Haiti: Hopeful beyond comprehension

This post was written by Benjamin Krause (pictured above), a 1999 Creighton Prep grad who is actor Sean Penn’s point man in Haiti for Penn’s respected post-quake organization, J/P Haitian Relief Organization.

It started as a normal all-staff meeting; my nearly 300 Haitian employees that are J/P Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO) were filling the small parking lot outside our office in Port-au-Prince and taking their seats on the rough wooden benches and mangled folding chairs we call office furniture.

Just as I bellowed my opening greeting into the megaphone, a tap-tap slowly rolled through our office gates and right up to my side. This brightly-painted pick-up truck normally used for public transport appeared at first to be empty, but as I started to question the driver as to why he was both interrupting AND trespassing, a loud, labored cry from the back of the covered truck bed answered. I caught a quick glance of an agonizing, sweat-drenched woman nearly bursting-at-the-belly, and I snapped back to the crowd calling into the megaphone for our labor and delivery team.

Within seconds our Haitian OBGYN and his team were gloved-up and crammed into the back of the covered tap-tap, and in fewer than five minutes, the woman’s screaming ebbed, and the heart-warming shrill of a baby’s first cries to this broken world filled the tap-tap and spilled into the parking lot. My nearly-silent staff erupted in cheers of joy.

After stabilizing both mother and child, the tap-tap pulled out of our parking lot and headed around the block to the field hospital that J/P HRO has been operating at the top of an ad hoc camp that we also manage. At one time this camp was the only golf course in all of Haiti. At its peak after the earthquake, as many as 60,000 homeless people –somewhere between the population of Grand Island and the seating capacity of Memorial Stadium – were living at the camp, and the golf course was completely covered from first tee to final turn. These days, the population of 20,000 is closer to the seating capacity of what I still know as the Qwest Center, and each week J/P HRO staff help another 20-30 families return home. The difference is quite remarkable.

I have been on the ground here in Haiti since March 2010. When I arrived at this camp, it was simply beyond comprehension. People EVERYWHERE in such desperate need that never in my travels through nearly 30 developing countries had I ever confronted anything comparable. To put the earthquake in perspective, in less than 30 seconds, in a city the size of Chicago, fully HALF of all the buildings were structurally damaged or destroyed and a population larger than that of all of Nebraska was either rendered homeless or dead.

When I arrived, two months after the earthquake, most of the streets were still completely covered in rubble – in some neighborhoods like “Delmas 32” where most of our camp residents used to live, the streets were buried in up to ten feet of debris for as far as the eye could see.

But nearly two years have passed – and mountains have been moved, literally and figuratively. J/P HRO has been on the ground in Haiti since the beginning providing emergency medical services, and we continue to treat 1,600 patients each week at our clinics. In addition to managing the camp and assisting families return, repair and rebuild their homes, we also provide free education to 400 beautiful children, community programming and small-business training to the residents of camp and the surrounding neighborhoods and we have begun the first phases of redevelopment by repairing clinics and schools and starting new solar-powered safe water points and recycling kiosks. Our goal is to provide comprehensive support to help families get back on their feet so to take those first few, most difficult steps towards home.

In this vein, our most notable accomplishment has been the nearly 10,000 dump trucks of rubble and debris J/P HRO has hauled out of the neighborhoods over the past 18 months. As we clear the streets and tear down the condemned buildings, we uncover where home once was and where it can be again for tens of thousands of families. We’ve recently ramped up this effort and will move 2x’s more rubble in the next year – and even then there will be mountains remaining.

And Port-au-Prince was never Chicago. It never had a sewage system, highways or a reliable power grid. It was the poorest capital city in the entire hemisphere BEFORE it was devastated by one of the largest disasters in all of human history. So yes, if you’re coming for the first time, you will be astounded, shocked . . . devastated. But if you had come the day before the earthquake, you would probably have felt about the same. It is not the earthquake or the delays or the politics or the coordination issues. It is the human face of injustice and poverty that leaves you so unsettled – and it should. It was all there before the earthquake – Haiti was twice as poor as any other country in our hemisphere BEFORE – and our heavy machinery is simply revealing it once again.

But for those of us who have been here for the two years since the earthquake, it is miraculous how far the Haitian people have come especially given all of the challenges since the earthquake – the most pressing today are the need for land tenure reform by the Haitian Government and the need to release dedicated funds held by the international community. Moreover, it is astounding how hardworking, happy and hopeful the people of Haiti are no matter how hot it is outside or how horrible the situation is at the surface. So much hope – infectious hope. Much of it is certainly merited given how far we have come since the earthquake, but for a Nebraska boy on a Caribbean island, the juxtaposition between where we are and how much hope I see is at times incomprehensible.

At around midnight I finally wrapped up my work and made my way to the field hospital to visit our newest arrival. I met baby Thierry and his mother resting peacefully in the temporary structure that is our maternity ward. Being born in a tap-tap may sound quite dramatic, but had Thierry made it to the field hospital, he would have been the 16th baby born this week in our makeshift shelter – only a slight improvement from a truck bed. As I try to get Thierry to grab onto my finger, his mother tells me how happy and hopeful she is. How thankful and grateful and blessed she is. I certainly feel the same.

Next month, our maternity ward and field hospital will be relocated to J/P HRO’s new permanent urgent care clinic in the neighborhood, the first of its kind for the people of Delmas 32 – just one more step down the road to help Haiti home.

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