CARYL STERN: Building Haiti back stronger in action
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The resounding message I heard while visiting Haiti last week was that “We are survivors, not victims.” Old and young alike affirmed to me their eagerness to build Haiti back stronger, to play a role in its future and lift its people out of poverty.
Not only did I hear this message, I saw it in action at the Qui Croit nutrition center in Kenscoff, a mountainous region outside of Port- au- Prince.
The Qui Croit nutrition center serves nearly 50,000 people and is supported by a partnership between UNICEF and the Haitian NGO, FONDEFH.* The trip took us up a narrow, steep dirt road that wound around the mountainside. The ride was bumpy, dusty and uncomfortable, particularly for those of us who don’t enjoy heights. This is nothing compared to what many local women endure to reach the center. Most wake-up by 4 in the morning to walk three, four or even five hours uphill in the dark. Some were pregnant, many were also carrying infants and toddlers with them.
Why did they make this effort? “Are their babies sick?” I asked. No, thankfully the children were not sick. They undertook this arduous trek because they wanted to attend a class about how to keep their babies healthy.
Given the chance, any mother in the world will take the opportunity to safeguard her child’s health. If someone offers to teach a mother strategies to ward off preventable illnesses that can cause death to her baby, she will rise at 4 AM every day, if need be. This is not victim behavior. It is proactive behavior. By taking this action, a mother becomes knowledgeable and empowered to protect her children against the harsh realities of an impoverished environment.
Maybe a mother can’t control whether there is a measles outbreak in her community. But she can make an effort to learn what the threats are, take action and get her children immunized, and take steps to prevent infection. She can do her part to make her family and community safer. She may not be able to control the fact that she does not have access to safe water. But she can learn to exclusively breastfeed her newborn, to dramatically reduce the chance of deadly infections caused by pathogens in the water.
Haitians are not waiting to be rescued. They are actively working to rebuild their lives and avail their children to opportunity and health. Time after time, I heard, “I thank God I am alive, I thank God to be here. I thank you for helping me and my country.”
Emergency relief helps people survive immediate, life-threatening hardships. On-going development support helps people get the information and tools to take charge of their own lives and futures. True change takes effort and time. There will be setbacks and frustrations. The people I met in Haiti are prepared to persevere in spite of what may come.
There is more to share from my visit but for now, I’d like to say “thank you” on behalf of the courageous people I met—for your immediate support when the earthquake hit and for your on-going support that is helping Haitian’s take charge of their lives once again.
* FONDEFH is the Foundation for the Development of Haitian Families