In March 2010, two months after the devastating 7.0 earthquake, I walked the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. In every inch of available space - empty lots, front lawns, sidewalks, even in the street medians - I saw make-shift tent cities. Structures were cobbled together from tarps and bed sheets, secured with rope and sticks. Groups of women sat huddled in the hot sun, cooking rice and beans while their children stood nearby, pouring soapy water over their heads as they stood bathing in large buckets. 230,000 people died in the immediate tragedy; millions more were wounded, homeless or both.
The tragic stories I heard and the horrific conditions I witnessed left me feeling hopeless. With so many pressing needs, so many lives lost and such grave poverty, where and how could reconstruction even begin?
On January 12, 2011, we will commemorate the one year anniversary of the earthquake. The world will honor this tragedy through editorials, photo montages, personal reflections and a critical examination of relief efforts. And what will be said?
Over $5 billion pledged in international aid, but far fewer dollars actually distributed;
A weak Haitian government without the political strength or manpower to effectively oversee relief and rebuilding efforts;
A lack of coordination amongst international NGOs, limiting the distribution of goods and services;
Political unrest, including a recent clouded election that led to large-scale riots;
And the first cholera outbreak in Haiti since the 1870s, made exponentially more dangerous due to the more than 1.5 million Haitians living in crowded displaced persons camps.
Saving Lives: With our funds, medical equipment and supplies reached those in need. International Medical Corps desperately wanted to serve coastal villages inaccessible by land following the earthquake. They turned to URJ, requesting funds to buy a boat to be used as a mobile clinic, ferrying medical supplies and health professionals to serve at-risk, under-served communities. Our response? "Buy the boat!"
When looking at this data, it is hard to be optimistic for Haiti's future. After a year where the world's attention and funds have been focused on repairing this broken nation, it does not seem as though much progress has been made. Across the board, rebuilding efforts have been stunted by on-the-ground realities.
So what now? Do we shrug our shoulders in defeat, professing that we did what we could? It's a tempting response. But our conscience and our faith tell us otherwise, reminding us that "he who saves a life, saves the world entire" Sanhedrin 4:9. It is that principle that reminds us of another truth about the past year in Haiti - one that relates directly to us.
As a Movement, we raised over $1.2 million for Haiti Disaster Relief efforts and have used these funds to support over 25 different initiatives that directly serve the Haitian community:
Community Development: Through AJWS, we learned of Fonkoze, Haiti's alternative micro-finance institution for the rural poor. The earthquake destroyed six community bank buildings, leaving banking and business services inaccessible. With our help, Fonkoze was able to reestablish its program: repairing buildings, rehiring employees, providing loan forgiveness to those in need and offering start-up capital for small businesses.
Filling in the Gaps: After the earthquake, Haiti's entire educational system shut-down. Many schools were structurally damaged and parents feared sending their children to even the undamaged buildings. With our funds, the Progress and Development Foundation (ProDev) stepped in to provide educational programs to youth living in displaced persons camps. Using pop-up tents and by training local teachers, thousands of children were able to return to the classroom, receiving high quality education, healthy meals and a sense of stability during an unsettling time.
Long-Term Sustainability: CHF International creates long-lasting change in low income communities around the world and in Petit Goave, Haiti, CHF recognized that the best way to support the community was to rehabilitate a much-used eroded road. CHF turned to us, requesting funds to put over 100 people back to work, leading to improved accessibility to remote areas and, eventually, commercial investment.
These are but few of the projects funded by the Reform Movement
. There is so much work that remains to be done in Haiti and an infinite number of challenges to overcome. We know that change does not happen overnight - or even within a year - and we cannot let challenges become roadblocks. Our contribution has positively affected the lives of thousands of Haitians and sends a powerful message that as Reform Jews we live our values and help those in need around the globe. Amidst the bleakness there are stories of progress, of heroes, of resilience. We have a responsibility to stay involved and not give up. In Pirkei Avot 2:16, Rabbi Tarfon says "It is not up to you to finish the work, yet you are not free to avoid it." Let us use this anniversary as a call to action:
Donate to the Union's Relief Efforts;
Learn about projects we've funded by joining our webinar, Haiti Disaster Relief: A Special Report, One Year Later on January 20, 2011.
Naomi Abelson is the Social Action Specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism. This post is part of our 10 Minutes of Torah series.