Lessons from Haiti


Published September 15, 2010, issue of September 24, 2010.
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Lubert Jean-Pierre is a 48-year-old Haitian father of six who used to sell charcoal in a makeshift roadside stand before the earthquake. At about 4:30 in the afternoon on January 12, he had gone to a small prayer meeting at a church in his neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. At 4:53, the building began to shake, the roof collapsed, and all he remembers, he said, was people shouting: “Jesus save us! Jesus save us!”

At about 11 o’clock that night, he was found beneath the rubble, and then was carried by strangers to the nearest hospital, where he stayed for five days. And that’s where his right leg was amputated. As he spoke in the waning light of a late August day, his remaining good left leg, clothed by brown trousers, cast an eerie shadow on the space where his right leg once was. He found out later that 10 people died in the church that afternoon, and 25 more were injured. When asked how this experience affected his faith, Jean-Pierre replied: “That’s just how God wanted to do it. It was just His plan that day.”

The questions of who shall live, and who shall die, and who shall decide, hold a special power for Jews at this time of year. Haiti’s heartbreaking story reminds us that these are not only theological issues, but civic and political ones as well.

Consider: The earthquake in Haiti measured 7.0 on the Richter scale and left an estimated 230,000 dead. A month later, an earthquake in Chile measured a devastating 8.8, affecting regions with 80% of the population, with tremors felt as far away as Argentina and Peru. The latest figure put the death toll at 521.

These are not just acts of God. These are events made immeasurably worse by human behavior. Haiti has no building codes, which is why one of the tallest buildings in Port-au-Prince, the 11-story home of a cell phone company, actually became a safe haven on January 12 and remained standing while all the adjacent structures crumbled. Thanks to corporate greed, government corruption and individual desperation, most of the country has been rid of trees and foliage, leaving a barren landscape that was poorly able to absorb an earthquake’s blows.

Good government matters, and its absence has deadly consequences. The National Palace and the official buildings surrounding it in Port-au-Prince remain in ruins, a fitting metaphor for Haiti’s dysfunctional political leadership.

What our government does also matters. Cheap imports and massive amounts of aid have created unbearable competition for Haitian farmers, who just decades ago grew most of their own food. Former President Clinton, now a U.N. special envoy to Haiti, has publicly apologized for championing policies to dramatically cut tariffs on imported American rice that ended up destroying Haiti’s own rice production. “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake,” Clinton told a Senate committee in March.

Transparency matters. How money is spent matters. At a donors’ conference in April, 100 countries pledged more than $5 billion for relief and reconstruction, but only a fraction of that money has appeared. Whatever exists of the Haitian government must work with donor nations to ensure that the funds get to the many people who truly need help, as opposed to those who have exploited Haiti’s poor for centuries.

This process would be helped by passage of the bi-partisan Haiti Empowerment, Assistance and Recovery Act, sponsored by Senators Kerry and Corker, which clearly articulates U.S. aid priorities, creates a high-level advisor to coordinate all American efforts, emphasizes local procurement, and demands accountability. The legislation cleared through the relevant committee and is now before the full Senate; in this vicious political environment, its passage is uncertain.

And let us not forget: What Jews do matters in Haiti. That is not simply for the PR boost of seeing Israeli medics so swiftly and expertly rescuing the injured, or the warm feeling of being greeted at a rural school with a homemade sign thanking Jews — in this case, the American Jewish World Service, but it could have been any of the nearly 20 Jewish and Israeli organizations that have been involved since the earthquake struck.

Taking care of non-Jews in need is not, as some commentators argue, a distraction from the pressing work of saving other Jews. Caring for the stranger is a biblical commandment mentioned more times than any other. It is an obligation, not an option, and to turn it into a competition — Jew versus non-Jew — creates a false, unnecessary and even dangerous choice. There are enough resources in our community to ensure the strength and viability of Jewish life while honoring our duty to others, if we make the commitment to do both.

“What the Haitian people are going through is very much what the Jewish people went through in leaving Egypt,” said Joseph Cherubin, head of Movimiento Social-Cultural de los Trabajadores Haitianos, which recruits Dominicans to provide medical relief to their Haitian neighbors.

And it’s what the American people suffered nine years ago. January 12 is now the Haitian September 11 — forever more than a date on a calendar, it has become the defining demarcation of Haitian life. And just as the terrorist attacks displayed the worst, and also the very best, of human behavior, so is that found today in Haiti, in the remarkable creativity and determination of Haitians and those there to help.

Lubert Jean-Pierre spoke of his experiences at a limb and brace center just opened by an organization named BRAC, begun nearly 40 years ago as the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee to help survivors from that country’s civil war. Yes, doctors and technicians from Bangladesh, of all places, are traveling halfway around the world to help people in Haiti receive new limbs. Surely we can continue to care about a nation 700 miles from our shore.

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