Last time I flew into Haiti, I was reading Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” I finished it just as the plane hit the tarmac of the broken-down Port-au-Prince airport. As I closed the book, I looked up and realized why it had resonated. The protagonist and his struggles at sea reminded me of this fascinating and broken place I’d come to call home — a country where work happens, struggles continue, and yet “success” or any kind of respite seem so often out of reach.
It’s now been two years since the largest earthquake to hit the country in 200 years shook the life out of Port-au-Prince, causing chaos, destruction, death, and leaving more people homeless than the wrecked city could cope with. Journalists have come and gone, and the visiting groups of beaming, t-shirted volunteers have become less and less frequent. The work of aid agencies, the private sector, and the government has continued, with varying levels of success amid swathes of challenges, for 24 long months, and will continue for as long as there is the will, funding, and available resources.
Sometimes I find it difficult to discuss progress in Haiti, especially with people at home in Australia. I’m always quizzed about reconstruction: What has been rebuilt? Shouldn’t more be rebuilt by now? For me, “rebuilding” is not the issue. You can’t rebuild the home of a family who never had one, or a school for a child who never had the opportunity to go.
The reality is that Port-au-Prince is a challenging city, and for so many, life remains harsh here.
This is what “progress” means to me. I regularly meet people who tell me their stories. I’ve sat with mothers who were helped to leave a camp and move into a safe apartment with their children via World Vision’s camp transitions program, who’ve told me I cannot possibly understand what it means to them to feel “dignified and beautiful” inside their new home — to not have to share everything they have with strangers, and to sleep in the middle of the day without feeling that they are putting themselves and their children at risk. Women who’ve told me that without World Vision’s psychosocial support, they likely would have taken their own lives. Children who religiously visited World Vision’s Child-Friendly Spaces in camps because it was a place where they could “feel safe.”
The presidential palace may not be rebuilt by now, but burdens on some of Haiti’s most vulnerable have been reduced. Shelters, healthcare, water, education: When you work for an aid agency, these so easily become mere words, but what they have meant to so many, shared with me in honest and teary conversations in the sweltering heat, is difficult to describe.
Living here, there’s something about Haiti that’s captured a little slice of my heart. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Perhaps it’s the pride Haitians have in their country, in bold defiance of the blows she continues to take. The “Haiti cherie” wristbands and the graffiti on the wall that translates to “Haiti will not die.” The way Haitians don’t fold to foreign workers but make you earn their trust.
I can’t claim to be an expert on the Haitian public. Of course, there is still anger and dejection here, and there should be. But I do know that Haitians are a people who can stand up and sing in a street that has fallen down around them.
Personally, I put great hope in children and youth — in young people who may indeed want to leave here and study in Miami, New York, or Montreal, but who then want to come back. Or in teenage girls I meet time and time again, who have fires burning inside of them and want to help this place — the place they call home.
I never feel that Haiti is a lost cause or a hopeless nation. It’s a country that fought for its independence at great sacrifice — and established a language and a rich and intriguing culture that never ceases to interest, amaze, or confuse me. In an odd and broken way, it’s beautiful.
Two years ago this week, too many lives were crushed by the very land that formed so much of their identity. To honor these people, Haiti doesn’t need to be “rebuilt” now to what it was. It needs to become the place it deserves to be — that it wasn’t, before the quake. A place where children all go to school, where healthcare isn’t a privilege, and where safe shelter for families is not the stuff of dreams. This is idealistic, probably naive, but it’s what keeps me here. It’s what I’ll be thinking about on the anniversary of that fateful day.
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Meg Sattler is a communications officer from World Vision Australia living in Haiti, documenting humanitarian work there for the past two years.
Read related posts about the two-year anniversary of the Haiti earthquake: From heartbreak to hope in Haiti: Two years in photos, Ask an aid worker about Haiti, and Do you let the media influence you?