Recovering Haiti, renewing hope

Dear Friends,

A friend here recently said “things are starting to come back; not to normal, just back.” There is a new normal in Port-au-Prince, with a large portion of the population living in makeshift tents of sheets and tarps spread over every inch of the capital’s rare open spaces, from the grounds of the presidential palace (imagine a tent city on the White House lawn), to the large city park, the Champs de Mars, to Haiti’s only golf course at the Petionville Country Club. Food, water and sanitation are extremely difficult for these people, many of whom escaped with only the clothes on their backs, and the government, whose infrastructure was hit hard, seems simply overwhelmed.

In the midst of this, Haiti’s informal infrastructures have worked in its favor. Many, if not most businesses (from clothing to auto repair to restaurants) are run by street merchants, and if there is no longer opportunity for them at their old place of business, they have decamped with the population to the tent cities: it is still possible to buy a pair of second-hand jeans, get a tire fixed and have a sandwich, all at once, in a place that was completely uninhabited three weeks ago.

HELP has followed this model to some extent. As I explained in an earlier update, we have set up a temporary HQ in a student house that an architect has certified as having “no significant damage.” Almost half of our students have returned to Port-au-Prince (most left for home immediately following the quake), but some are still reluctant to return until the aftershocks subside. Apparently the number (50+) and time frame (two weeks) of the aftershocks make for a very rare post-quake pattern, one which seismologists, let alone traumatized victims, have trouble interpreting.

Most of our staff is also back to work. Our Administrator, Edelyne Paul, was operated on yesterday to set a broken foot, and we were also visited by Jean-Dumas Maurice, a HELP alum and our IT manager, who sustained a broken arm and a scalp wound when a neighboring three-story building collapsed on the computer lab.

Engineering students at work in HELP's temporary headquarters

Jean-Dumas Maurice, HELP's IT Manager

Garry says that if we hadn’t been here to organize the students, he is sure they would have all gone home and stayed there until school opened again. Instead, our students are learning and assisting their neighbors in need. This week, we started 8 hours a week of English and Spanish classes and our leadership program, which frequently has to take a back seat when university is in session, has also been ramped up to 8 hours per week. Students have a full morning schedule with afternoons free for homework and service projects. On the admin side, we are working on backing up files for the data that was not backed up prior to the quake, although fortunately, all of our accounting info and much of the staff data was backed up and retrievable.

Open-air Spanish classes at the HELP Center

Again, the only reason we are able to do any of this is because of your generous and immediate response. In the week following the quake, we received $25,000 in donations, and the Ekta Foundation generously agreed to match that. (By the way, President Obama just signed a law making all gifts to the relief effort between 1/12 and 3/1/10 eligible for a 2009 charitable tax deduction).

Thanks to Ashok and Amrita Mahbubani and the other Ekta board members for their swift action. The donations have continued to come in, and we will continue to need them to fund these unanticipated operations. We are now providing three meals a day for 50 people, and while that number is sure to increase as more of our students return, there is no end in sight to Haiti’s new reality.