Friday, April 9, 2010

Part II – Welcome to Haiti, 2010

Now the trip report …. I arrived in Port-Au-Prince on a steamy, muggy 85 degree early afternoon in mid March. It had just rained (which pretty much is common during the spring months). It had been five years since I was last there. On my last trip, ‘Hurricane Jeanne’ had just devastated the area several months before in 2004, bringing on several disaster floods killing upwards of 3,000 or so people. I was there to help with the disaster relief efforts working with UNESCO cataloging the incoming supplies that arrived from various UN supported countries. What I remembered most when I left after two weeks of mission work at that time was I had seen so much destruction that it couldn’t get any worse. While the chartered plane I was on was circling in to its final landing approach, that horrible memory of 2005 was immediately wiped out of my memory, as I had just seen a view that toppled my proclamation that it couldn’t get any worse.

Just as I watched the destruction of the buildings during the slow landing path, my heart skipped a beat, maybe several beats. This was really bad. I almost felt sick to my stomach with what I had seen. I was hoping that the view from the window on the plane was nothing more than an optical illusion, but it wasn’t. Welcome to Haiti, 2010.

As our team gathered our things to get off the plane, which really wasn’t much – we could only bring one gym-size bag to keep whatever toiletries and accessories we could pack in it. Back in Miami’s Opa Locka Airport where we departed from, our lead guide and interpreter Paul LaPointe gave us a very descriptive briefing of what to expect, and made us all empty our gym bags so he could go through to let us know what was practical to take and what wasn’t. In other words, if it had a cord for electricity or any kind of electronic gizmo, don’t bother bringing it. There were tips on how to take your ‘hygiene clean up bath’ with nothing more than a quart-size water container, doing your laundry, and a number of other how to survive rules. Myself, having been down there a number of times, I had a general idea of what to bring and how to take care of myself, but still the briefing was helpful and necessary.

So we disembark from the small cargo-like plane that was probably one of those old commuter airline prop jobs I used to fly in many years ago while I was stationed in the Great Lakes region. After a quick walk through Customs, we were met by a representative of the American Red Cross who provided us with two bed sheets, a plastic tarp, and a pillowcase that was filled with some other items like clothespins, nylon rope and other useful items I probably never even thought about that I’d need right away. From then we were shuffled over to meet with the International Rescue Committee representatives who then assigned the seven of us to an interpreter and guide then to be placed at the various relief settlements in and around Port-Au-Prince.

I ended up with an interesting guide/interpreter whose name is Raymond (for the life in me I couldn’t pronounce or spell his last name if I tried, so let’s just keep it at ‘Raymond’). He’s fit looking and about 30-ish in age. What makes Raymond so interesting is he seemed to have a wealth of knowledge on just about everything that had been going on in Haiti. Raymond was “THE MAN.” This guy is well connected anywhere and everywhere in Port-Au-Prince. He made it his business to get to know people, who have what, where certain things are, etc. I felt that I made out traveling with a guy that has a personality similar to mine. So we hit it off almost immediately after the initial handshake and got along great during the trip. One of the reasons I can’t remember or spell his last name, he would say it so fast, then I’d ask him to say it phonetically, and he would just say, “Bro, it RAY-mun-D (emphasis on the D), that’s good enough, Now don’t ever call me RAY, and we’ll get along just fine!” So Raymond it was – just Raymond… and make sure I pronounce that ‘D’ at the end.

Raymond seemed to have a great disposition of life itself, given the surroundings of his homeland with his common phrase, “It is what it is Mon, it is what it is.” He spoke perfect English, almost to the point to where at times I had to ask him jokingly, “are you sure you’re a native Haitian?!” Raymond had never been to the states, but he did live in the U.S. Virgin Islands during his high school years, and spent two years at the University of USVI. He was also somewhat guarded of his personal information. While I was striking up the small talk, he would kind of give me some answers, but after awhile, he would say, “Hey Mon, is this some kind of inquisition? Are you a news reporter or a relief worker?”

Okay I got the message, enough with the interviewing. I was distinctly interested in wanting to know his feelings on how things were going in Haiti, as well as my curiosity of his job, was it a paid position, or volunteer? Did he have any family members who were casualties? Unfortunately these unanswered questions remained with my curiosity of Raymond throughout the rest of the trip. I got the impression that he wanted to engross himself into what he was doing mostly to forget whatever he was impacted by this event. It was rather interesting just watching him many times which told me that there was certainly another story here, one that probably would have been just as an amazing story to tell. But, as Raymond slyly suggested, stick to what I came here for – to work.

Let me talk about the ‘settlement.’ The devastation from the earthquake in addition to something like approximately 300,000 or so people may have perished (by the way, no one really knows the actual numbers, I’ve heard anywhere between 150,000-300,000), another 1.5 million are homeless from the destruction, with most of the bulk of that number in Port-Au-Prince alone. Now mind you, the Haitian capital always had a sizeable number of virtually homeless people before the earthquake, estimated to be somewhere in the range of 200,000 at the time. Once the buildings were destroyed, it uprooted an even larger population of people who have virtually nowhere else to go. The outlying area of Port-Au-Prince in some cases is inhabitable because of the terrain which is susceptible to heavy flooding during the rains (as was the case in Hurricane Jeanne in 2004), then you have a transportation problem to move a large population of people elsewhere in the country – and the transportation infrastructure was not the best before the earthquake, to almost wiped out afterwards.

My accommodations were quite ‘interesting.’ With my Red Cross issued plastic tarp, two bedsheets, the pillowcase that had a bunch of stuff in it and my gym bag was my “house.” As I wandered about the settlement looking for a place to set up residence, obviously all of the good spots were taken. The indoor places were reserved for the elderly, injured and sick, and also served as a meeting point, warehouse, or anything else that required the use of having a roof over ones head as the principal creature comfort. I had something of a short memory lapse as I then started looking for a place with shade, quickly remembering “Dummy, you’re in Haiti, the closest shady place is in the Dominican Republic!”

So I set up my ‘house’ along a brick wall. First I went over to one of the nearby destructed buildings and grabbed several slabs of concrete, with some help from my new neighbors, and stacked the concrete up a bit, so it would be about a few inches higher than the top of the wall (which was about 3 feet high). The stacked concrete around was formed like a ‘valley’ so when I lay on the top of the wall (which was about 2-1/2 feet wide), I won’t roll off when I sleep. Plus, I wanted to be high off the ground in case it rained, and to avoid having to deal with some of the rodents that would stop by for a visit to welcome me to my new home. I emptied the contents of my pillowcase into a small box I found, stuffed the pillowcase with my change of clothes and one of the sheets, and I would have a pillow. At night I would just drape the tarp loosely over me, which helped keeping the bugs away, and the rain, which it did happen a few times. My ‘residence’ was all set up, all I needed was an address and I was good to go!

The settlement that I was assigned to was probably about one mile southwest of the Port-Au-Prince Airport, in a section of the city called Croix de Bosalles and bordered around the major highways of Route de Delmas to the north, Rue St Martin to the south, Rue Sans Fills to the east and Boulevard Jeans-Jacques Desalines to the west. If you do a Google Earth search and use the satellite feature, with a close up zoom, you can see some of the tents and encampments around this approximately one square mile area. I was told that roughly 10,000 people resided in this area at one time, so it was already heavily dense populated at the time prior to the earthquake. It was also considered one of the poorer sections of the Haitian capital, so many of these people were already in dire needs before the disaster. In the area is the Croix de Bosalles Market, which is a huge warehouse that many of the citizens of Port-Au-Prince often frequented for fresh vegetables, fish, poultry and other goods. The market was heavily damaged, and eventually turned into a sheltered settlement area as well. While walking through that particular area I noticed that the Canadian Red Cross ran most of their operations out of the market area there, as well as Doctors Without Borders.

After settling down in my assigned settlement area, which by the way was approximately five minutes after I hopped out of the back of the overloaded 1980s vintage Toyota pickup truck, Raymond summoned me over to meet one of his counterparts there and introduced me to Jon, who in turn with his broken English was able to convey to me about what kind of work I could do there to help out. I didn’t have a glamorous job, though in the five days I was there, I certainly worked and realized it was definitely the most important task – working with the settlement’s ‘Water Bucket Brigade.’ It was all about making sure that we kept water in the cisterns that would serve approximately 1,300 people within our settlement.

Okay, I figured here’s something I know that I can do, yes it was a little backbreaking work, but it didn’t take much thought and I looked at more of a chance to get some exercise and a good workout during my five days there. Well, I definitely got a workout! Keeping the dozen or so cisterns that were strategically located around the settlement filled was an all day evolution and required the work of about a dozen or so able bodied men. When we weren’t hiking the mile plus distance to the water filtration plant to fill our water containers (we had to walk it, thank goodness the terrain was all flat), we each took turns working on the pipeline ditch so the water could be pumped directly to the settlement area instead of having to walk to get it.

After the earthquake, a large number of Port-Au-Prince’s community infrastructure system from electricity, public transportation, public works and water was completely destroyed. When our U.S. military forces flew in within hours after the disaster, the number one thing that they did was began working on bringing the power plants back in operation and to provide drinking water to the Haitian residents where it was needed. Haiti had already been working on building a number of water treatment and filtration system plants in the heavily populated areas like Port-Au-Prince for a number of years thanks in part to funding from the United Nations. It had been an almost never ending task and process going back to when I first set foot in Haiti in 1994. Even during my summer mission internship work I had done during my time in divinity school from 2002-2004, there were still ongoing construction projects related to water treatment.

In virtually one swoop of the action of the earthquake, Port-Au-Prince and its surrounding communities lost their water treatment facilities. Thanks to the U.S. Air Force, they flew in six teams of civil engineers and in just 48 hours after the earthquake brought the nearly destroyed water treatment facilities back to life. I’m telling you, as an American and a military veteran, it made my heart glow with joy and pride to know this remarkable feat. The people of Haiti who benefited from this well needed action were very grateful, with many telling me this story over and over and over again.

This story of the rebuilding of the water treatment plants brings to mind of just how grateful the Haitians were of the tremendous support provided by the United States. Once they knew I was an American, I could do no wrong. Everyone regardless of age would stop whatever they were doing to either shake my hand, talk with me either in their straining of English or just blurt it out in Creole how thankful they were that our country came to their aid so quickly. It tears me up just thinking about those numerous “thank you” events I had experienced. Of course the few that knew I came from the Washington, DC area wanted me to go thank President Obama personally for them, thinking I could just waltz right up to the front door of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, ring the door bell and deliver their personal messages to the president without any problem. In what little French that I could speak, I did my best to tell them with a “Merci beaucoup je vais faire ce que je peux vous assurer que votre message revient au peuple américain” [translation: Thank you very much, I will do what I can to ensure that your message gets back to the American people].

A friend of mine provided me with a wonderful quote from Pablo Casals that's quite appropriate to add here:

“The love of one's country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border?”

If there was one thing that really stuck out during my time there were the children. As bad as it is down there, I found it amazing to see how the children seemed to carry on in their own little world of happiness and fun. They took this plight more as an opportunity to expand their imagination. For example, I watched with amazement for nearly an hour of a couple of kids playing with a plastic bag. I’m talking like a shopping bag. First they would ball it up – toss it and watched it come open and fill with air and float off like a balloon. Or they would run with the bag allowing the bag to fill with air, then let go to watch it fly around, then chase it. After doing that a few times, where I thought they had gotten bored doing that and stopped – they were searching around among the garbage. I didn’t know what they were doing, but one of them kept a tight hold on that plastic bag like it was the most valuable piece of possession on the planet. It was kind of amusing to watch him search in the trash area with one hand, while he kept his other hand in use holding on to that plastic bag. I just couldn’t stop watching them, because I wanted to know what they were doing or looking for. Then I found the answer – it was string. They searched for roughly 15 minutes or so until they found enough string to tie them together to make a lengthy line. Then they tied it to the bag – and it became a kite. Now the fun really began, and they just played probably for hours after I left them.

That was just one of the many examples that I had seen of the kids doing things without any concern of not having a Ninetendo, Gameboy or whatever the super toy that children here in the U.S. play with these days. To those kids that I saw – their world was one big playground, and they seemed to act like there were no limits to their imagination. I saw several kids running around making sounds like “Rrrrrrrrroooom, Rrrrrrrrrrrroooom,” along with some yelling and giggling. I got closer to see what they were doing, and they were riding around with the “motorcycles” – sticks they found, which they put together to make like the handlebar of a motorcycle or bike. Again, just as the two kids I saw with the makeshift kite, these kids seemed to act like they didn’t have a care in the world. It was just fascinating to watch them at play.
During the course of my relief mission work, one thing that Raymond had said to me in our first meeting that sort of gave me an almost guilt feeling whenever I wanted to take pictures or talk with many of the Haitian citizens about themselves and their lives. “Are you here as a news reporter or a relief worker?” Now granted, I took that statement at the time of something of a joking comment from Raymond as he did say it with a smile, but in the time that we were together, as I said earlier, he was quite guarded and seemed somewhat apprehensive to defensive when it came to me asking him questions about himself. I ended up with this sort of complex whenever I pulled out my camera to take some pictures. I wasn’t there as some tourist on a vacation, or even as a gawker staring at an accident or even as Raymond had said a “news reporter.” So, my photo taking was minimized to pictures that I felt was very important to tell my story about my trip to others, and hopefully to continue to raise the visibility of the plight of Haiti, not just from the destruction of the earthquake, but how the conditions have been, and perhaps maybe some people out there might feel the same way I do about wanting to be involved.

In my blog here, I’m posting a few of the pictures that connect with some of the content discussion as an illustration of my experience. If you’re one of my Facebook friends, you’ll see more with some captions. But you’ll also note on the Facebook pictures, I am not in any of them. I made it a conscientious decision to not be in them. This story of my experiences isn’t about me, nor to boost my ego (I’ve got other things to help me with that). It’s about Haiti. It’s about why I went, and why I will go back, probably numerous times in the course of my lifetime.
Now why do I want to do that, especially after I mentioned when I came back, the first thing I said to several people who asked me, “how was the trip?” and my response was, “this took a lot out of me emotionally.” It did, and for the past couple of nights after I got back, I found myself waking up crying, wondering how those kids that I had met or seen playing around in the filth and garbage are doing? I wondered about one of the guys in my “water bucket brigade” who still has no idea where his family, including his wife, four children and his own siblings and parents were.

I thought about the old woman by the muddy creek who was so happy to have found a pan big enough to use to wash her clothes and clean herself up.

Or the little boy name Henri who didn’t have a care in world running around naked among the settlement proud of the fact that the only English that he could speak was, “I know Michael Jordan.”

There were families that just huddled together in the settlement with just the clothes on their backs and whatever they could find during their daily scavenging through the rubbles for anything the could find useful in their nomadic community household.

These scenes and experiencing close up front and personal is what took a toll on me emotionally. But at the same time it also gave me strength, both spiritually and mentally to keep my interest in this relief mission work. It’s become my ministry. The Haitian people have been proselytized enough, what they need is physical labor to help them get themselves together.

Over the course of my visit, one thing that I can honestly say that I did not see or hear, and that was people wandering around feeling sorry for themselves. As Raymond often said, “It is what it is Mon.” The Haitians seemed to have accepted their fate of dealing with their environment. The few who felt they have had enough had taken it into their own hands to try to leave – mostly by boat becoming illegal aliens if they make it to the U.S. or other nearby island countries. But, many who have tried didn’t make it, either getting turned away at the borders when they arrived, or by the U.S. Coast Guard who spots their overloaded and unsafe vessel, or even worse, by death for those who were taken by the sea.

It’s easy for me to disregard all of this, as I know there’s poverty and despair all over the world. We can’t save or help them all. Tossing a few bucks in donations here and there at one time sort of cleansed my guilt-ridden bleeding heart liberal mind of things. But, of late – at least in the last 16 years, this involvement with Haiti has become something of an obsession with me. Hell, I’m not even related to any Haitians and other than the happenchance of my deployment there as part of “Operation Restore Democracy.” In any event – I’m into this and fully committed so no point in belaboring the reason why or wasting my intellectual ability trying to figure this whole thing out.
What I do know and can honestly say is, my reason fits well with Proverbs 11:25 -
“A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.”
More to follow ...

Thursday, April 1, 2010

In the Beginning ....

Okay … so FINALLY, after about five years of procrastination (that’s when I first opened a blog account on, I have prepared my very first blog entry. I really didn't want to make my first blog entry to explain my procrastination filled with excuses of being too busy, etc. why this took so long to start. I really was trying to figure out exactly what I wanted to write about and why. So, thus the reason for this lengthy delay ...

This being my ‘maiden voyage’ as a blogger has a deep sense of purpose; to talk about my recent trip to Haiti as a volunteer relief mission worker. After having numerous people ask me on either my Facebook page, discussion with co-workers, or emails with friends and family – I figured that I finally have a legitimate and justifiable reason to get busy on putting my blog together.

First thing I had to do as I ventured into the literary world of blogging was to come up with a name for my blog page. Well, I went with a Biblical title, not necessarily to convey my theological knowhow or spiritual interest, but rather something that really describes my personality and passion in life. Proverbs 11:25 is quite appropriate in defining what really makes me ‘tick,’ as this passage says:
“A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be
For those who know me, can probably concur with acceptance of my reasoning for picking this particular Biblical verse as my personal literary and intellectual description of my personality.

Enough with the justification on “why the blog….” I think you get the message.

Haiti. Several days after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, I received a call from Bill Scheer a dear friend and close colleague of mine who has been actively involved in a number of ‘Project Haiti’ nongovernment organization (NGO) initiatives. Of late, Bill was working with the International Rescue Committee ( on facilitating volunteer relief workers with nonspecific skills to go to Haiti to assist in helping in any capacity for recovery and rebuilding work. In essence, Bill was looking for able willing bodies who are healthy with a ’98.6’ temp and a good pulse. As Bill put it, “I need people with two hands, one hand, no hands, one leg or none, sight or blind, hearing or not, it doesn’t matter. Willingness and ability to do anything we need is all that I need.” That was a tall order of course, and Bill soon adjusted his expectations a bit in hope to get willing volunteers to help. This is where I came in.

Bill knew that I have been actively involved with the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Response Ministry Team (UUTRM), which is a team of clergy and spiritual leaders within my denomination that operate like a ‘first responder’ spiritual fire and rescue team to assist in providing critical incident stress debriefing and grief counseling whenever and wherever. However, the need in this case was different. As I said earlier Bill was looking for warm healthy bodies to do whatever was needed down there.

Let me back up a little bit further, as I need to explain about my own personal history and experiences in the country of Haiti.

First off, I found myself being actively involved with the country and its citizens through my military deployment to Haiti as part of “Operation Uphold (Restore) Democracy” in 1994-95. At the time I served as the senior enlisted advisor to the U.S. Atlantic Command’s Joint Task Force 160, which was ordered by President Clinton to provide troops in the region to assist in restoring the democracy of Haiti and installing the rightful winner of the presidential election at the time, Jean Bertrand Aristide. This military operation turned into a six-plus month deployment for me where I was primarily working out of Port-Au-Prince.

The whole event during this time is another story, but I’ll make the connection of why I’m bringing this up to tell you about my history with Haiti. I had never seen such poverty, despair and desperate need from people in my life. While I visited the numerous Coast Guard cutters that were deployed in the region at the time picking up thousands of Haitians who were fleeing from the country, mostly because of economic reasons, it just blew me away to see just how desperate people can get to want to find a better life for themselves elsewhere..I recall talking to hundreds of Coast Guardsmen at the time on the cutters who took it very hard as they were bringing the Haitians aboard their ships after finding them floating in all kinds of unsafe makeshift vessels. I remember seeing for myself five people clinging to a very large wooden door from a church that they were using as a raft, having traveled 30 or so miles just drifting in the Windward Pass which is the waterway between Cuba to the west and Haiti to the east.

The Haitians and scores of dissenting Cubans wanting to escape from Cuba also took to the sea in quest for voyage to America with the hope of a new and better life during this period. It was quite a psychological effect on all of us ‘Coasties’ during that time seeing thousands of people with nothing more than the clothes on their back and a small bagful of their personal valuable possessions, many of them with young children in tow. Unfortunately a sizeable number of them drowned when their unsafe, unseaworthy vessels either broke up, capsized from being overloaded. This is where the Coast Guard took a herculean effort to stop the flow of migrants, mostly because of safety concerns. When they were picked up, they were brought to the U.S. Naval installation at Guantanamo Bay Cuba (yes the same one that is in the news today about the terrorist detainees being held there). ‘Gitmo’ was a staging point to handle the mass repatriation efforts sending the migrants back to their respective countries.

The key point of bringing all this up at this time is to mention that this had a profound effect on me at the time, as I just looked in shock and amazement at thousands of fleeing migrants who took great risks to try to reach the US, which was well over 120 or so miles to the north. I was just amazed at just witnessing how desperate people were, willing to risk their lives and their families in just a glimmer of hope that they could make it. Many of them had no idea how far the U.S. mainland was, nor did they care. They just looked on a map, and knew they had to point in a northwesterly direction for a long time and soon they would reach the freedom shores of America.

My interest then began to focus on just what can I do to help in getting these people to channel their adventurous energies to be more creative and work to build their land. Now granted that was one tall order for me to make such an assessment that what can “I” do. But, I knew that there had to be others that had similar thoughts. This is where my involvement with doing relief mission work in Haiti began.

After I left Haiti in March 1995, I soon went back there a number of times while visiting underway deployed Coast Guard cutters that were conducting drug and alien interdiction operations in the region, as part of my role and responsibility as the command master chief for the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area command. Even later after I moved on to become Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard in 1998, I was able to get at least a visit or two each year for the next four years of my tenure. When I retired from the Coast Guard in 2002, I decided while attending the Graduate Theological Union seminary that I wanted to focus on some type of mission support ministry. So for the summers of 2002, ’03, ’04 and ’05, I would spend extended periods of time, working in a variety of roles, managing the food distribution center for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, better known as ‘UNESCO,’ and with Project CARE. All of these relief mission support assignments were facilitated by the International Rescue Committee – thus my introduction to Bill.

After I finished divinity school in 2004, with the exception of a summer visit to Haiti in 2005. I became engrossed into my job with, that I didn’t go back to do my summer relief mission work afterwards. It wasn’t that they were out of sight – out of mind, in fact, I’m paid well that I was able to provide more in my financial contributions to Project Haiti causes. But, I never forgot about those very people I had seen during my deployments and volunteer work there, and kept saying to myself that I need to make some time to go back for a visit.

Then the earthquake in January 2010 happened. Having forged a number of friendships with the people down there, and I stayed in touch with many of them either through email or letters, I felt that they were part of my family. So hearing the tragic news of the number of deaths that occurred (which by the way no one really knows what the real answer is, but it is upwards of 300,000), my heart and mind weighed heavily, and I knew I had to get back down there. I didn’t care if it was just for a day, I had to get down there.

I feel another Biblical verse coming on here that pretty much sums up my calling to go back to Haiti which can be found in the Book of Isaiah 6:8: “Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying:
“ Whom shall I send, And who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”

So, I answered the call. I’ve created my blog to talk about it … and to give you my first assessment from what I saw and dealt with.

Part two of ‘Proverbs 11:25’ is forthcoming… I promise!