aid groups trying to help them, by the outpouring of support and help, and most of all that my friends are already restarting businesses and looking for other enterprises that will allow more Haitians the opportunity to have a job and get back on their feet.
Q – Pre-earthquake, what was living in Haiti like?
Anne – It was a lot of very high highs in terms of the uniqueness of the experience, the range of adventures that I could have in the phenomenal beaches and fairy-tale mountains, and the warmth of the people who welcomed me…but at the same time the majority of Haiti was already hanging on (economically) by a very thin thread. I worked across the street from the largest slums in Haiti and had to travel almost an hour there and back each day to my fairly normal apartment and a really vibrant social scene, which was a much needed outlet for letting go of the pressures of work.
Q – What do you want people to know about Haiti and understand about Haitians?
Anne – We need to be looking to Haitians for solutions – there are a significant number of extremely well-educated community leaders still there. Haitians (and especially Haitian business owners) are some of the hardest working people on the planet, delving into a level of detail and forward-thinking unimaginable to most of us – it’s a requirement to ensure that any enterprise in Haiti works.
Q – What is the one thing we can do to continue to help Haiti?
Anne – Believe that it can can have a fresh start and encourage our government and the international community to invest first and primarily in Haitian-requested, Haitian-managed projects, which can generate income for as many individuals (and drive the country’s growth as high) as possible. On a more practical level for now, financial donations are the most important gift you can give. Haiti was not an accessible place before the earthquake and is even more difficult now. In-kind donations (unless specifically requested by a group) have a tendency to not match the needs on the ground and, more importantly, can detract from the ability of local producers and sellers to restart operations.
MARK YOUR CALENDARS!
- February 19: An Evening for Haiti at Luigi’s Fungarden (LINK)
- February 22: Sacramento State’s Helping Haiti Forward: A Focus on Haiti (LINK)
- February 26: Access Sacramento and Sacramento Music Alliance Help Haiti – Concert & Telethon (LINK)
- Capital Public Radio: Stories/Local Connections to the Haiti Quake (LINK)
- Sacramento Bee: Haitian Americans in Sacramento glad to see outpouring of generosity (LINK)
- Los Angeles Times photo essay: Haiti: Coping with the aftermath (LINK)
CREDIBLE PLACES TO DONATE $$$
- Anne’s organization GHESKIO (LINK)
- American Red Cross (LINK)
- Wyclef Jean’s (native of Haiti) Yele (LINK) (Wyclef was also on Oprah discussing the loss of his school in the quake. See video HERE)
EDITOR’s NOTE: If you or your organization has upcoming events or ways that locals can help rebuild Haiti, please let us know by emailing girlsonthegrid AT gmail DOT com.