Paradise (Almost) Lost - Islamic Relief USA

(This article appeared in The Daily Californian.)

Chris Haugh, Contributing Writer for The Daily Californian, Thursday, June 24, 2010

When I visited Port-au-Prince, Haiti a few weeks ago, I met a young boy around the age of 11 named Alfred.

He is a charismatic child who speaks Haitian Creole, French and a few choice English phrases like, “hey you!” and “God bless you.”

In the United States, he would be called a charmer. He is a boy with a warm affect whose wit is certainly not lost in translation.

However, Alfred does not live in the United States. Instead he comes from Repatriote, a dusty suburb of Haiti’s now-derelict capital. The once-proud gem of the Caribbean and a beacon of black liberation has seen better days.

Much better days.

Since well before the infamous earthquake in January, Haiti’s history has been marred by moments of acute tragedy. From the food crises and military coup d’etats of the last few decades, to extortionist reparation payments to France, their former colonial master, Haiti’s saga is noteworthy for its near-constant struggle.

And for all of this, children like Alfred suffer.

Every day, Alfred traverses the pothole-ridden roads. Like most rural-living Haitians, Alfred dexterously dodges the stagnant pools of rain water left over from the chronic thunderstorms that plague the western half of the island of Hispaniola.

The rains, which once helped create the lush forests covering the verdant hills behind Repatriote, are no longer a welcome relief from the heat. Instead, they fuel Haiti’s issues with flooding, now that only 3 percent of the nation’s forests remain thanks to unsustainable logging practices.

Today the hills are brown. Few of the Hispaniolan pine trees remain.

For Alfred, those trees never existed. His environment has always been defined by crumbling homes, the caustic smell of burning garbage and the stench of raw sewage.

One of Alfred’s few escapes from his environment is school.

Alfred’s school is run out of a local church. It only meets for half-days and sporadically at that. In fact, the Haitian government only spends 1.4 percent of its tiny GDP on education, good enough for 175th place in the world.

For school days Alfred has a dapper uniform fit with a tie, black buckled shoes, blue shorts and a white collared shirt. But when school gets out, Alfred only has one orange shirt that he tries, in vain, to keep clean.

Unfortunately, he is aware of his poverty. Alfred is not bashful when asking for handouts. He knows what it feels like to be hungry, but so does a good portion of the Haitian people. About 80 percent of the country lives under the poverty line, while more than two-thirds of the labor pool have no formal job.

If you keep following the road past Alfred’s school, passing the tent cities proudly sponsored by a who’s who of aid organizations from USAID to Islamic Relief USA, you will come to downtown Port-au-Prince.

There you’d see a different kind of existence than Alfred’s parochial lifestyle. You would see a more chaotic existence of constant car horns, bustling city-dwellers, and something you wouldn’t see in comparably frenetic urban scenes in New York or Lagos, Nigeria: copious amounts of rubble.

Everywhere you go in Port-au-Prince, you see destruction in the wake of the earthquake: the collapsed Presidential Palace, the damaged Ministry of Finance, the skeletal remains of the National Cathedral.

And yet, what sticks with you when walking through the streets of Jacmel or Port-au-Prince is that the country is populated by hardworking, earnest people. They are ready for change, but the global system they’ve been thrown into has been unwilling to share its bounty with the developing world.

In Haiti, there is a conspicuous absence of legitimate help. Even the 8,000-member U.N. mission appears absent when considering the vastness of the need. In fact, the only U.N. “peace-keepers” I saw in seven days were directing traffic a few steps from their fortified compound.

In all honesty, I wanted to end this column on a happy, optimistic note, but that would be a disservice to Alfred. I would like to extol the virtues of U.N. occupations in failed states or talk about how easily we can combat Haitian corruption with X, Y and Z. And yet, neither has proved plausible in the face of sedimentary layers of issues piled up over the centuries.

In reality, Alfred’s best shot is good luck. Hopefully his family can afford to keep him in school. Hopefully he will get involved with an NGO-sponsored program. Hopefully he won’t become a victim of abject circumstances.

My hope is that the indelible, unconquerable spirit of the Haitian people will carry them through to a brighter day.

All I can say in conclusion, and I hope to channel the voice of an entire nation here, is when the news cycles move on and Haiti once again is forgotten, try to remember our neighbors when you make your charitable donations, choose the next president or decide on a career.

Try to remember the next generation. Try and remember Alfred.

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