The images beamed from Haiti seem to go from very bad to unbearably worse. The nation was already the poorest in the hemisphere before the January 12 earthquake crushed the landscape and killed hundreds of thousands. Then came the sight of more than a million displaced people living in over-crowded, squalid refugee camps.
Then the spread of cholera, with 1,344 dead at last count and estimates that 200,000 more could die in the next six months if the disease continues its fatal march. Amid this chaos comes an election November 28 for a desperately needed new national government that may well be inconclusive, perpetuating the image of a corrupt and crumbling nation unable even to be helped.
But here are other images: The dedication on November 18 of a rehabilitation clinic and prosthetic workshop developed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Israeli medical centers in partnership with the Haitian Red Cross and a local hospital. The sight of microbanks such as Fonkoze, a grantee of the American Jewish World Service, giving life-saving loans to women left penniless by the quake. The 2,000 temporary schools that have been built.
“You can’t look at Haiti as an island. It’s people,” says Caryl Stern, president and CEO of the United States Fund for UNICEF. “We as Jews know what it’s like when people see us as a stereotype. We can’t look at Haitians as stereotypes. It’s awful now, yes, but it’s so much better than it was. It has changed.”
It’s understandable that the nongovernmental organizations with stakes in the ground will seek every reason for, if not optimism, then the guarded belief so necessary in the developing world that small, smart steps will lead to broader improvement. That’s the job of an NGO: to beat back defeat.
For the rest of us, largely removed from the tools of real action, the obligation of remaining committed to a cause this challenging is difficult to sustain. But we must. Jewish organizations large and small have served, and continue to serve, Haiti in remarkable ways. They haven’t left, and neither can we. “We have to stay in Haiti until she’s able to stand on her feet,” says Stern. And look for brighter images to replace the despair.