When a car breaks down in Port au Prince, the driver’s default is to either abandon the car until further notice, or wait for someone to come by and help repair the vehicle—yes, exactly where it is, in the middle of a 1 ½ lane, two-way street. Such decisions result in hours of traffic congestion, frustration, and lots of sweat while sitting under Haiti’s unrelenting sun. So, for the past three and a half months, I have learned to build traffic-time into my daily schedule, while I pass by unchanging collapsed buildings, and street vendors scrambling to sell whatever that day may bring to the market (today it was television antennas, car floor mats, purple detergent, and delicious avocados).
One recent evening, I encountered one of the most delightful traffic jams ever. At first, it seemed like the usual “driver’s default” decision to block one of the one-and-a-half available lanes. I waited quietly 30 minutes and then decided to adopt the local custom—abandon my own vehicle in the middle of the road, and investigate further. I made my way up the hill, passing a line of at least 100 abandoned cars, and joined a steady movement of people heading in the same direction. A few minutes later, I found myself among a crowd of hundreds of Haitians, waiting eagerly to enter another reality for the next 90 minutes—an impromptu outdoor movie screening.
The screen was set up in the middle of the street, next to a displaced persons camp, now home to approximately 3,000 people. The captive and polite crowd was comprised of those from the next door tent-camp and those that poured into the streets from nearby neighborhoods still intact to enjoy the spectacle. With thousands standing on both sides of the white screen, all eyes gazed at an independent film that depicted the challenges of post-earthquake life, accompanied by an uplifting soundtrack. It was a Kodak-moment of relief to an otherwise desperate country, struggling to rise again.
The movie ended, the credits rolled, and people returned to their tents, cars and homes. As I made my way back to the car, passing the line of abandoned cars awaiting their owners, I had one question on my mind:
What are we aid workers doing in Haiti to create uplifting, magical moments like the one I experienced, and also ensure such moments are able to extend into sustainable, long-term “realities of relief”?
Below are three responses to this paramount question—inspired by Maimonides’ ladder of meaningful Tsedaka, the highest rung strategically striving toward the recipients’ self-reliance:
1. This month, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), for whom I work, together with Haiti’s General Hospital in Port au Prince (Hopital de l’Université d’Etat d’Haiti), Magen David Adom, Haitian Red Cross, Sheba Medical Center in Israel, and a German aid organization (LandsAid) will complete the establishment of a state-of-the-art, fully functional, A-Z rehabilitation center and prosthetic production lab. The implications of this operation will change the reality for hundreds of disabled amputees in Port au Prince for whom walking again will no longer remain just a dream.
2. At this moment, there are thousands of Haitian children living in a forgotten village just outside of Port au Prince, called Les Orangers. There is no school to attend in the area. For those few with the financial means to attend school, they must travel a 15 mile long truck-filled road. This daily journey is a life-threatening one. To complicate matters, this same village is currently absorbing thousands of homeless Haitians displaced since January’s earthquake. Next month, together with ProDev, one of our local partners in Haiti, JDC will break ground on what will become the Les Orangers JDC Middle School. In January 2011, the middle school will welcome its first class of 600 youngsters, who will no longer be deprived of a child’s basic right to education.
3. Over half of Haiti’s population lives in rural, remote areas. That is over 5,000,000 people. In many cases, Haiti’s rural population has no choice but to walk for days in search of the most basic of health care services. During the earthquake, the need for medical care in Haiti’s countryside was further exacerbated as the damage in areas like Leogane (the quake’s epicenter) and farming regions further inland, suffered tremendous damage to human life. Fueled by the belief that all human beings, regardless of location, bear the right to medical care, JDC committed to changing the rural medical reality in select parts of Haiti. We purchased a boat, together with the Union for Reform Judaism, that traverses Haiti’s western coastline five days a week staffed by a top-level medical team from International Medical Corps. The sick who would otherwise walk at least five hours inland to access medical care, are now traveling less than a half hour to the shores of Haiti where they are met by a team of doctors—and the healing process can begin. JDC has also purchased six 4 X 4 fully equipped ambulances that are trailblazing into the country side to transport the frail to available medical care. JDC partners, Zanmi La Sante (Partners in Health) and EcoWorks, are facilitating this life-saving operation. An additional four 4 X 4 vehicles are currently on the roads of Haititransporting hundreds of medical volunteers to remote areas with people in need of assistance. The boat and 10 vehicles are now integrated into the medical-care fabric of Haiti’s countryside, and in many cases are making the difference between life and death.
Other Jewish aide organizations from the United States and Israel are working hard in Haiti to create new, sustainable realities of relief for those currently unable to do so on their own. I only ask that as 5771 begins, that you keep the massive need of the people of Haiti—now removed from the headlines—in your thoughts and actions.
Last week, I took one of my new friends in Haiti out for lunch. She survived Haiti’s earthquake under very difficult and traumatic circumstances. At her request, she will remain nameless. As we broke bread together, she began sharing the very graphic and horrific details of her experience being narrowly trapped between two slabs of concrete. While it was clear that this conversation was cathartic for her, I decided to openly question her desire to go into such great detail. She offered the following profound response, which I will paraphrase:
“Gideon,” she said, “I know who you are and where you’ve come from. I know you are Jewish, and I know you are from Israel. I know of the trials and tribulations, catastrophes and atrocities your people have experienced. I know you were slaves in Egypt, were expelled from Spain, persevered as Refusenicks in the U.S.S.R, and I know you lost millions of souls in the Holocaust. And I know you were alone, without anyone at your side in these darkest hours. …And today I know that you have joined hands with Haiti to help us rebuild in the wake of our disaster. Despite the world’s silence in your times of need, you are here with us.”
I offered a slight nod, smiled, and bowed my head in humility to the profundity of her knowledge and understanding of our history and narrative, and its impact on our decisions as a Jewish organization to “parachute” into disaster zones in the pursuit of justice and relief for the voiceless, invisible, and forgotten.
May this Rosh HaShana bring compassion and generosity to vulnerable populations across our globe, health and optimism to the lonely and traumatized, and enduring realities of relief to the resilient people of Haiti.
Gideon Herscher, a native of Los Angeles, is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) representative in Haiti.