Return to Haiti Finds Glimmers of Hope

CORAIL-CESSELESSE, HAITI—Lourdes Cullen Mondesir owns pitifully little. A few pots, a mattress, two tiny chairs she pinched from a broken elementary school. But as she presides over her world in the desert north of Port-au-Prince, she says she has everything.

A small, mint-green, cement-fibreboard house that is hers, hers, hers.

“This is like a palace for me,” says the 47-year-old nurse as she watches her son, 14, pedal his bike across a dusty soccer pitch from her porch. “We don't know the people who contributed money for these shelters. Strangers gave me this gift. It's marvelous. We pray for them all the time. For me, it's been a grace.”

A grace. You don't hear that often in Haiti in general, and particularly not about Corail, the country's first planned resettlement following

la catastrophe

.

Since the first of 8,000 earthquake refugees were moved a year ago from their tents in an overcrowded golf course in the city to new tents on a flood plain 14 kilometres away, this has been the favoured whipping dog of all that's wrong with Haiti's reconstruction: the land was procured through a dirty deal that lined the pockets of a government official; the promised nearby factory never materialized with its promised jobs; the tents were exposed during hurricane season without the shelter of a single tree ...

Critics called it the country's next Cité Soleil — a dangerous slum in the making.

And yet, when I dropped in unannounced on a recent Sunday, I was greeted by one happy person after another, out front of one happy pastel-coloured house after another, all like a Disney dream. Within a year, World Vision International had replaced all of those miserable tents.

In their place were all these “transitional shelters” designed to last 10 years, at $4,500 a pop.

Barbers give haircuts in their miniature salons. Women sell soap and pasta from their tidy porches. As if on cue, members of a karate club decked out in their white

gi

uniforms unroll a large tarp to demonstrate their high kicks before a growing crowd.

“We planted an olive pit three months ago,” Roldy Magloire says, wading through sugar cane and squash plants to grip the trunk of an already lush olive tree. He looks over at his wife, holding their new baby girl on her lap. “It's much better here.”

Five schools will open here in October, three of them free. The health clinic run by Plan International is still open. The United Methodists handed out free solar lights to every household this week.

“This is nice; this is amazing,” my translator repeats as we walk down the tidy footpaths between houses. “I didn't know about this place. I have to tell my friends.”

And so I'm telling you: not everything has gone to pot in Haiti since the earthquake. Yes, the problems are still daunting, with emergency funding and patience running out, and almost 600,000 people still living in muddy patches of desperation.

But when I returned to the devastated island nation this month, for the first time since a January visit that had left me overwhelmed with the degree of Haitians' continuing frustration and misery, I found reasons to hope.

It was a death blow to an already terminally ill patient. Before Jan. 12, three in four Haitians made less than $2 a day, 40 per cent of the population had never stepped into a school and one in three children were so malnourished their stomachs were distended and their hair turned orange.

Once the dead had been buried, however, most locals began to see the earthquake as a tragic springboard that — given the globe's attention and money — could finally bounce the country into the First World. “Build Back Better” became the country's slogan, and in those few tender months after the earthquake, there was a sense of optimism on the streets of the broken capital.

But cynicism and anger quickly took root. The blame game became a national sport. Why were more than 800,000 people still sleeping under tarps on highway medians and in parks a year after the earthquake? Why was the money going to emergency assistance rather than long-term reconstruction?

The foreign aid workers blamed the government for not taking the lead. The weakened Haitian government blamed international donors for not providing it with the money needed to take charge. Many Haitians on the streets blamed the

blanc

contractors riding to meetings in shiny white trucks, while the only jobs open to them were throwing rubble into open trucks for $6 a day.

Burning out, the

blancs

grew wary of the relentless victim mentality. “We figure 40 per cent of the people we provide services to are fake,” one aid worker confided. “But we don't know which ones. I feel like we're building a U.S.-style Indian reservation here, creating a community of dependent people.”

Meanwhile, life in the camps was deteriorating. Women like 53-year-old Rosemary Orelien urinated in plastic bags at night, too frightened of rapists to venture outside. They bought food on credit, without hope of ever repaying it. And they prayed.

It was a heartbreaking mess.

Where was the rubble?

According to the UN, 45 per cent has been cleared but I saw only three piles in a week. Whole broken buildings were gone, metal fences surrounding their empty footprints.

Camps like the squalid Place St. Pierre looked thinner. Rows of shelters were missing, their owners having paid $500 each to find a new place. According to the International Organization for Migration, the number of people living in tent settlements has been cut by two-thirds, many having returned to damaged homes.

In the ravine behind my guest house, a new, $1.5-million rehab clinic for the injured and disabled is rising quickly, one wheelbarrow of concrete at a time. It is owned by Healing Hands for Haiti, the country's leading rehabilitation aid agency. The director, Al Ingersoll, proudly points out where the wheelchair-accessible showers will be — a first for Haiti.

That's not the only new medical building going up. I visited the new Médecins Sans Frontières maternity hospital, which opened last March a few blocks away in the Delmas area. It is a thing to behold — gleaming ceramic floors, rows of premature babies in functioning incubators, their tired mothers in beds without a trace of rust on them. And service here is not just good and respectful, it is free — unheard of in the city before the earthquake, even at the decrepit public hospitals.

An hour and a half north of the city in Mirabelais, the country's biggest hospital is rising from the rice paddies. Once completed next year, the 320-bed teaching facility will have six operating rooms, a neonatal intensive care unit and a rooftop covered in solar panels. Its owner, U.S.-based agency Partners In Health, already has a track record in the country for providing free, modern health care to the poor, and this will continue for at least 10 years.

“We believe the root cause of disease is poverty,” says Cate Oswald, Partners In Health's lead program manager in Haiti.

Partners has started training local farmers to raise tilapia. Those fish will then be sold to the hospital for patient meals.

The buildings aren't all being erected by foreign aid groups. I stopped in at Université Quisqueya, where 15 people died trapped under rubble. Before the earthquake, this was the country's most modern university — with amphitheatres, a library and a museum. After the earthquake, it was a jumble of rubble atop a pile of sand.

The last time I visited, students were studying in what looked like a bomb shelter. When they start classes on Monday, it will be in graceful, aquamarine-coloured, solar-powered buildings, designed by in-house architectural students. The president, Jacky Lumarque, leads me outside to watch a ragged crew of workers haul buckets of concrete up ladders to the next level of the soon-to-be medical school. His administration building is almost finished next door. Donors foot the bill of the aquamarine buildings, but not these, he says. So, he took out a $2 million loan.

“We're doing things by ourselves,” he says. “We are not expecting any real support from the government or international donors. I don't know where we can go, but we're on our way.”

He won't take me to certain sections this time — they are too dangerous. A UN soldier was shot there recently. The doctor who runs the little medical clinic here was robbed at gunpoint. A survey shows 10 per cent of women have experienced some kind of sexual violence.

Of the dozen non-government agencies that once worked here — or promised to help — only two are left. And the Red Cross is planning to pull out come January, Pierre says.

The little school funded by generous

Star

readers has shut down.

Everyone with the option to live elsewhere has fled. The desperate, like Rosemary Orelien, are left. Since my last visit her husband, Lucien, died in the night. She didn't have $50 to pay an ambulance to take him to the morgue. So his body stayed here, until neighbours complained of the stench and, finally, cobbled together the cash needed to send him away.

“I'd like to leave,” she says quietly. “But I don't have the means.”

What does a new university mean to Orelien? Or a new maternity hospital? Or even the new pastel houses far away in Corail?

There is momentum in this country, but without strong leadership stitching these new initiatives together into a coherent plan, they will remain nothing more than sporadic gems for the lucky few.

What will happen next?

The country continues to hold its breath. First there was the pause before a national election, followed by the election and then another one. Finally, half a year later, the president was sworn in, but no government. Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly is on his third choice for prime minister, hoping this time his opponents in parliament will agree. Critics decry his bullheadedness. Supporters admire his guts.

His team pushes on, launching a program to empty out six of the remaining camps. It aims to move 5,000 families back into homes in their former neighbourhoods — only one-twentieth of the tent dwellers, but a start, and aid agencies are following suit.

He's slapped a tax on long-distance cellphone calls and money transfers, pooling resources for his ambitious plan to enrol every Haitian child in primary school for free by the end of his five-year term. He's started with 141,000 rural students who start school in October.

Even some cynics, like nursing school founder Gilberte Salomon, are impressed. A year ago, she said she had no hope for her country. Now, she is rebuilding her school.

“Martelly is a motor to get things started,” she says.

Also on board is Michaëlle Jean, Canada's former governor general, now UNESCO's special representative in Haiti. UNESCO is spending $4 million to train teachers, build the national curriculum and start collecting school statistics for Martelly's “Education for All” plan, Jean tells me. The money comes from Canada.

I jumped into her car en route to the airport, after she'd spent a week touring the country, from the Martissant slum to the citadel in Cap-Haitian.

She had met with the president to talk about education.

“It's the legacy he wants to leave for Haiti,” she says. “It goes beyond himself. He's taking it very seriously and he knows he has five years to make it happen.”

She, too, was leaving the country with a feeling of hope.

“It's a good sign,” she says. “I hope I won't be proven wrong.”

Return to Haiti Finds Glimmers of Hope 1

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