When a 7.2-magnitude earthquake shook Haiti on January 12, 2010, the country not only experienced a devastating transformation of the physical landscape, but the widespread destruction would beckon the reunification of a commitment to a country that many had left or forgotten.
At 4:53 pm, the earth trembled for what seemed, to many, an eternity. Cries of “mes amis” echoed in the skies as men and women raised their hands in anguish. “Mes amis,” a French term with the literal translation of “my friends.” For Haitians, however, in a time of crisis, “mes amis” serves as an expression of grief, a bemoaning of utter heartache. “Mes Amis!” Panicked people roamed the streets searching for their loved ones, their lives, their futures. Buildings collapsed to rubble as the ground opened in an ostensible rage and swallowed every existence atop its surface. Cars, homes, people disappeared into a chasm of bitter emptiness, of seemingly hollow earth. People became trapped under the impossible weight of concrete slabs; they lay waiting to be rescued, some for days, some for weeks, some forever. In nearly an instant, Haiti’s existence, from the simple to the complex, changed eternally.
Six months following the earthquake, with countless thousands dead, 1.5 million homeless and unprecedented structural damage forcing the country to a near halt, Haitians and others are now engaged in the demanding and painstaking work of nation-building. Yet efforts to rebuild the country are facing nearly insurmountable obstacles. Despite the earnest and benevolent actions of donors and volunteers, Haiti remains a country in need of extensive assistance. While individuals and organizations worldwide began to help Haiti immediately following the earthquake, much of the aid promised to the country has not yet been granted. At an international aid conference in March, supporters pledged $5.3 billion dollars for Haitian relief. As of mid-July, less than two percent of that money has been paid to the United Nations-supported group created to oversee the funds. Contrarily, numerous non-profit organizations have distributed donated funds for Haitian relief, but much more is needed.
While the rate of Haitian immigration from the country has steadily increased over the course of the last half century, the earthquake has encouraged a pattern of reverse immigration for some Haitian nationals determined to raise Haiti from the rubble. Many Haitians distressed by the disaster have either permanently or temporarily relocated to Haiti to assist in rebuilding the country of their birth. Alexandra Azor, a dual citizen of the United States and Haiti, is one such woman. Born and raised in Haiti, Azor left the country for the U.S. in 1990 for college, but has returned yearly to visit family and friends. She was vacationing in Haiti for the Christmas holiday and left just a few days before the earthquake occurred. And then January 12 arrived. Azor watched from her home in the U.S., panic-stricken, as the damage caused by the quake began to be revealed through the horrifying and unspeakable images aired on twenty-four-hour news networks. She knew she had to do more than simply watch and worry.
Described by friends as a woman who embodies the Haitian spirit, a spirit said by Haitians and others to be composed of resolve, determination, and vigor in the face of utter tragedy, Azor made a sacrifice that few are willing to make. A Healthcare Finance and Operations Consultant with an MBA and MHA, Azor returned to Haiti shortly following the quake to serve as a medical volunteer. In May, she accepted a position with a leading Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) in Haiti to reinforce specialized medical education for doctors and nurses, and to help ensure that medical facilities provide quality medical services to local citizens.
The following is an excerpt from an interview I conducted with Azor via e-mail. It reveals not only the depth of the structural, economic, and medical needs of Haitians, but it also enables us to gauge the level of commitment that Azor and other Haitian nationals have to restoring their country to greatness.
Scott: What has been the most disturbing thing about the earthquake?
Azor: The obvious “lack of everything” that was just exposed to the international community, which unfortunately existed before the earthquake, and the surprise which was exhibited by many in terms of their lack of knowledge on how bad the situation was for millions even before the earthquake (lack of access to many of the basic services which people should in theory be entitled to).
Scott: How has the earthquake transformed Haiti? The landscape? The people?
Azor: In my humble opinion, besides the obvious devastating, unimaginable impact of the earthquake (loss of lives, collapsed and damaged structures, further diminished capacity or halt to the operations and functions of critical services such as government, medical care, education, etc.), the earthquake to me has not “transformed’ Haiti. It has just exposed to the world what has always existed and was not effective for the “greater good.” But obviously the impact of the earthquake remains earth shattering in terms of the emotional / physical pain which remains for millions, specially those who lost family and friends. The visual daily reminders with the rubble remain. In terms of the people and how the earthquake has transformed them: well that remains to be seen. The only obvious transformation may be a realization that a situation that was already alarming became even worse.
Azor: What is commonly referred to as “The Haitian Spirit,” which lead our ancestors to 1804 and so many other historical dates or events: the Resilience, Courage, Hopefulness even in Despair, the Rich Culture.
Scott: What are some of the most disturbing things that you have seen as a result of the earthquake?
Azor: The almost silent acceptance of a lack of vision and plan. The return to this appalling “new normal.” The quick return to the indifference and greed which existed before the earthquake. The constant blame of everything that is wrong on the earthquake when the “lack of everything” existed before that dreadful day.
Scott: What are some of the most encouraging things that you have seen as a result of the earthquake?
Azor: The fact that J12 [January 12] did not affect the “Haitian Spirit” in a negative way (for most). The will of the Haitian people to hold on to the dream of a better tomorrow. The renewed commitment of many from the International Community to support meaningful projects and programs with long-term impact and sustainability. The renewed aspiration of so many Haitian Diaspora to serve their native country by moving back or keeping the message of hope alive abroad.
Scott: What are the relief agencies doing on the ground that you have witnessed?
Azor: Although there is a valid argument for the lack of coordination and centralized effort and the long term commitment and impact on sustainable projects and programs, many relief agencies have been able to fill the gap. Without their support, the situation would be worse. There are many organizations, such as the one I work for, which are committed to projects and programs which will have short and long-term impacts in different sectors. However, the long-term solutions must not only depend on international relief agencies. The long-term solution must start within – with leaders (government, private, etc.), organizations (government, private, public, community based) from and in Haiti with a clear and sustainable vision and plan, which do not only target “pockets of success” but a national, sustainable development plan.
Scott: What still needs to be done?
Azor: J12 to any country would have been devastating. Now it happened in Haiti; therefore, the impact was tenfold because of the deficiencies and inefficiencies which existed before the earthquake. Therefore, before speaking of reconstruction, there are certain needs which existed before J12 which must be addressed. On J11, there were urgent and critical needs in infrastructure, decentralization, housing, education, medical care, agriculture, jobs, etc. etc. etc. Instead of a post-J12 plan, the leaders and organizations committed to the long-term journey should combine the pre-J12 needs, which remain, to the impact of J12, and not only on a short-term “pockets of success” but by developing long-term sustainable programs and projects which will address all those needs. In the meantime, here we are at the hurricane season and during the past six months there have been many conferences, debates, and lots of conversations. Yet Haiti remains one hurricane or major event away from another devastating disaster. Therefore, what still needs to be done is A LOT, if not ALL.
Q: Which individuals/organizations are, in your opinion, doing the most to assist Haiti right now?
Azor: I will not name specific organizations but there are many local and international organizations which are targeting specific issues and challenges and trying to find solutions. They are working in the health care, education, micro credit industries. I am proud to have been given the opportunity and the privilege to serve and now to be part of a leading international organization which aims at succeeding within specific sectors, even if it will be through small successes.
There are so many plans from NGOs to build new hospitals, which has pros and cons. Haiti before J12 critically needed new hospitals in every geographical department. Existing medical facilities are closing or have closed or are facing financial difficulties. Many of them can provide quality medical services to the Haitian community and strengthen the economy by keeping current jobs or creating new jobs; therefore, there needs to be a balance between new construction and the decentralization of healthcare services, which is critical but will assure sustainability of existing medical facilities and professionals.
Scott: How can people help Haitians right now?
Azor: The key is for Haitians to help themselves first and foremost. The concept of the “Do It Yourself – NGO” can support that. We must, as Haitians or Haitians of the Diaspora, commit to supporting the efforts needed for this relief and rebuild journey, whether on the ground in Haiti or in our respective communities and networks abroad. Haitians who are able to do so should come and volunteer in various sectors for a week, or more on a continuous basis, as the need will remain for years to come.
Haitians who are able to do so should consider moving back to Haiti. I understand that the process is not easy and there are many things to consider but we as Haitians need to be an integral part of the long term process and not just silent observers in our living rooms or behind a computer. I believe dual citizenship is one of the key solutions which would help the Haitian Diaspora to integrate back into potentially impacting elections, therefore policies (we hope).
Haitians should use every opportunity available within our personal and professional networks to engage each other and engage others into “acting” and not just “observing.” There are so many Haitians or friends of Haiti in positions where they can impact policies and decisions to support the relief and the rebuild effort.
The International Community must remain committed and reevaluate certain practices which have not worked the past decades in Haiti. It must work with members of the local and international Haitian community and collaborate to work towards “Re-Imagining” Haiti. We must dare to think that together we can actually work towards a Haiti that the next generation deserves and is entitled to.
There is also this sense that the biggest vision now is tarps and tents. There needs to be a bigger vision than this. I am not saying they are not needed, but tarps and tents are not a sustainable solution.
HOW YOU CAN HELP:
Other articles by Terry: