Sunday, June 9, 2013

June 9, honouring my heroes

June 9, honouring my heroes

It's 13°C and raining when we land in Toronto. What the hell am I doing here? 

I spent 12 days and 11 nights in hot, sunny, humid Port-au-Prince, a vital, hectic city in its third year of fragile recovery.  The struggle to take two consecutive steps forward without stumbling backwards is a historic and heroic one. Disease, colonization, slavery, civil wars, dictatorships, invasions, natural disasters are it's continuous cycles. 

But there are heroes everywhere:

- at a small private school in Delmas 19 just down the street from Wall's International guest house where I comfortably stayed.  It's operated by Edmond Joseph, a dedicated, outgoing 40-year-old school director who has focused the last 10 years of his life building his dream to educate young Haitians. His small, open classrooms hold the promise of Haiti's future, eager young minds seemingly oblivious to the heat, noise and sparseness of their lives and surroundings but determined on attaining the graduation certificates which will be their tickets to something or somewhere better. 

- at a tiny, well-kept orphanage with pink painted cement block walls in Cabaret outside Port-au-Prince, where Camille Otum, an ex-pat Haitian and her small band of volunteers from small-town Ontario have established a home for a dozen orphans aged one and a half to 12. It's as meagre a refuge as you can find but is validated by the kids who welcome their surrogate parents and visitors with kisses, hugs and bright, excited faces. A girl of seven or eight, in her best after school dress, instinctively holds her recently arrived baby brother on her hip, surrounded by siblings obviously proud to present their newest little family member. Healthy and hopeful, these kids, sustained by love and precious few resources, are also the promise of Haiti's better tomorrow's. 

- at the new, Haitian managed Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Institute, operated jointly by Healing Hands for Haiti and Handicap International where trained Haitians are providing physical therapy and fabricating custom orthotics and prostheses; and training students in internationally certified prosthetic and orthotic programs. It's bright orange walls surrounded by lush tropical trees and vegetation are in strikingly hopeful contrast to the neighboring mountain side slum (bidonville) that overlooks the facility.

- in Delmas 19 where Haitian work crews, having done with the earthquake rubble, earn the new minimum wage of $5US/ day making the new rubble of progress digging up the neighbourhood's old roadbed and laying down new in the brilliant, broiling 39C Port au Prince sunlight.

And there are my own heroes; reuniting with them was the greatest gift of this trip - Franz Noel (in the photo), Dr. Ben Nau and Antonio Kebreau, who worked with me before and after the earthquake as dedicated professionals with Healing Hands for Haiti, and as Haitians who love their country and reserve a special empathy for the 800,000 persons living with disabilities in their homeland. They and their colleagues do the greatest service to those in the greatest need. From them I have learned about friendship and loyalty; from Haiti, about myself and things larger than me.

Heroes making progress, progress making history. Can the orbits of disaster be nudged to avoid more collisions? Can the nation's DNA mutate enough so that this people, created by one of the worst failures of humanity, will be selected for survival, adapt for success and not become an abandoned orphan of human civilization. For fragile Haiti and its proud, resilient, survivors, extinction, I believe, is not an option.

Home now, with its comforts and regime; happy to have been briefly in the place I most like to be. Happy to think about and prepare myself to go back again. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

June 3 The rubble of progress

June 3 The rubble of progress

I feel like I'm at the epicentre of progress and reconstruction in Haiti. 

8 Mackandal St., in the Delmas 19 district, is situated exactly at the juncture of two Y intersections placed end-to-end. I can't think of any better way to describe this intersection, right outside Wall's International Guesthouse. Facing the street at diagonals to each other are a bougainvillea, plantaine and coconut tree, blossoming and fruit-filled. I am under the coconuts looking down over the compound wall onto a striking scene: Haitians at work with heavy equipment and tools MAKING rubble in the process of reconstructing a network of roads in the area.

The cacophony is orchestral and plays for days at full volume.

It's not so much the construction noise as the traffic. I'm told that this route is a popular short cut but no one is aware that this week it is completely blocked and bottle necked by road demolition at the narrow juncture of the intersections. The 'under construction' sign a half block away makes it official only to the lengthening line-up looking to get through to the other Y.

Today, the horn section is the loudest:  motorcycle and backhoe backup beeps; honks and air horn BLASTS you can feel from enormous dump trucks and cement trucks; burp-burp-burps from lumbering water trucks; toots from shiny, dusty American cars and rusty tap taps; the quick, authoritative squeals of NGO jeeps.

Everyone wants progress to move forward, FASTER, and says so.

Followed by the mechanical section: low gear grinding and muscled revs of diesels and whines of gas engines; squealing, scraping brakes and rumbling of strained chassis and bottoming shocks. Somehow, in the brief spaces in between you can pick out two guys swinging pick axes singing (I think in harmony) and a rooster crowing on some unknown cue, above it all. Culture and nature, human or animal, will not be pushed out. 

Commerce is in slow but steady motion. And the conductor is doing his best to thread the traffic merging from every direction, motioning vigorously to guide the continuous parade of new Haitian reconstruction artillery around the crew manning jack hammers, cement saws and power shovel, who are fearless and never flinch. A tall, bent man pushing a wheel barrow stacked high with old wicker furniture took almost20 minutes to pick his way through the scene, but made it. He stops to pick a plantaine from a low hanging branch, and continues. 

Every order on delivery will be a little late: sand for cement, rebar and wire mesh for strength and resilience, and cement block - to rebuild; empty cola bottles to refill, fresh Coke, Haitian cola and clean water - to slake the thirsty city; plastic plumbing pipe for better sanitation, workers on the new $5US/day minimum wage being trucked to job sites. Jobs.

There are highly visible improvements everywhere in Haiti: street lighting, road and highway building, garbage collection and cleanup, two big new hotels – best Western and Royal Oasis, free schooling for grades one and two in many schools, laws for the rights of persons with disabilities. There are still plenty of problems, old and new, but there is a momentum now that feels like its unstoppable. 

The most striking sign of all, the old earthquake created rubble with it's crushing sorrow and pain,  has been removed, the new reconstruction rubble is being carted off to bury it.  

Sunday, June 2, 2013

June 2 Sister Paola's advice

June 2 Sister Paola's advice

Trying to help another person, a vulnerable group, a village, a country is challenging in the extreme and  always illusive. There is so much need that it's all overwhelming and therefore initiative can be immobilized or doomed. Eyes through which the benefactors are viewed are often clouded by self-interest and perspectives are myopically self-serving.

The complexity of  it all shreds the best and most diligent minds. I've seen lots of evidence of that.

In travels and work with four quite different NGOs and in meeting a number of others since 2006, the difference between what works and what doesn't, at both the individual and organization's level, is simple enough to see but hard to get right.

Character, discipline, focus, empathy, humility are at the top of the list of ingredients that fuse to help create effective, sustainable programs. It always takes money to fuel projects, but donor dollars can't produce desired outcomes by themselves. And it also takes experience, but that is only hard earned by learning through brutal, sometimes costly, trial and error and from the example of others making the mistakes ahead of you.

Humility is the gateway attribute and, in any measure, of course the hardest human attribute to truly comprehend or develop. I was thinking about this in conversation with the Sister Paola Trevino, of Mission Youth, who introduces North American teenagers and young adults to excursions to help in Haiti. She had just returned from a visit to a tent city delivering new beds her crew had made for Haitians still sleeping on the ground three years after the earthquake. None of the all-girl team on this mission had ever been to Haiti or outside the US. The feelings and reactions to what they saw and experienced were seismic.

I have become frustrated on this trip with - logistics, my role and agenda, urgency, a desire to matter, the witnessing of drive-by aid - while, dangerously, having more freedom and spare time that I have had in the past, to think about what I have and have not accomplished over the last 7 years coming here. She told me a story about being in a similar state of mind when she first started in this mission, and how she was admonished by Betsy Wall, the director of The Wall's guesthouse and foundation, for approaching the job the wrong way.

 In essence, she was advised that unless she opened her eyes to what was being offered to her in Haiti, instead of being driven to satisfy the need for finding more ways to give and more solutions to problems, she'd never be any good or do any good.

The offering from Haitians, and the experience of Haiti itself, whether it be friendship and dialogue, awareness of suffering, exercise of compassion, gaining a different perspective on humanity, heightened self-awareness, acceptance of limitations, clarity of purpose, fathoming of meaning, confronting something larger than yourself -  is a gift, a continuing gift, which in the opening and understanding, gets you outside yourself and enables a different dialogue, a new engagement and very special dynamic with yourself and those to whom you want to give a hand.

Be open and accessible, not closed up and driven. Let Haiti and Haitians in; let go of expectations and assumptions you brought with you.

A conversation that will be with me for a long time, and was probably worth the whole trip.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

June 1 On a lighter note

June 1 On a lighter note

The procession of characters continues through the guesthouse. 

A young, arrogant Brit shows up very late last night with high expectations. He doesn't buy into the culture of this establishment with their unlocked doors policy for guests. He's been 'travelling the world ' for seven months and been mugged before, losing all his toys. I interrupt his berating by sharing that it's my first time here as well and this business is owned and managed by Canadians and has an impeccable 30 year reputation among international NGOs. And Sean Penn's crew stay here. What's not to trust?  

Yet, he wants to trust all of Port au Prince and go to the centre by himself by tap tap. I suggest that as a Blanc (he's young, tall, quite handsome, pale white, tourist - at least I'm short and old) and on his first trip to Haiti, I'm guessing he might be safer hiring a driver. At supper tonight he tells me he's gay and the tap tap crowd were very friendly. Gutsier than I thought. 

Another group of young, beautiful and restless Christian missionaries. Very preppy. Their leader  is an emergency room doc right out of med school who says he can do better than just handing out pills by spreading the word and treating the spirit. He looks like a young Mathew McConaughey. Obviously he doesn't have any huge med school debts to pay off and can afford his other priorities. When he learns of my work with medical NGOs, he asks confidently if I can source some deworming pills and antibiotics he forgot to pack. Some priorities. 

I found it strange that, in the morning when he comes to say goodbye, he catches me blowing my sinuses out into a napkin and confidently thrusts his hand out for a goodbye shake. I figure he will lose in the exchange of viruses and that he also has more protection on his side than I do.  Two beautiful guys with two beautiful girls off for a week of proselytizing in the Mountains. Hope they didn't forget their bibles. 

OK, so I don't want to be late for school again today. Rushing through the guesthouse lobby,  I see the principal, Joseph, at the guest computer. 'Hi, where are you going, the school is on holiday today'. OK, I need a detention now.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

May 30 A Priest's story

May 30 A Priest's story

Sitting around the dinner table sipping beer after a long, hot day, the evening breeze can often waft in a good story, some poignant, tragic.

Paola Trevino is the national director for a Catholic youth NGO, Mission Youth International, that offers teens and young adults all over the world the opportunity to do good works in Haiti, as well as other developing countries. A week or two of soul and faith building experience with the flavour of summer camp at the guesthouse in the evenings. Paola has been in Haiti for three years and has seen a lot. Somethings she is lucky to have not seen, but came to know about, and shares.

Father Tom Hagan68, is a Catholic Priest, a member of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, who operates alone in Cité Soleil, the city centre slum with a hellish reputation of for gang control and violence. He spent seven years as Princeton University's chaplain, and started coming to Haiti in 1986.  For more than twenty five years Father Tom has been feeding up to 5000 people a day and running school programs for the slum's families and children. This is a priest, excuse me, with balls.

Cité Soleil (see the documentary, 'The Ghosts of Cité Soleil') was originally developed as a model inner city community by Duvalier. It eventually fell into disrepair, despair, disrepute -  closed off from the rest of the city by competing gangs holding both the authorities and often the residents hostage to their crimes and lifestyle. Part of their self-acclaimed mandate, inherited from generations and centuries of oppression from all sides, is to keep foreigners and authorities out of their lives.

In effect they are kind of nationalist bandits, an alternative to the corrupt authorities and foreigners they detest, who take and control everything by every means at their disposal - shooting, murder, beatings, theft, hate. I might be oversimplifying or not; this slum is a complex cultural phenomenon penetrated by very few organizations, first among them Médicines sans Frontier who play anyway they have to, to do their acute and preventative medicine and life saving programs.

It's a tough game with no favourites allowed and a delicate balance of street diplomacy. Two years ago the country made a huge effort to clean the place out. The UN and Police Nationale d'Haïti stormed in and took back the slum street by street until every gang member they could find was captured or killed or fled. For a while you could go in and bring water trucks and aid workers. No, it's all back to normal.

Against this backdrop works Father Thomas and Hands Together, his own foundation, very

independent of the Church. He refuses to leave, because no one else would replace him. 

He deals with the gangs head on, as they deal with him. They tolerate him because he has the courage that they do not and his work is effective and he is well known and accepted. But tolerance is all on their terms.

To assert their authority sometime ago, Paola tells me, they killed his right hand man in front of him while holding a gun to his head so that there was nothing he could do, but stay. This man was his best friend and had saved his life in the earthquake of January 11, 2010 when Father Tom was buried under rubble along with some 300,000 other victims who died in the 30 second calamity.

No authority or justice here to deal with rage and terror confined in a city slum with no moral sunlight from above to shine on it - only the harsh Haitian one, relentlessly blasting tin roofs, cooking anyone inside, burning the souls of their young ones, testing the resilience of every cell in every body.

Father Tom stopped bringing in Haitian assistants, he now employees large numbers of only Haitians from Cité Soleil to run and learn how to run the programs. This, all second hand from a woman who knows and meets with him. Her deep convictions and beliefs in his holiness stem the sadness and pain of the human condition existing just on the other side of the street from the regular, broken, struggling Port-au-  Prince.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

May 29 Cabaret - the orphanage

May 29 Cabaret - the orphanage

It's Haiti and we need help. Heading out of Port au Prince, we break down. Long time at the side of the road fiddling with the battery terminals and electronics. Ironic that Haitians are moving quickly in all directions all by themselves, but we aren't going anywhere. A miracle turns the engine over but we crawl with almost no power for miles, then run out of gas. The driver hadn't filled up or tuned up, apparently. It's hot and discouraging, especially after the team's 24 hour flight delay to get here. But spirits are buoyed by a little humour and faith that we'll get there eventually. We do, in due course. 

Things seldom go all right in Haiti. Patience and lots of plan Bs are essential. And often so many resources are required to do so little. 13 people lost 10% of their mission time because a plane caught fire at Port-au-Prince airport, backing up everything. 13 people were held up a whole day due to faulty transportation. 12 day's of plans have to be compressed into fewer than 10 and precious donor dollars were depleted. And like Haitians, everyone gets hungry, tired and thirsty. 

At the Welcome Home Children's Centre orphanage the volunteers quickly fill in the balance of the schedule with giving out cloths, colouring, games and reading stories. Lunch of beans and rice, bananas and water restore some of our energy. The children start singing; the girls lead and boys are coaxed to join in. In the heat, and during a lost hour, these angels silence any doubts about working for and with Haitians in Haiti.

The van is being worked on at a mechanic's and won't be ready for the 2 hour drive back to the city before dark. Another vehicle is commissioned. In Haiti, all things can be fixed in time, we hope.  And after all, the children were never aware of the logistical complexities befalling their surrogate parents. They were happy with sincere attention and love, a few gifts and relief from boredom of the hot, early summer afternoons after school. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

May 28 Waiting in Haiti

May 28 Waiting in Haiti

My iPhone doesn't sync properly on Haiti time, so, late and missed breakfast again. But wait, the nice lady again brings me breakfast and that strong black coffee. This place is spotless and run very well. The Catholic youth group were up late last night behaving like 10 year olds, not the 19 to 25 age group they are. Loud but very well behaved. Totally innocent and wonderfully naive. They left very early now that the airport is open again. So it's quiet now, too quiet. 

Again, I'm waiting in Haiti - for the team to arrive after flight cancellations, for Haitian friends to show up, for ideas to percolate for the documentary I am thinking about. Time to rest and think and wonder at the characters wandering in and out of Wall's International Guest House, like in a novel or on a movie set.

There is a dentist working on the ubiquitous laptop across from me from Germany, who is setting up terribly needed dental clinics in Haiti. Teaching basic dental hygiene - just simple brushing, like hand washing, would  prevent so much suffering. To prevent awful infections, teeth are just pulled regularly at a young age because they are not cared for. A drastic and permanent solution. 

As we talk, a handsome,  elderly man dressed for a safari strides through - (later I find out he and his wife have built homes for 5 families in the countryside); a plump grey-haired nun, minus the habit (or an NGO matron?) arrives on the scene to announce the planes are flying  this morning; Paola, organizer of the Catholic youth group, Mission Youth, returns form the airport with one poor girl who didn't get on as stand-by; beyond the pool, construction workers are building the establishment's 15-room addition, artfully planing planks and pouring fresh cement.

What exactly am I doing here? Waiting in Haiti. 

I hit pay dirt. Chatting with Veniel, the long time guest house manager, who is in charge of the building project here, I get a short course in managing construction successfully in Haiti; and he has reliable (Baptist!) supplier contacts. Time to set up a meeting with them and Welcome Home Children's Centre and see what happens. Time for a swim. What's that I hear? The clinking of fresh bottles of Prestige going into the beer and pop fridge? Then I'm going to go outside the wall and walk to Joseph's school alone and see what the kids are being taught. 

I find it by wandering a little and asking, but the kids are coming home from school! Joseph is not there. I'm late again, But I'm greeted by two teens who are his students. Again, such refreshing youth, Haitian youth this time. One wants to be a doctor, the other a lawyer - 'there is no justice in Haiti' he complains sincerely. We chat in the shade of the intense heat and meet some family. I had brought along a big box of reader glasses and sunglasses. Each picks a pair. John, the future doctor, follows me back to the guest house because he wants to practice English; he's already pretty good. He wants to meet again. I tell him, I'll try to be on time tomorrow or the next day. We get some pics taken - it's an event for both of us. 

What a nice thought Cathy sent me today:
'it's nice for you to have some downtime in the place you love most on earth.' 

Whew, I can start feeling less guilty now. I admit - real happy to be here.

My oldest son's birthday, today. Happy birthday Paul. 47, no way! What does that make me? A very proud Dad.

Monday, May 27, 2013

May 27 Awakening to Haiti

May 27 Awakening to Haiti

Can I get this beautiful piece home?  Done it before.

May 27. I sleep in, no surprise there. Breakfast is over but one of the female Haitian staff brings me a tray of mango and watermelon slices, omelet and bread and local peanut butter. Coffee is sooo strong. Points for the guesthouse service.

I chat with David from PEI who has spent two weeks working on developing agri projects in mountain communities. I connect with my friend Antonio. He may drop over for a cold one later. Finish editing the new Welcome Home Children's Centre web site and send it LIVE, while their team is here in Haiti.

There is a group of 40 young people with a Catholic NGO staying at this guest house. They actually partied quite well last night to overcome their trauma of being  pushed around by over enthusiastic Haitians while distributing school supplies in a tent city. No surprise there, when there is never enough to go around, you're in trouble. A lot of noise and high testosterone fuelled tempers. Learning experience.

I'm stuck in the guesthouse compound for now, although quite comfortable, as there was an accident at the airport today and flights in and out were cancelled so my team is stuck somewhere. To keep busy I've offered to go to a nearby school to speak with the kids. How will I know what to say?

From outside the security gates, the sounds of barking dogs, motorcycles, truck horns, helicopters and blaring kompa music from  speakers mounted inside pick-ups. Peering over the wall, the street scene is dominated by giant dump trucks still hauling away loads of seemingly endless rubble from the neighbourhoods streets and back lanes. Looking a lot better. To close the day I get a surprise phone call from one of my former staff, Myrlene, a young guest house worker. Very sweet, she was excited to chat and catch up.

May 26 Arriving in Haiti

May 26 Arriving in Haiti

Molly, our jet black Labradoodle, is up with us early at 3:30 a.m. and is really frisky knowing something is up. Beautiful sunrise at Toronto airport. Toronto looks so green from above.

Sat near a young black couple in the food court in Miami airport. They noticed my Haiti bracelet. We got to talking and they are originally from Port-au-Prince. After schooling in Haiti, they were fortunate enough to leave to attend universities in the States. They are living in New York, just got married last night and on their way to a honeymoon in Cancun. Very sweet and happy couple, very interested in work with persons with disabilities in Haiti and expressed how they want to return someday to help. They represent the very lucky few, young, educated, energetic Haitians who will either escape their homeland or reconnect and be part of the promise of Haiti's future. 

On the flight I chat it up with a Haitian couple about my age returning from holidays in Mexico. Again, part of a fortunate minority but very conscious of hard circumstances in their country. After listening to why I come to Haiti, Remy, the husband, thanks me for my sacrifice in helping the Haitian people. Aware of how little I can do, I can only tell him I am honoured to do something - because I am.

We land in 89 F overcast sky. If I have been cold since last summer through this chilly Canadian spring, I'm not anymore. 

Wonderful to see the new American Airlines terminal in Port at Port-au-Prince airport. Sharp picture of Michel Martelly hanging on the freshly painted walls. And lots of  festive Haitian tourism posters and promotional murals. Nowhere near as chaotic as before. I'm singled out for a baggage check by a customs inspector. She rifles through the miscellaneous donated clothes, shoes, gifts and eyeglasses in my hockey bag without protesting. She ends our conversation by telling me in French, "you are handsome," no kidding. Her assistant translates in case I didn't guess it : "You're fine, you look good."

The usual airport helpers are there pressing to make a few American dollars by escorting you out to the parking area. All goes well as we head out into the city to Wall's International Guesthouse. The clouds are banked high like mountains on top of the mountains at the edge of the city. It's going to rain, as it often does in the late afternoon and evening in May and June.

But Port-au-Prince looks a little greener, and the bougainvilleas are in full bloom.