Copyright 2010 by Meaningful World (www.meaningfulworld.com). Adapted with permission. All rights reserved. Photography courtesy of ATOP Haiti Team.
Imagine you have no home, no running water, no electricity, and no food. Ten people from your family have been killed as a result of the earthquake. You are in shock and suffering from the aftereffects caused by these traumatic events. This stress-related condition is known as post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, which is a prime focus of the ATOP (Association for Trauma Outreach and Prevention) post trauma healing.
The first team to reach Haiti from Meaningfulworld witnessed many people in this dire situation. Well over 50% of Haiti's population is suffering from these calamitous issues of survival. ATOP's first team recently returned from Haiti after connecting with and orienting the second ATOP team from Canada, who arrived to continue the psychosocial and spiritual rehabilitation.
The first ATOP team spearheaded by Dr. Ani Kalayjian included Julie Lira, movement therapist; Dana Mark, clinical social worker; Ghen Zado-Dennis, videographer; and Ariana Reines, interpreter and worker with children. This team conducted a series of psychosocial rehabilitation programs to help the survivors recover from feelings of helplessness, fear, nightmares and uncertainty, which are normal symptoms after such a horrendous calamity. The ATOP team worked with teachers, orphans, adults, and children in tent cities, hospitals, orphanages, and the community at large. They also trained social workers and psychologists. The second ATOP team continued the work until April 6.
Presently, ATOP is concentrating on organizing the next team to be deployed to Haiti, and desperately needs support to succeed in this humanitarian endeavor.
The catastrophic effect of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, has debilitated the country leaving over 250,000 dead, thousands handicapped, and 1.5 million homeless. The destruction is overwhelming but the people are resilient, ingenious, and religious, even though they are traumatized, displaced, dehydrated and in despair. The threat of disease looms overhead. The amount of care needed will increase as some have not yet been properly treated for injuries sustained in the quake. Preventative measures, such as vaccinations and condom distribution, will help stave off communicable diseases and viruses in the face of clean water shortage and the impending rainy season.
We learned firsthand just how violent and unforgiving the rain is one night as it pelted the roof—it was as if someone was relentlessly whipping the roof. But we were fortunate to have a roof, unlike the thousands who did not have any shelter. The rain soaked tents, streets, clothing, food, and the people to their very core. However, the next day children, who were damp from the rain, still came to play at our art therapy tents.
The biggest observation we made about the relief efforts was the lack of a distribution mechanism for the supplied goods. We have all heard how the United States alone raised millions of dollars, but there was no evidence of it. We also know that the money is there, as we have been hearing about it being raised through concerts, celebrity events, schools, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), governments, the United Nations, and others—all given with the good intention of helping the suffering people. We did not see any evidence of this money in Haiti. There was a lack of cleaning and clearing of debris, and not enough tents or shelters being distributed; we actually saw very little construction or rebuilding for that matter. The ATOP team saw no organized effort to create a system for distribution, except 10—20 hour waits on long lines, in 100 degree heat to collect some rice and beans.
The ATOP team was greatly challenged to focus on the Haitians' psychosocial rehabilitation as the people's basic needs were unmet. In the short term, it became obvious that the survivors needed sturdy, water-proof tents, access to both potable water and water for washing and cooking, and temporary toilet facilities. Even our interpreters had no tents. When we inquired, we found that tarps that cost $14 in the US were being sold for $20 in Haiti.
Haiti needs help with debris removal and a green system for garbage removal. The current practice of simply piling trash to fester near homes, hospitals, and markets, or burning it, resulting in the release of toxins into the air, only serves to exacerbate health threats. In addition, survivors need a rotating volunteer pool of physicians, nurses, social workers, psychologists and other physical and mental health specialists, which needs to be maintained and sustained over the coming years. Our ATOP team took part in the staff meetings at the Community Hospital on a daily basis. These meetings dealt with all issues and especially focused on resolving any uncovered deficiencies.
As Ghen Zado-Dennis said so eloquently, "In the long term, Haitian people need help revitalizing the rural agricultural base into a sustainable system, having standing homes inspected for safety, and training in techniques for building earthquake resistant structures." Even the orphanage we worked in, while serving as a shelter, had no mattresses on the metal cots and the toilet in the sleeping rooms was so foul that it burned our nostrils.
The ATOP team was very grateful for receiving many donated items. We had over ten suitcases full of donations; however, we had to pay $150 to American Airlines for the extra weight. A shipping system must be quickly developed in order that small NGOs, or even individuals, are able to send supplies and tents for disaster relief, with the assurance that they will be received and disbursed and not hoarded, lost, or sold in the black market. This could be implemented by a foreign shipping company which could also provide jobs at the local level.
Haitians desperately need their education system improved. They need free and accessible education for all, sponsored by the government. The ATOP team was told that only 20% of the school system was public, making 80% private. Haitians are in urgent need of educational campaigns to teach communities about disease and virus prevention, as well as earthquake preparedness, which will also stave off the spread of negative and frightening rumors. Relief workers, collaborating with local government and community rebuilding efforts, need to educate themselves on past abuses and political failures that have been transmitted generationally to the Haitian people so that these mistakes are not repeated, or worse, so that disasters are not exploited for foreign economic gain.
Lastly, the people of Haiti need a transparent and democratic government, as they expressed tremendous distrust and hopelessness about their past and current government.
The ATOP team also addressed the mental health needs of the local staff in hospitals, providing support in a cooperative and collaborative manner. They worked with children and adults in "therapy" tents near the hospital grounds, serving both patients and nearby community members. The children, in particular, responded very positively to having consistent play therapy sessions in the wake of school closings brought on by the quake.
The medical staff at the Haitian Community Hospital expressed gratitude for our presence and support, and thanked us for the training ATOP conducted. ATOP presented a lecture on helping the hospital staff members to deal with their own trauma and disaster fatigue under the harsh conditions, as well as sharing information on how to protect themselves from secondary traumatization.
As Julie Lira stated two weeks after she returned from Haiti with the ATOP team, "Haiti has become a part of my everyday thoughts. I wake up with thoughts of the people as much as the country itself, and before bed as my prayers roll out into the universe, I try to include as many specific names and people as possible, and when I can't remember, I pray the images of faces and destruction into a peaceful light."
The Director of the Community Hospital stated: "Your presence is a tremendous gift for us and for Haiti. Many of our staff were traumatized and were unable to come to work. Now they come to work with a smile on their face, with a different attitude." Like a stone thrown in a lake the effects widen and expand further. Some Haitians struggled with the philosophy of expressing their feelings, not just men, but women as well. They wanted to just surrender to God, and move on. As Dana Mark stated profoundly: "Like a child, may the world help Haitians during their early development, (by teaching balance) facilitating their growth, without making them dependent. May love surroundthem and combined withthe light within, guide them physically, psychologically, and spiritually."
ATOP's 7-step model was very instrumental in helping survivors express their feelings while others witnessed their pain and suffering. It gave them empathy, helped them move to learning from this traumatic experience. The lessons expressed were of humility, abundance, gratitude, compassion for family and community, acceptance of that which cannot be changed, and most of all caring for their environment, and not taking life for granted.
Haiti is in our minds on a daily basis. The sights of destruction, children's eyes, the sound of children's laughter and singing, the smell of the distinct Haiti dust mixed with sweat, heat, humidity, and burning garbage are etched in memory. We breathe, think, feel and remember what we learned there. We remember what we witnessed, and all that we helped transform, transformed us as well. Each and every team member had a profound transformative experience not only in Haiti but also when they returned from Haiti to the comfort of their own homes.
As Julie Lira said with tearful eyes "What I remember most was the touch of Alexandra's hand on my cheek telling me that I was a strong girl too. After learning the word strong in French/Creole "Plu font" and incorporating it into a story for her about a strong girl on a great adventure, she turned that story into an opportunity to share her loss, showing not only that she displayed her strength, but that she shared it with me. For a ten-year-old child who has lost so very much—parents, limbs, home—she still had more than enough to give in that simple gesture of reassurance. For this I will always be in awe, and I will return to Haiti to do my part."
Haiti needs us, now more than ever! You can make a difference in the lives of these people. Please help us to help them and send your much needed donations to ATOP, a charitable, humanitarian, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, www.meaningfulworld.com. Haiti is waiting for you...Haiti is waiting for us. Thank you in advance for your donation.
Additional Agencies Helping With Relief Efforts in Haiti
American Red Cross
Clinton Bush Haiti Fund
Habitat for Humanity
International Rescue Committee
Doctors Without Borders
U.S. Fund for UNICEF
World Food Programme