For Many, Haiti Is Still Home

Illustration by Jason Raish

In the days following the earthquake and tsunami that swept Japan in early March, the Emory campus community responded with a series of events to show support, including a ritual and hanging of solidarity ribbons outside Cannon Chapel. Students, faculty, and staff members wrote prayers or thoughts on the ribbons for those affected. “In the coming days and weeks, our thoughts and prayers will be with the people of Japan and with their friends and relatives across the world who are touched by the catastrophe,” said President James Wagner.

The following essay, written by an alumna working in Haiti soon after the earthquake of January 2010, is a reminder of just how far Japan has to go toward recovery. Emily Cavan 07C worked for the nonprofit CHF International (which began as the Cooperative Housing Foundation) from March to July 2010. By the one-year anniversary of the quake, CHF had built some five thousand shelters and removed more than a hundred Olympic swimming pools’ worth of debris. Cavan is now working and writing independently in Haiti. 

Daniel and Moses know everybody. They are not wearing our distinctive yellow cash-for-work T-shirts, and they aren’t actually working for us at all, but they’ve been hanging around the heavy equipment for the last few days, introducing the manager to the community leaders, liaising with curious neighbors, and generally being helpful. When we arrive with our cameras, Moses is immediately at our elbows—polite as a hotel doorman and missing only the fringed epaulettes.

Daniel goes first, leading us off the crest of the hill and into the rabbit warren of houses—and remains of houses—that cascades from either side. Moses follows, gesturing with all the elegance of a Southern host to the best places for us to place our feet. Without his guidance, we’d be quick to slip—on the mounds of crushed concrete, the piles of burnt trash, or on any of the miscellaneous washed-up detritus known—in post-earthquake parlance—as “Rubble, organic.”

Our guides step gently through the tiny passages, ducking their heads in familiar bows to the roofs that protrude at eye-level, flashing grins and hello-hands to women braiding each other’s hair and slapping palms with men who stare suspiciously until we greet them (and then settle back down as soon as we’ve passed).

Let it be known that Port-au-Prince’s Fort National area (in spite of the name) is not praised for its great security. Yes, it’s better than a lot of neighborhoods here, but rest assured that there’s not a single sign to warn would-be robbers of the Neighborhood Watch committees, no streetlights to illuminate dark corners (and precious few electrical wires to power them anyway), and—definitively—no stroller-friendly sidewalks. So when I ask Daniel if he lives in a dangerous place, I’m expecting a certain reply. But he shakes his head, about to explain, before being interrupted for the fourth time in five minutes by a neighbor calling out a joke in passing. The sullen-eyed crowds lining the road suddenly break into chuckles and all tension is diffused. “Community,” I’m reminded, is the unspoken synonym for “security.” If you have one, you have no need to look for the other.

In front of the National Palace—appearing, from this vantage point, like a crumbled sandcastle below us—is a sprawling tent city. Many of those who once filled the Fort National community now live in these camps. They have been there for five months and their presence has already become a very visual symbol of how much progress has yet to be made to get people back to their homes and back to their lives.

Through discussions with the government of Haiti, CHF International has begun clearing the main road of the Fort National neighborhood and will be working in the area during the next several months. Clearing rubble from the only artery that serves this area is likely to take weeks, but excavating and removing the stories of debris from the two sides of the hill will probably take a feat of ingenuity and a mind-boggling amount of energy.

Still, Daniel is willing to wait. In the past five months, his nephews have learned to play games by leaping from one slanted, collapsed rooftop to another, and the crackling sound of sledge-hammered concrete has become just one of the usual workaday noises. But on the corners of his neighborhood, women are still frying up snacks for the workers who still sweat through their labor in the hot sun that still rises on the schoolkids who still giggle as they walk by the homes that still stand in the community that Daniel and his mother and his cousins and the rest of his family—all, miraculously, surviving—still know as home.

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