Haitians quietly mark second year after earthquake

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Jan 12, 2012
Haiti mural restoration

Two years after a devastating magnitude-7 earthquake, the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti’s commitment to living out the gospel of Christ continues. Here, an artist removes the lattice support from the face of Jesus, which is part of the three-section Last Supper mural that was painted in Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince by Philomé Obin. Photo/Rosa Lowinger/Smithsonian

[Episcopal News Service] The streets of Port-au-Prince were empty Jan. 12 but the churches were full as residents of the Haitian capital remembered the day two years ago when a magnitude-7 earthquake devastated vast parts of southern Haiti.

“Some people stayed home to reflect quietly,” Episcopal Diocese of Haiti Bishop Jean Zaché Duracin told Episcopal News Service during a telephone interview after a morning service at the ruined Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince. Duracin was about to leave for an official ceremony marking the National Day of Remembrance declared by the Haitian government when ENS reached him.

The earthquake, whose epicenter struck 10 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince at 4:53 p.m. local time on Jan. 12, 2010, was immediately followed by two aftershocks of 5.9 and 5.5 magnitude. Close to 300,000 were killed. About a third of Haiti’s approximately 9 million people lived in Port-au-Prince at the time of the quake. Of those, 1.6 million people in the capital and elsewhere were left homeless on streets filled with the rubble of 80,000 destroyed buildings.

In the days since the earthquake, Duracin said, the diocese has risen from the rubble to piece back together its mission and ministry to the entire country. “Our communities are working. Our institutions are working,” he said. “That is a miracle.”

All 254 of the diocese’s school have been open since April 2010, serving nearly 80,000 Haitians from kindergarten to university, the Rev. Canon Ogé Beauvoir, bishop suffragan-elect and the head of the diocese’s Bureau Anglican d’Education en Haiti, told ENS Jan. 11.

Despite suffering the trauma of the earthquake and its aftermath, and being in schools that often operate in makeshift conditions, “somehow the teachers and the students are coping – they’re doing more than coping,” he said

And, Duracin said, even though “all our major infrastructure has been destroyed but, all of our institutions are working,” including churches and medical clinics — albeit many in far less-than-ideal conditions.

The members of the Episcopal Church have joined Haitian Episcopalians in the reconstruction effort through their donations to Episcopal Relief & Development, the Rebuild Our Church in Haiti campaign and partnerships with parishes, schools and other ministries many of them had developed before the earthquake.

The Rebuild Our Church in Haiti effort is meant to help the diocese rebuild its physical structures, beginning with Holy Trinity Cathedral. A summary of Episcopal Relief & Development’s long-term partnership with the diocese before and after the quake is here.

“The Episcopal Church as a whole has had its heart expanded in the support and partnership with our sisters and brothers in Haiti,” Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said Jan. 11. “I encourage you to continue your prayers, your active partnership in fundraising, and the solidarity that comes from learning about the situation and caring about the future. We all begin to experience more abundant life in caring for our neighbors. I give thanks for the treasure that is Haiti, and urge the faithful accompaniment of the whole Episcopal Church with Haiti.”

Duracin said he is “very grateful” to all of the people of the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion “for what they have done for us.”

“We ask them to continue to support us and to work with us,” he added. “I thank them for their prayers. With that, all Episcopalians have something to do with us. Pray us, be with us, support us.”

Jefferts Schori said, “We are all diminished by the reality of the situation in Haiti. Reconstruction has been painfully slow, funds promised by other nations have not yet been paid or paid in full, and many, many people still live in tents.”

Two years after the quake 650,000 people still live in makeshift camps, according to the United Nations. Recently a major camp near the airport was dismantled and Haitian President Michel Martelly announced Jan. 11 that in about six weeks the nearly 20,000 people living in tents in the Champ de Mars plaza near the presidential palace will be moved to new homes north of the capital. The Canadian government is providing $19.9 million over two years to finance the resettlement of the camp dwellers.

Conditions are increasingly terrible and unsafe, particularly for women.

“It is well documented by people on the ground that life in the camps for everyone has increased incidences of violence, particularly gender-based violence, to unprecedented levels,” the Rev. Canon Rosemari Sullivan, who coordinates the National Council of Churches and is co-coordinator for the Episcopal Church’s recovery efforts in Haiti, said Jan. 12. She added that “transactional sex” has increased in the camps as a means of acquiring food and other necessities.

Groups in Haiti have been trying to equip 600,000 people in camps with flashlights, Sullivan said. “Solar lighting has been installed around the latrines in many camps. Those living in this situation, particularly the women, have begun to self-organize to protect themselves and their children.”

Sullivan said the NCC is working with its member communions to develop ways of supporting and encouraging the churches to partner with grassroots organizations in Haiti.

“The challenge to the churches is to address what I consider a humanitarian disaster in Haiti,” she said.

Walking through the camps, aid workers get a sense of the indomitable spirit of many Haitians, Sullivan said.

“You quickly come across little businesses, barber shops, cafes, and stores that crop up in the camps,” she said. “People are very entrepreneurial. But when you get into the center of things and visit a group watching a TV that is running off a generator, it is heart breaking to see the elderly in these camps who have no one, nothing. Or to see a mother and father and three little kids, children close to starvation.”

The fact that so many families still live in the camps makes providing them with education difficult, Beauvoir said, but he added that the diocese has been committed to returning children to classrooms since shortly after the earthquake. It was the first to open its schools in Léogâne, which was especially hard-hit by the quake, and it provided space to public schools, he said.

This past fall, Beauvoir told the National Association of Episcopal Schools, a leader partner in Haiti, that he had five goals for education in post-quake Haiti: teacher training; access to information technology at all schools; school food programs; new, expanded and repaired classrooms; and improved teacher working conditions and salaries.

“Haiti’s first problem is not money or resources,” Beauvoir told ENS. “Our first problem is leadership.” Schools can train leaders, he added, among both students and teachers.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.