Long before the earthquake demolished what was left of parts of Haiti, the country's destitution could be seen from the air. Juxtaposed beside the green Dominican Republic, which occupies the other half of the island of Hispaniola, Haiti appears as a barren wasteland, a real-time before and after shot demarcated abruptly at the border. It is estimated that less than two per cent of Haiti's original tropical forest cover remains today, the result of centuries of overcutting. The overhead view is a tragic illustration of the environmental price of forestation, which renders even more desperate the human price on the ground.
In 2008, I had the privilege of witnessing the work of a group called the Flying Doctors, who were spending a week setting up portable day clinics in the Dominican Republic. They needed a French translator to travel with them to the bateyes - communities of Haitian migrant workers, who come to the Dominican Republic during the sugar cane and banana harvests to work as laborers. I was in the DR on high school educational outreach program, working in an impoverished community not far from the Haitian border. The Dominican Republic ranks 90th on the UN's World Poverty Index. According to the World Bank, fifteen per cent of the population lives in poverty, and there are skyrocketing rates of the twin scourges of desperate populations: illiteracy and malnutrition. And then I saw the Haitians.
Men, women and their children waited for hours, crowding the waiting room of the free clinic. Many had never seen a doctor. My French was only marginally useful faced with the Haitian Creole spoken there, but we made-do, and soon I got the gist as the doctors saw patient after patient. An eighty year-old man suffering from headaches all his life. We listened, performed a lengthy examination, and sent him away with Tylenol. His problem? He had no access to eyeglasses. Ever. There were teenagers with urinary infections, and men with venereal diseases, and hernias. There were tapeworms, scabies, common colds, menstrual cramps, and a baby with whooping cough. Several women came into the makeshift office and wept. They wanted their hand held, and spoke of sadness, hopelessness, fatigue and headaches. It was textbook depression, the same that women with children everywhere feel when they are overwhelmed, but these women didn't have the luxury of Cymbalta or group therapy.
And then there was Junior. He was a handsome twenty year-old, and that day he complained of, I believe, a sore knee or back, and the doctor thought he may have pulled a hamstring. He was lean and muscular and said he was a hard worker. I believed him. He could not get himself to whine about the life he was leading, the walk he made to and from work every day, the heat and fatigue. He was an optimist - the kind of person any boss would love to have on their team. He was removed from his home and family in Haiti, but he told me of his dream to play professional soccer, and he saw opportunity in working at the batey. I admired his Sean John sweatshirt, and I asked him if I could take his picture. He flashed a GQ smile and obliged.
I have been thinking of Junior a lot these days; his photo disappeared during some computer mishap. I hope he was in the relative safety of the Dominican Republic during the earthquake. Meanwhile, doctors and nurses and people with real skills continue to work day and night in Haiti, and engineers, architects and social workers will do the same to 'rebuild' what was in already in tatters, even before the storm. There was little infrastructure to build a society on, little opportunity for prosperous futures, and no vegetation to thwart the power of tropical storms. But my too-brief window into the Haitian people showed me what those on the ground who have been helping in Haiti for years, already know. There are people like Junior, who remain full of hope, undamaged by what can only be seen as a run of very bad luck.
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