Driving through downtown Port-au-Prince, it can be difficult at first to see much change from a year ago, when a devastating 7.0 earthquake devastated this impoverished island nation.
The presidential palace is still in ruins, with thousands — among an estimated 1 million homeless Haitians — living in massive tent city across the street. Around the corner, a tent city remains on the grounds of the destroyed Roman Catholic cathedral, still full of piles of rubble and shattered stained glass.
But despite the surface appearances, faith-based aid workers who have been active here over the past year insist there has been progress in dealing with the humanitarian catastrophe.
“The progress is slow, maybe not as quick as other emergencies, but ... we’re moving ahead,” Nicole Peter, the Haiti operations director for the Christian relief agency World Vision, told Religion & Ethics NewsWeeekly.
World Vision has already spent more than $100 million in post-earthquake work, including shelter, water and sanitation, job creation, education and family support.
That includes the Corail displaced persons camp about an hour outside the capital city, where the Haitian government moved some 7,000 people last April. At the time, there were no preparations, no essential services, no infrastructure.
World Vision and other private agencies provided tents, latrines, clean water and set up schools. The government still hasn’t developed a long-term housing and resettlement plan for the people in the camp, so World Vision has begun building sturdier transitional shelters.
“We had to negotiate with donors to convince them that timber frames were necessary,” said World Vision’s Mary Kate MacIssac. “They said that those were perhaps too permanent, but we said, no, these people need something strong if they’re going to be out here.”
MacIssac said she’s heard a lot of criticism from the media — and even some donors — about the slow pace of recovery. She said she, too, is frustrated, but said critics don't fully understand the realities on the ground.
“Haiti was a country that was facing a humanitarian crisis even before the earthquake,” she said. “Then you have a massive earthquake hit an urban center, the capital of a country. And it’s a complexity of urban disaster that agencies have not had to deal with before.”
Adding to that complexity is a rising cholera epidemic, which Peter called an “emergency within an emergency.”
World Vision set up cholera treatment units near various tent camps. Visitors are disinfected before they enter and when they leave. According to official figures, more than 150,000 people have come down with cholera, and nearly 3,500 have died. Aid groups say the numbers are vastly underreported.
Rick Ireland, administrator of the Free Methodist Haiti Inland Mission, is also all too familiar with the complexities here.
Last January, he and his wife were in Western New York preparing to become missionaries. When the earthquake hit, denomination officials asked him to get to Haiti — immediately. A multi-story building on a church compound had been completely destroyed, and the American administrator of the mission, the Rev. Jeanne Munos, was killed, as were two other American workers and a Haitian staffer.
“It’s a little harder to get around — you’re dodging potholes and broken-down vehicles,” he said. “If you want to go to the bank, you’re probably going to have a three- or four-hour wait in line. Everything is just a little bit harder here and that does get discouraging.”
The Free Methodists have been working through local churches.
At one church, Sunday morning services start at 6 a.m. Shoe shine vendors line up outside to help congregants look their Sunday best, while local taxis ferry in more worshippers. With more than 2,000 people in the church, it’s standing room only. Ireland says this is the best resource to aid Haiti’s recovery.
“They know their community,” he said.
Indeed, for many in this predominantly Christian nation, faith has been the key to survival.
“They’re filled with tremendous hope,” Ireland says of the Haitians. “It’s unbelievable because it would be so easy just to give up and they haven’t given up.”
The Free Methodists have been building churches and schools and training people how to construct something that will withstand future earthquakes.
“We trained Haitian civil engineers how to build earthquake-resistant buildings and from that group, the Haitian teams went out all over Haiti and did a number of seminars teaching people how to build earthquake-proof buildings,” he said.
Local pastor Jean-Marc Zamor, who has been leading the Free Methodist efforts, also has a larger vision for Haiti. He wants to build a Christian university that will focus on character and leadership development and train people to work in the public sector.
“After the earthquake,” Zamor said, “it’s become more and difficult to find good professional (workers) and that’s given me a higher conviction that this is what we need to do now, we need to train people to carry on the work.”
Zamor, too, gets frustrated that many outsiders see all Haitians as needy victims.
“There are a lot of people living with cholera, a lot of people in need. But Haiti is not only that,” he said. “At the same time, there are a lot of people doing a lot of things, a lot of work is going on. Otherwise, we would not survive.”