After Hurricanes, How To Heal Haiti

NPR's Rebecca Martinez recently traveled to Haiti, to do aid work in the aftermath of the hurricanes there last year. In an audio postcard, Martinez shares her insights about the country which has been devastated by centuries of oppression, disease and natural disasters.

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CHERYL CORLEY, host:

Coping with illness and limited resources can challenge even the strongest families. And for a society in crisis, it can feed into a cycle of poverty that lasts for generations. That's what struck producer Rebecca Martinez on a recent trip to Haiti. She tells us more in this audio postcard.

REBECCA MARTINEZ (Producer): For as long as I can remember, my Uncle Steve has been collecting donations of food, money and construction supplies for the Missions of the Poor, a Catholic group that serves destitute people around the world.

About once a year he visits one of the missions in the St. Filomene(ph) neighborhood, part of an enormous (unintelligible) slum. When I heard the stories of the flooding and devastation this fall, I asked to join him.

(Soundbite of background chatter)

MS. MARTINEZ: In the St. Filomene neighborhood, when some has a disability or becomes terminally ill, their family takes them to the Missions of the Poor. The walled compound houses an orphanage and a nursing home for people who are physically and mentally handicapped, or sick with diseases like tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS.

Conditions in the community are so desperate, some parents exaggerate the aliments of a child in order to get them into the commune. As we approach the hospice, children from the orphanage cling to my clothes, begging in Creole for me to take their picture so they can see themselves on the display of my digital camera. One boy croons into my microphone.

Unidentified Child: (Singing) Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you.

(Soundbite of clapping)

MARTINEZ: But our mood changes once we step inside. In a large, clean room, old women lie quietly on cots all day. And in the men's quarters, more cots, more silence. I asked Father Henry Lozano, the young Filipino priest who runs the mission, what it's like to spend his day working with people who are all waiting to die.

Father HENRY LOZANO: We recognize that yes, some of them don't really have much time to live, but what is important is for them to have lived their lives knowing that they have always been loved by God. To see them die having had that sense, you know, give us great joy.

MARTINEZ: It also helps, I suppose, that the monks sometimes leave the compound to visit the families of their residents, and to invite people to their weekly soup kitchen. Father Lozano invites my uncle and me to walk with him.

(Soundbite of bustling streets)

MARTINEZ: On the cracked, muddy streets, pickup trucks are filled with men riding to market or out to the countryside. Women vendors, called comercian(ph), sell used shoes and charcoal along the wide, paved gutters.

(Soundbite of vendors)

MARTINEZ: In the gutter behind two women who are hawking pealed vegetables, there's a human skull propped up on a drain pipe. They don't seem to notice it.

(Soundbite of vendors)

MARTINEZ: We continue walking up the street and children with gorgeous, ebony skin run out of small, cement houses to walk with us. My uncle digs into a bag of candy and begins to pass it out among the kids - who immediately begin fighting over it.

(Soundbite of fighting children)

MARTINEZ: It's right about the time that we arrive at the neighborhood cemetery. It's a paupers field with some decimated mausoleums and no marked plots. Skulls and femurs are strewn about the patches of grass and garbage. Father Lozano helps me talk with a couple of men who were digging a grave for a 10-year-old boy who died of a fever the day before.

In the middle of the conversation, the kids bring their war over the candy to the edge of the open grave. A few of them fall in unfazed, grasping at tiny boxes of Red Hots. Death seems ever-present in the slum, where a fever or disease easily caught from unclean water in the rainy season can claim a life without much warning. Even the children seem unafraid of death.

But this fearlessness seems to sap motivation from the living. The wooden mountains have been bare for decades without seedlings being replanted. Farming is rare, and cities around the country are isolated because of a lack of roads. Father Lozano thinks that if Haitians are ever going to pull themselves out of their cycle of poverty, they need to have some hope about the future.

Father LOZANO: The people have to come out of that attitude of almost being fatalistic, you know. They need to be taught not simply to be given the fish, but rather how to catch fish, as well. Because, otherwise, you know, where would the country go if they're just dependent on others.

MARTINEZ: It's easier said than done. But the U.N. forces and Food for the Poor, among other aid groups, are still fighting to make things better. If these dedicated groups still have hope for Haiti, perhaps it will become contagious, and Haiti will begin to heal itself from within.

CORLEY: That was producer Rebecca Martinez. And that's our program for today. I'm Cheryl Corley, filling in for Michel Martin. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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