Witnesses for Haiti

We are coming up on an important anniversary, but not the kind of anniversary to be celebrated: On July 12, it will be six months since an earthquake devastated my country, Haiti. My wife, Claudinette, and I have tried to be on the ground in Haiti as much as we can since then with the organization I co-founded more than five years ago, Yéle Haiti. In fact, we were there the day after the quake hit, and we've been back many times since.

Every time I return, I'm in awe of the spirit and resilience of the people of Haiti; I'm also discouraged at witnessing firsthand the terrible conditions in which too many people are still living. About 1.2 million Haitians still occupy the tent camps, without enough food, with barely enough water and with no real sense of security or hope. And then there are the orphanages, overrun with children who lost their parents in the quake. And the people who don't trust the tent camps and are trying to make do in the ruins of their homes, in tents in their yards or even living in abandoned cars.

On this anniversary, I want to continue to keep my country and its people on the top of everyone's minds. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is taking much of the attention of the media and of the American people. I want to remind everyone I can that there is still so much work to do in Haiti to rebuild the country and renew the hopes and dreams of the people, who have suffered so much and who continue to suffer.

I talked to Boston University Professor Enrique Silva about it. He said, "When we talk about rebuilding or restructuring Haiti, we are talking about much more than the massive collapse of buildings and infrastructure. We are also talking about political, social and economic structures that could not mitigate the impact of the quake." I totally agree with Professor Silva. This is a big part of the reason we're seeing so little progress in the recovery efforts, and it's the reason I've been working to better Haiti for more than five years. It's hard work, but it's rewarding work, and we're sure not giving up now or anytime soon.

I also talked to Jayne Fleming, a human rights lawyer who works for a renowned law firm that's letting her volunteer her time to help Haiti. Jayne has made two recent trips to Haiti and has met with 150 families there. We share her opinion that the inadequate shelter so many people have--in "tents" of rags and cardboard and plastic--is "not only a human rights violation, it creates a host of corollary problems. Individuals are at increased risk of injury and disease because they are exposed to harsh and unsanitary living conditions. Women are at increased risk of violence and rape because they cannot lock their doors at night. Children are at increased risk of abduction, trafficking and prostitution because they are living in the streets.

"I interviewed more than 30 rape victims in Haiti," Jayne continued. "Not one of these women had faith that the government would protect them, prosecute the criminals or provide security. In fact, one woman reported an attempted rape to the police and the response [from the police] was: 'Tell it to the president. We've heard dozens of stories like yours.' How can anyone have hope in such a hostile environment?"

A recent New York Times story tells of an orphanage that formed purely out of the necessity to help a group of children whose parents died in the earthquake. But this group was having a hard time getting aid for basic supplies, because the system is so chaotic and the minister in charge of taking care of these kids wasn't getting the information he needed. It's just one more example of the need for witnesses to the troubled conditions in Haiti and the need for the stories to get told so that, maybe, more people will be moved to help and more agencies will be moved to step in and work on fixing the systems that are dysfunctional (or broken altogether).

As Heather Paul, the CEO of SOS Children's Villages USA, recently told me, "People need to see signs of progress." That is absolutely the truth. We all need to see signs of progress in Haiti. And we all need to witness for the country's recovery and rebirth.