This post was written by Meike Schleiff, 22. Schleiff is an author of RED the Book, a collection of essays written by 58 American teenage girls, now available in paperback. She studied at Berea College in Kentucky and has led numerous public speaking and workshop events surrounding body image, eating disorders, and violence against women. She currently works with the West Virginia not-for-profit High Rocks, which mentors girls through high school and college.
Haiti is fragile. I have been there twice, in times of relative stability -- right before the hurricane that devastated Gonaives in 2008, and again last week, days before the earthquake in Port au Prince. I have seen how haltingly the country runs and how hopeful its people are. This was, after all, a free nation when the U.S. was still a slave nation.
I feel like I am part of it in some deep way, even though I will never fit in there with my sawdust-colored hair and moon-toned skin. But I felt connected to the place when I shared a cross-country bus with nearly a hundred sugarcane-chewing, happily gossiping Haitians. When I sat contentedly in the sun with sweat and fresh mango juice dripping down my wrists, forearms, and chin into my lap. When I was both the awkward bystander and the enthusiastic newcomer in the midst of drumming and dancing worshipers in a cinder block church ventilated by small breaths of air from hundreds of paper fans bearing a bible verse in Creole. I have spent windy nights alone in a second-floor room with the shutters closed, listening to UN, police and rebels try to sort out the latest money dispute and the chaos on the streets that always follows. A few days later, the market opens and life goes on. People have just gotten used to it.
Being in Haiti takes patience. In good times, the country runs haltingly. In these weeks, it is hard to imagine how things are running at all. It is hard to imagine how much people can possibly get used to.
I was teaching English there, and my students, hopeful and bright, are struggling to get an education and a job -- the first of which costs money and the second of which is hard to find. One student of mine, at age 22 is already one of Haiti's foremost computer experts and was telling me how much he was dying for the chance to study in the U.S. He is currently in charge of some major databases in Port au Prince. I have not been able to reach him since the earthquake.
Last week, another student, Snarly, showed me the countryside, where a system of small farming has survived. Many people grow more than 20 crops in the backyard gardens that support their families. They are preserving their land and their culture -- and therefore preserving their country. This is a successful example Haiti sets for the rest of the world. I hope they do not lose that.
Many systems we take for granted are on the verge of dysfunction in Haiti. Electricity is never dependable and roads are often so dilapidated that creek beds look like good driving options. And that was before the latest natural disaster. I have been impressed and touched by the generosity and ready response of the world to the earthquake's devastation. So many non-profits, religious groups and international organizations are stepping up to provide aid, leadership and response. But I want us to not only give in times in crisis or to only find the easy solutions.
The biggest work will come over the next years, when all that has fallen will have to be rebuilt. My dream and hope is that we will do a better job in the reconstruction than than the builders had done originally. The first email I received from a student since the earthquake said, "Very often, when we do something quickly with too much stress...we don't do the right thing." He has dedicated his life to rebuilding Haiti.
That is what it will take from all of us -- a long-term worldwide commitment to creating peace, responding to disasters and then tending to each other so that all people can be spared from spending the hours before dawn in dread. I hope that planet Earth takes the situation in Haiti as an opportunity and as a warning. Haiti, with its rapidly growing population, urbanization, corruption and high crime rate, is an example of problems faced the world over. Only it's intensified there due to poverty and size.
What can you do now with an eye to the long term? Support organizations like Partners in Health, which provides medical care to displaced and impoverished people and creates jobs in the health care field for many Haitians. Or support the orphanage and guesthouse St. Joseph's Home for Boys, which is reeling from the earthquake that left deaths and injuries, and destroyed its building leaving its boys displaced. Go teach English with Le Flambeau Foundation or sustainable agriculture there. Or plant trees with the Lambi Fund.
I will keep going back, to listen and learn. I will keep believing in my students and in the people I meet who are hopeful and put every sigh of strength they have into creating a Haiti for the future. I believe that is what Haiti needs. I feel like I am connected to it, and that is something that not everyone can say.