June 28, 2010

One Month Reflections: JDC in Haiti

A report from Gideon Herscher, JDC Representative in Haiti:

Several death tolls have been suggested, still with no one able to determine just how many lives were lost. Pictures and videos of a devastated and collapsed country have long been out of the public eye. And as much as I reviewed the statistics and studied the footage prior to my arrival in Haiti on May 16th, there really was no manual that could have adequately prepared me for my post as JDC field representative in Haiti.

I’ve worked at JDC for almost a decade now, and being well versed in its history, I am aware that disaster zones are no stranger to JDC. I know that while our instincts instruct us to distance ourselves from danger, JDC, together with North American Jewry, has established a Jewish instinct that catapults its professionals into the center of war zones, bombings, tsunamis, floods, earthquakes, and beyond. More than an instinct, JDC’s work is the manifestation of Jewish action, tikkun olam, saving lives and rebuilding communities. Experiencing the hopelessness of a disaster zone has sharpened the profundity of our work.

In Haiti, I am witnessing dimensions of misery that I had not known before, and alongside that misery I have the privilege of representing the concern and generosity of tens of thousands of Jews across the globe. When I look out into a sea of tents pitched under the sweltering Haiti sun, I see the thirst-quenching relief JDC is bringing to thousands of displaced Haitians. With 80% of Haiti’s schools collapsed and still sitting in heaps of rubble, the scope of destruction can be blinding. Yet in the face of this disparity, JDC provides thousands of children with hope and a restored sense of normalcy through the establishment of 10 temporary schools across Port au Prince. While so much of Haiti is mired in what seems to be insurmountable obstacles, JDC marches forward, hand in hand with Haitian, American and Israeli partner organizations, setting its sights on reaching out to and strengthening those whose lives were dramatically affected by last January’s earthquake.

In the last month, I have been witness to three poignant illustrations of JDC’s tangible impact in Haiti.

1) Training 900 construction workers
The havoc caused by the January 12th earthquake derived not only from the seismic intensity of the quake, but from the poor quality of Haiti’s structures. In fact, there are no building codes or construction standards in Haiti. Many contractors used the cheapest materials available to them, and were not aware of basic building techniques. Despite the government’s temporary freeze on building, construction has already begun—and the very mistakes that brought buildings to their demise are being repeated.

JDC, together with ORT, has decided to take preventive measures by investing significant funds in the training of 900 construction workers. The training is taking place in Camp Perrin, which is 4 hours out of Port au Prince. Intensive 10-day workshops equip builders with the most basic and critical tools needed to build safely.

As I attended one of these workshops, I learned that the first days of the workshop are spent dispelling certain myths, for example, big rocks do not give birth to small rocks; a square can indeed be measured, a fan cover is not an acceptable replacement for a sift; and the sun not only provides light, but also provides energy to plants and animals. Once these important clarifications have been made, the workshop covers the proper elements and ratios needed to make cement, the correct size of a building block, and the art of foundation lying. The short- and long-term benefits of this program are boundless.

In my discussion with the masons, they all expressed how grateful they are for the opportunity to learn and enrich their profession. But as I parted Camp Perrin, I realized that this training is providing something much deeper than learning. Camp Perrin is their opportunity to claim a place of professional integrity and significance in their country’s rebuilding.

2) Oscar and Bill Gates
JDC, together with Magen David Adom and Israel’s Tel HaShomer hospital, has launched a comprehensive rehabilitation center for amputees in Haiti’s largest hospital, Hospital Universite D’etat D’Haiti (HUEH). Services for over 2,000 new amputees are scarce in Haiti, and the necessity of this service is clear. It wasn’t until I met Oscar Elweens that I fully understood just how powerful the return would be on JDC’s investment.

Oscar is a strong, intelligent and aspiring 23 year old. With dreams of becoming a cutting-edge economist, and a desire to follow in the footsteps of the brilliant and philanthropic Bill Gates, Oscar was on a path to success.

On January 12, 2010 that path was shattered. While sitting in his classroom on the second floor of his three-story university building, Haiti’s treacherous earthquake unleashed its indescribable havoc. With 54 students all running for cover, Oscar jumped out onto the balcony and launched his body over the railing, landing on the ground, losing consciousness. He awoke several hours later with a portion of one of the cement floors resting on his right leg. His leg would need to be amputated immediately to avoid the spread of deathly infection. No one in Oscar’s class survived the earthquake.

Oscar’s path was altered forever, and the dream of becoming an economist was shattered. Convinced he would never walk again, he altered his dream and sought a profession that would not require walking, but only sitting—computer programming. This was the case until Oscar found his way to the JDC-funded rehabilitation center at HUEH, where he was fitted for a prosthetic leg and is currently undergoing intensive physical therapy. Dreams of being an economist have returned, and hope that was lost is now restored.

Oscar is one of a score of amputees benefitting from a standard of care that was previously inconceivable.

3) Falone and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
In partnership with the Israel Trauma Coalition, JDC is reaching out to hundreds of religious leaders, key community figures, and school principals to equip them with tools to identify and respond to those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. An earthquake of this magnitude has left hundreds of thousands without any answers as to why this catastrophe befell them, how to mourn the loss of their loved ones, and what they can be do to begin the healing process. The training has already yielded impressive results as these leaders returned to their respective communities with the knowledge and confidence to relate to the traumatic predicament of their constituents. Falone's story touched me quite deeply.

Falone was pulled out of Port au Prince’s university building on January 19th, seven days after the earthquake. She had given up all hope and was sure her last breaths would be taken trapped alone between two slabs of concrete. Falone recalls hearing the rescue workers’ conversation in which they determined that there were no more survivors, the search was to be called off, and demolition would begin. It was only after the demolition began that Falone was found alive, and seriously traumatized.

Falone could not bear to sit in rooms with the door closed, nor was she able to sleep throughout the night. She was haunted by the memory of her experience, and lived in fear and panic that it would all return. The symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder were clear. A talented psychologist from the Israel Trauma Coalition worked with Falone to help her confront and overcome her fears. By using a unique technique called “prolonged exposure” by which the psychologist actually re-exposes the patient to the trauma (i.e., therapy in closed and dark spaces) Falone's trauma was gradually relieved. Today, she sleeps throughout the night and is able to sit calmly in a closed space. Falone’s journey out of the darkness is not yet over, but there is no doubt that Israel’s team of psychologists has played an instrumental role in helping her take her first steps.

As a Jewish professional working in post-disaster development, I am constantly reminded of the Jewish ideals of tzedeka and hesed. These ideals guide JDC to work with compassion and utmost humility alongside the poorest nation in our hemisphere. I thank Rabbi Brad Hirschfield for deepening my understanding of the following:

Tzedeka brings together ideas of justice, philanthropy, and charity. It is action-based, and privileges the needs being met over the experiences of the one helping meet those needs.

Hesed focuses on performing acts of loving kindness and compassion. It is a mindset which leads to acts that directly touch individual lives. Hesed highlights the power of listening, sitting with, and learning from the impoverished.

It is the synthesis of these age-old principles that helps me navigate my day, and infuse my experience in Haiti with our Jewish history and wisdom.

I begin my second month with great optimism and eagerness, and look forward to sharing future achievements as JDC continues in its efforts to equip the country’s builders, restore dreams, and bring solace to the traumatized.

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