Reflections on Haiti: The search for strength and courage

by Dick Nystrom

I stepped off the plane into the sweltering heat and was soon making my way through the crowded city streets in an old truck. Three months had passed since an earthquake left the city in ruins, flattened the Presidential Palace, destroyed the Catholic Cathedral, and made rubble of houses, apartment buildings, schools and hospitals. Our progress was slow down narrow twisting streets lined with the tents and tarps where people now lived with the pungent smell of diesel fumes and smoldering garbage. It wasn’t long before I realized that the scenes were more than what I had come prepared to see.

I had gone to Haiti as a member of one of the many medical teams that began to arrive soon after the January 2010 earthquake, which claimed 230,000 lives. In the days to follow I watched as Haitians young and old waited under the hot sun for their turn to see the doctor, some with injuries that had not yet healed and others simply looking weary to the bone. And yet there was a quiet dignity about the people, even as they waited in the mud while dogs and goats rummaged through the medical waste that piled up outside the clinic door.

Day after day I looked into the faces of suffering but resilient people, knowing in my own head and heart that I could not begin to imagine their experience when the ground shook and their world turned upside down. Such is the story that the Haitian people now share, of a day when earthly possessions were lost, jobs disappeared, and so many neighbors and loved ones died. Such was the day when families who had lived for generations on tree-lined streets found themselves seeking shelter under tarps in open fields.

This was the story on the face of an orphan asking for food, a grandmother huddled beneath a frayed tarp, a young man struggling to walk without a limb, a mother cradling a sick child, a husband grieving the death of his beloved wife. Each face also told a story about brave people who were confronting the daunting challenge of an uncertain future.

I remained in Haiti just two weeks and would often walk the rubble-strewn streets of Leogane, a community where 30,000 died. “This was once a charming place” a young Haitian told me as we looked out upon a town where 80 to 90 percent of the buildings were destroyed and public utilities crippled. It was all a bit overwhelming, except such a word is hardly adequate to explain the lump in my throat as I watched a family digging through what was left of their home as a daughter clutched a few precious papers to her chest. Rubble was everywhere, and nothing symbolizes the extent of the loss more than the historic Catholic church and adjacent school that collapsed in the quake, the place where five hundred students and their teachers died.

I made my way to that place one sweltering Saturday afternoon, to stand on the street where the church and school once stood. Remains of the two buildings were piled high, while across the street the town square served as a crowded makeshift neighborhood of weathered tarps, tents and shacks.

I stood in the street trying to take it all in: the smell of cook stoves and garbage, the sight of men pulling heavy carts loaded with bananas to market, the incessant honking of motorbikes warning pedestrians out of their way, and the playfulness of children chasing a deflated ball amongst the trash. I looked at all of this and more with a great sense of sadness on my heart, wondering if that was the sum total of what Haiti had become, a place of heartache and ruin.

But then, above it all, I heard the faint sound of children singing. I looked around and a moment later was climbing over the rubble to discover that, where the church once stood, the tile floor had been swept clean, a large Easter banner has been hung, and in the far corner some thirty children were practicing for Sunday worship.

I stood spellbound and listened. For two weeks I had been looking into the faces of a suffering but determined people. But listening to the children sing, I finally began to understand where the Haitian people find the strength and the courage to go on.