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Haiti: ‘signs of hope’

Amid ongoing natural disasters and economic hardship in Haiti, responders are seeing signs of hope.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | April 10, 2005

"His house was gone and he has never seen his wife or four of his six kids again."

—Edwin Dening

Amid ongoing natural disasters and economic hardship in Haiti, responders are seeing signs of hope.

Tropical Storm Jeanne caused massive flooding Sept. 21 in northwest Haiti. The storm struck a mountainous area stripped of vegetation. Floodwaters rushed down bare slopes through the city of Gonaives. The violent deluge killed 2,800 people and left 200,000 homeless.

This flooding followed May flooding in Haiti.

“Although the flooding in September ravaged the area just north of Gonaives, there are many signs of hope and normalcy of life returning,” said Edwin Dening, the Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) country representative in Haiti. MCC has been a widely acknowledged leader in Haiti response.

Immediately after the September flood, MCC provided emergency food and relief supplies, as well as bean seed to help farmers replant their lost crops.

In November, MCC organized a trauma counseling course for 120 pastors and lay leaders in the area. “One of the needs identified by pastors in the area was for trauma counseling,” said Dening, “how to deal with their own losses but also the incredible losses of the parishioners.”

Pastors explained to Dening they have already used some of the skills acquired in the trauma counseling sessions. “While investigating the bean fields, we came across a man on a bike who explained his story,” said Dening. “The night of the flood, he, his wife, and his six kids were at home. Within an hour, floodwaters rushed through his home and he was pulled out of the door into the dark night by the rising waters. He clung to a tree which saved his life. He returned to his home the next day after spending the night in a large mango tree. His house was gone and he has never seen his wife or four of his six kids again. They are presumed dead but no bodies have been found.

“These are the kinds of people pastors now need to counsel, and the trauma counseling has been invaluable in this regard.”

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is also a longstanding advocate for vulnerable people in Haiti. UMCOR supports several projects in Haiti, including a hot lunch program for Methodist schools, Grace Children's Hospital, and community agricultural programs.

Like MCC, UMCOR - along with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), Church World Service, and other faith-based groups - are also helping Haiti's storm-wracked northern region recover.

CRWRC also responded in the wake of Tropical Storm Jeanne, providing emergency food. Since then CRWRC has been building new homes to replace those lost in the floods. CRWRC is also looking into rehabilitating damaged crops and irrigation systems.

“The situation in northern Haiti remains chaotic and complex for programming,” reported CRWRC. “The United Nations has a small peacekeeping force in Haiti but they do not have full control over the entire country. There is still a lack of security in some areas.”

CWS representatives recently returned from Haiti, where they were visiting CWS disaster response and project development sites in the country. The CWS team visited the remote island of La Gonave, where residents have scarce resources, and young people often see no hope for the future other than drug trafficking or sailing to Florida.

CWS is offering training to children and young adults to inspire them to start small businesses. The program encourages young people to become involved in monitoring community resources, and generating revenues through venues such as trading peanuts, peas and corn. Young people may also produce cassava, a perennial plant with edible leaves and edible tuberous roots. Cassava thrives better on poor soils than any other major food plant. As a result, fertilization is rarely necessary.

CWS’s work in Haiti - like that of other disaster response groups in the country - often evolves from emergency relief into community development.

MCC’s ongoing response includes reforestation, environmental education and replacing personal documents such as birth certificates and identification cards.

Reforestation is an important focus, said Dening. “Much of the damage from floods both in May and then in September 2004 was the result of denuded hillsides. Tree cover will protect vulnerable areas and stabilize hillsides.”

In partnerships with local Haitian community groups, MCC was involved in planting some 380,000 trees, and plans are underway for planting another 40,000 this year. MCC, partnering with a local Mennonite group, built 113 houses as well.

“I guess we continue to do what we do because we feel we can make a difference here on the ground in a place that really needs it,” said Dening. “We get satisfaction from helping others. This is what we were put on this earth to do.”

How can people help? “Live simply so others can simply live,” suggested Dening. “Our ecological footprint in the more affluent countries is huge, and if we don’t want to all end up living in a similar environmental catastrophe as we see in Haiti, we better do something about it.”

That means advocating for change, he said. “Pressure our governments to pressure governments like Haiti to be responsible for their own problems. We can help but real change will only result when governments take responsibility for their problems.”

Haiti is vulnerable to more than just natural disasters, he pointed out. “Pressure our governments to play fair with their more vulnerable neighbors,” he suggested. “Stop trying to dictate trade and aid that really is more for their own benefit.”

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