|Posted by Angelo Omar on January 27, 2010 at 10:03 AM|
The Resilience of Haiti by A. Omar Muhammad
The memory of smelling the stench of dead bodies while driving through Port-Au-Prince and other areas of Haiti will only be a small part of what I took back home with me. I also took a host of other thoughts, emotions and a continued desire to give to those less fortunate.
When I heard the news of the earthquake it seems like something took over andI new that I would soon be in Haiti helping those who lost some of their family members in the earthquake that registered 7.0. It didn't matter if anyone came with me because I realized that God would be looking after me. I scheduled the flight for Monday, January 18, 2010, which just so happened to be the day that many would be celebrating the life and legacy of the great humanitarian, Martin Luther King Jr. When my friend Julius Tajiddin found out I was headed there by myself he connected me Jim Kushner, who was also arriving the same day from New York. Julius felt that with my journalism skills and Jim's connections, that we could be mutually beneficial. We both flew into the Santo Domingo airport since the Port-Au-Prince airport was shut down to commercial flights. I had already made plans to take a tour bus into Haiti the next day but I decided, with much insistence from Julius,that I would go and meet Jim, who I later found out is a member of the Rotary Club and an armed services veteran.
When I got to his hotel the next day he introduced me to other volunteers who had come to assist with the devastation in Haiti. Jim's group was called CDRS, the Comprehensive Disaster Response Service, which also included 89 year old Bill Delong, Soledad Kaplan, who met Jim at the airport and was a bilingual social worker having roots in Ecuador and Spain. Andrea Shiffman, an english/french translator was also with Jim. I was also introduced to a team of doctors representing IMANA, the Islamic Medical Association of North America which included doctors Kanwal Chaudhy, Nabile Safdar, Najeeb Rahman from Leeds, England, and Isha Mian. I would later meet Sameer Gafoor and Irvan Galaria, a plastic surgeon who set up a medical camp in the Port Au Prince area near the U.S. Embassy with the help of Aimer Haiti, an organization that existed in Haiti prior to the earthquakes.
We piled in to two vehicles that were equipped with sirens and started our approximately eight hour journey into Haiti, stopping first at the supermarket to purchase food includingrice, beans and cereal. The highway leading us out of Santo Domingo was smooth and the scenic views were spectacular. This was temporary relief to the unsettling thoughts of what was happening to the people of Haiti based on what I had already seen on in depth reports by Anderson Cooper and others on CNN.
Once in the Port-au-Prince area, even in the dark we immediately witnessed the devastation of collapsed buildings and smelled the stench of dead bodies but as we rode up the mountain Inoticed that it was less destruction than that on the lower planes. Onthe top of one mountain was the beautiful estate of Attorney Jean Henry Ceant and his wife. The entrance had two large side by side doors andas they opened I immediately noticed the armed guards. This home was fabulous inside and out and had not visibly been affected by the earthquake. Once inside we were shown the location of our sleeping quarters and invited downstairs to eat.
The following day wasWednesday, January 20, 2010 and at 6 o'clock in the morning I was up praying when I felt myself rock backwards. I was sharing the room with Bill, who asked immediately after the first movement, if any felt the room move. We both agreed that it was real. We later found out that itwas the second earthquake which registered 6.1, but the difference between the two earthquakes was the length of time that they lasted. I was told by some of the people in Haiti, that the first earthquake lasted for about 30 seconds whereas the second one only lasted about 7seconds. As you can imagine, emotions immediately following this second earthquake were running sky high. There were tears flowing from theeyes of Mrs. Ceant and Andrea as they comforted each other outside. Mrs. Ceant cried often and when I spoke to her she explained that she felt great pain for the people of Haiti and in particular for thechildren and youth who lost their lives. She said that during the timeof the first earthquake there were two universities that were insession and both of those buildings came tumbling down. With more tears in her eyes, she said that those university students represented the future of Haiti.
We loaded up in the vehicles and headed to Bojeux Park,which was the amusement park that was converted into a medical camp.This was accomplished by medical doctors like those belonging to organizations like IMANA, joining forces with Aimer Haiti, a grassroots organization run mostly by the Ceant’s family and friends. I rode with Olivier Kernizan, who is also part of the Ceant family. We detoured out to the airport and I had a chance to hear from some of the people of Haiti who were there trying to figure out what to do. Since I don't speak Creole or French I took along a few cue cards prompting thepeople to tell me their names, if they had family in the USA, and their contact information. I was fortunate to get assistance from Belizoire Pierre Amderson, who happened to be bilingual and was gracious enough to translate for me as we walked around the grounds to find people whowanted to communicate to others. One man explained that he had lost so many of his family members and that he is sometimes afraid. A young lady said that she didn't have anyone to turn to since both of her parents resided in other countries and that she could not get assistance at the U.S. Embassy. Others who stood outside the heavily guarded airport were trying to find work as translators.
We left the airport and headed into the town of Port-au-Prince to find so many people in the streets, most looking like they were busy doing something. Some were cooking food, selling fruit or water or just walking in search of a better arrangement, sometimes carrying a chair, a suitcase or something else that may have been their only possessions in life. I pulled out my cue cards and laid them in the street and motioned to a group of men to read the cards printed in French. I thought about what I was told on the plane by Jacques Jean Louis, whowas returning to Haiti with a group of about 70 people, including somedoctors and nurses, from Toledo, Ohio representing the SCORE/ISOH Medical Mission. Jacques, who was traveling with the group to act as atranslator, told me that in Port-au-Prince the people speak Creole not French as a form of resistance. He said that if they speak to you in Creole then they expect you to speak Creole back to them instead of French and if you don't, then they may get offended. I guess desperate times call for desperate measures and the men did not seem to mind one bit about the language on the cue cards but instead began appealing oncamera to anyone who could help. I stood on the very grounds of the devastation due to the earthquake and saw the destruction first hand. I had never before witnessed anything even close to what I saw.
We piled back in the vehicle and rode around looking at more destroyed buildings and in many areas the distinct and strange stench of death rose again and again reminding us of the people that remained inside of the buildings, some dead and some may have still been alive.
We headed over to the Bojeux Park Medical Camp which acted as the central station for Aimer Haiti and also came equipped with armed guards at the front gate. On one side of the park Aimer Haiti had laptops set up with wireless internet available. On the other side of the park the doctors weregiving care to individuals but had limited medical supplies to perform more advanced surgeries. I was able to capture on video some of the procedures being performed and it was still pretty early in the day so I had planned to upload some of the footage on to youtube and CNN iReport, that same day. I got set up with my laptop but the CDRS members kept asking me to come with them on a food pick up. I convinced myself that I could upload the footage at night when I returned to the Ceant's estate even though they had a wireless system that had not allowed me to upload the night before due to repeated disconnections. So I went outside the gate to find out we were traveling in moving van. It was an open back box truck similar to a large Uhaul vehicle.
We drove past the airport, the UN and the US Embassy, with my behind bouncing off the floor of the truck where I sat down after realizing I could no longer bear standing due to my herniated disk. Dorfeville Jean Jacques, the Health Coordinator for the City of Carnefoul, did provide about 70 cases which could have actually fit in a mini van. The supplies he had were being housed in a stadium which also had armedguards at the gates and on the grounds. Many of the people in the stadium were only there for shelter and were not working to load the truck, but instead were just standing around watching the process. That seemed strange to me so I questioned Mr. Jean Jacques about it. He said that he did not have any money to pay the people and therefore they could not work. I suggested that they may work for food instead. His eye contact said he agreed with me but his shoulder shrug said it wasout of his hands.I assisted with loading some of the cases and thenwent to talk to some of the people and take photographs. One of the youth began to talk to me about possible work that he could do. I asked if he had any contact information and like many others, to my surprise, he did. He went to write down his number after I gave him one of my business cards. This started a chain reaction and many others who were there began to do the same. Soon I had about eight telephone numbers.
We headed back to the Ceant estate, where once again we were greeted with wonderful hospitality and a great meal. I calmed down after talking to Mrs. Ceant about the Haitian culture and politics.
The next daywe headed out to cover some more ground and this time I rode with Mr.and Mrs. Ceant who wanted us to see the other home and hospitalbuilding that they planned to purchase. Both suffered some minor damage from the earthquake. From there we went to the medical camp where more doctors had arrived and they had just finished a leg surgery. Thedoctors left to go to a larger hospital but one doctor remained behind. He was originally from Haiti but currently resides in Arkansas. He invited me to come along with him and Girovna E. Brice, who was amember of Aimer Haiti, to a camp set up for orphaned children. Girovnawas also the Director or "Presidente" of Orchidee Camp which had abuilding that was desroyed and they had now set up tents in a park thatis privately owned. This camp was one of the better looking camps thatI saw as I traveled around and even had a huge tank of water that had just been delivered. When I asked if they were getting assistance from the government, the answer was a very hearty - "No". When the pastor who was over the church that oversees the camp arrived I asked if hewas confident that the aid would reach the areas of Haiti that needed it and again the answer was no. After I asked if he had been to the radio stations to get more information out, he said that he would approach the radio stations to gain more attention from a wider audience in order to establish what supplies are needed and where they should go. Up to that point, he said, they were to busy caring for the children.
On our way back to the medical camp I felt like I had a good day and accomplished much but I expressed to Girovna that I still wanted to see more, so she took me to see the seven story hospital and the two universities that were destroyed, which Mrs. Ceant had told me about.
Once again back at the estate we were treated to another fine meal. All of the meals I had the pleasure of eating since I arrived were delicious and always consisted of rice and beans. Thefirst two nights goat was also served and on this, my final night inHaiti, it was chicken. I was grateful either way because when I left Atlanta, Georgia, I took enough trail mix, sunflower seeds and dates to last the whole week. I really didn't expect to eat full meals in a country that was so devastated.
The next morning I got a ride to the bus station to head back to Santo Domingo. I said a great prayer of thanks that I was on the bus because the station was so crowded and if I didn’t get a ticket I would have to wait until the following day toleave. For $1,500.00 pesos I checked in to Ivis Aparta Hotel located at Av.27 de Febrero No. 196 in Santo Domingo. It is very reasonably pricedand comes equipped with wi-fi. I uploaded some video footage, showered and said a prayer for the people of Haiti asking that the aid coming from around the world gets into the hands of those who need it.The next morning I uploaded more footage until my driver came to take me to the airport. That cost me another $800.00 pesos. I was on the stand-by list for the flight but it was overbooked. I got to the airport more than two hours ahead of time. I went through the check-in and the baggage inspection and was off to the gate. Once they started boarding Iapproached the agent and to my pleasant surprise, I was given a seatassignment. Needless to say I was happy.
Once in my seat I was reflective of my journey. I had seen first hand a country that was devastated by two earthquakes. I smelled the stench of death throughout the streets. I saw desperation in the eyes of many. I witnessed military maneuvers that appeared too radical and was not building goodwill amongst the people. I saw armed forces who, in my opinion, should have been passing out food and water but instead were riding through the streets making Haiti look like a war zone. I'd seen a malfunction in the process of distribution of goods and services. I had seen a lack of proper logistics in connecting the key agencies involved in the process. I had seen the lack of a team that would be responsible for the accountability of those receiving the aid. All hope is not lost however because I had also seen volunteers at work. I had seen doctors and nurses pouring into the country. I had seen great coverage of events from CNN and others including my own posted to my website at www.tamoca.com . I had seen unity of some organizations. I had seen hope and smiles on the faces of children. I had seen women cooking in a kettle and making enough beans and rice to feed families. Most of all, I had seen supreme resilience in a people. Yes, that's it... RESILIENCE!
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Labels: A Omar Muhammad,Andrea Shiffman,earthquake,Girona E Brice,Haiti,James Kushner,Jean Henry Ceant,Julius Tajiddin,Najeeb Rahman,Olivier Kernizan,Port Au Prince,Sameer Gafoor,Soledad Kaplan