A plain black bow adorns the coat of arms on the door of the Haitian Embassy in Tokyo, a poignant reminder to visitors of the hundreds of thousands who have died in the country since the devastating earthquake of Jan 12. It is a small gesture that belies the scale of the destruction wrought by the quake: the mountains of rubble, the mass burials, the hunger and loss.
The disaster has touched the lives of every Haitian on the planet, including Acting Ambassador Jean-Claude Bordes, who was safely ensconced 13,000 km away at the embassy in the upmarket neighborhood of Nishi-Azabu when the quake struck.
One of Bordes’ close friends lived to tell of the moment when the earth shook, almost swallowing the country whole. That Tuesday evening, his friend was at home in the capital, Port-au-Prince, working in the garage as his wife read on the balcony, the ambassador explains.
“And then the earthquake happened, the house collapsed, his wife died and they had to bury her in her own backyard.”
A month after the decade’s first major natural disaster, as the huge physical and emotional toll on the nation becomes clearer, Bordes has a faith in the future that is firmly rooted in the past.
“To tell you the truth, our country, since our independence, it has been a fight for survival. At school we were taught to be strong, to be patriotic, to live for our country. Even our national anthem talks about that.”
In 1804, slaves rose up and wrested control of Haiti — then called Saint-Domingue — from the French. The Haitian Revolution was a defining moment in history: As well as being the only instance of a country winning independence through a slave revolt, Haiti was the first independent black republic and only the second independent nation in the Americas.
“We are proud to be Haitian. We fought, we work hard to make what we see, what we have,” says Bordes. “We thought about building our future and our children’s future, and then this. . . . Again, everything was gone.”
It’s a pattern familiar to Haiti. Since independence, Haitians have endured political instability, despotic rule, re-occupation, and faced extreme poverty compounded by natural disasters. Whereas Saint-Domingue was once the wealthiest colony on Earth due to the slave-driven sugar cane industry, Haiti in 2010 is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
It’s almost as if the national anthem, adopted in 1904, was written as a rallying call for the troubled century ahead: “Our past cries out to us:/Have a disciplined soul!”
Haitians are a proud, independent people, but Bordes knows that the country cannot be rebuilt almost from scratch without long-term assistance from the international community. With its high-tech knowhow and extensive experience dealing with earthquakes, Japan will be vital to these efforts, he says.
“Japan has the technology for the right infrastructure. Fifteen years ago there was the earthquake in Kobe, and look at Kobe now: It’s very attractive, very aggressive economically. We have to follow their example.”
Bordes has nothing put praise for Japan’s response to the disaster so far.
“You have the government, all prefectures coming in, visiting: the government of Tokyo, the political parties — they even sent the Self-Defense Forces to Haiti. All those who visited — the Buddhists, Shinto, all those religious institutions — have been really comforting. A lot of things are going on.”
Far removed from Nishi-Azabu, Louis Deraville, a New Jersey-born Haitian American who teaches English in northern Honshu, is also doing his bit. His Baptist church in Iwate Prefecture is raising funds in tandem with his family’s Haitian church in the U.S.
“The majority of my family in Haiti is living in the streets,” he says. “My mother was raised about a 30-minute walk from the presidential palace, so everything she knew is gone.”
In the weeks after the quake, Deraville was frantically trying to get the rest of his family out of the country.
“We’re trying to fill out the forms for ‘humanitarian parole,’ which, defined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is a policy used to help ‘otherwise inadmissible people into the U.S. for a temporary period of time due to a compelling emergency.’ “
Deraville and his family “don’t know how effective that will be,” he says. “After being filed, they can take as long as 120 business days to process. Also, the forms cost $305 per person. We want to bring the family Stateside, but the forms want to know if they’ll be wholly dependent or partially dependent. You have to fill out an affidavit vouching that the family you bring over won’t be a ‘charge’ to society.”
At the same time as trying to negotiate his way through U.S. immigration bureaucracy, Deraville is pushing the idea of sending shipping cargo containers to Haiti to serve as living quarters. The containers are portable, inexpensive modular housing units, he argues.
“I believe ISO (International Organization for Standardization- certified) containers are the best solution for quick, abundant and strong housing alternatives,” Deraville wrote in an e-mail. “With the ability to house six people per container, entire families can be provided with housing that’s easily outfitted with electricity and water. The rectangular shape allows for optimal space-saving because they can be stacked. They are durable, reuseable and do not expose the inhabitants to the elements like tents do.
“ISOs can be a temporary solution, or indefinite. Haiti was a great candidate before the quake, but now Haiti can benefit from the expedited reconstruction of an infrastructure. Haiti can be an example to the world of what an emergency ISO implementation plan can do.”
Before Jan. 12, Haiti was a country that existed under the radar for most Japanese. Deraville is one of only an estimated dozen or so Haitians living in Japan, a country physically and culturally a world away from the small Caribbean nation.
Despite this distance, Acting Ambassador Bordes says he has been overwhelmed by the support he has received since the disaster.
“The response of solidarity that I have had in favor of our people, of our country, I feel really comforted,” he says. “Financially, materially, technically, in the medical field, as well as morally. The Japanese people are really supportive, really cooperative; you wouldn’t believe it; it is amazing.”
For Fusako Yanase, president of Association for Aid and Relief, Japan (AAR Japan), there was no question of her organization not joining the relief effort.
“Haiti is far from Japan and it might be difficult for Japanese people to feel familiar to them. However, it’s one of the worst-ever natural disasters, and it’s estimated that more than 200,000 people have died. As a humanitarian agency, we had to take action to help people in Haiti.”
AAR has been distributing emergency aid packages to survivors in Haiti, and now plans to focus on those “with specific needs,” such as the disabled, who have difficulty getting to aid distribution points.
“I have seen several battlefields, including Afghanistan,” one staffer on the ground said in the days following the quake, according to Yanase. “The scenery in Haiti is just like after the war.”
France-based Doctors of the World (Medecins du Monde), which began operations in Japan after the Kobe quake in 1995, has scores of expatriate doctors working at hospitals and mobile clinics in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere in Haiti.
“Primary health care is a priority, along with access to water and food,” says Prune Helfter, General Director of Doctors of the World Japan. “Another important aspect of our work in Haiti will be to focus on mental health care. Survivors have undergone trauma and bereavement, with the number of people still missing making the recovery process all the more difficult.”
“In the coming weeks we will focus on the nutritional status of children. The combination of population growth and food supply problems may impact quickly on those most vulnerable, especially young children.”
There is hope in Haiti, Helfter stresses, despite images in the media that seem to suggest total despair.
“The solidarity of the Haitian people is very impressive. People are helping one another to survive. It will take months to rebuild the country and make sure that everybody has equal access to health, water, food and education. People can help by making donations and ensure that those that survived the quake itself do not die for lack of medical care or clean water.”
Before making a donation, however, Jane Best, CEO of Refugees International Japan, recommends learning a little about the country and organization you plan to give to.
“Check the Web sites of organizations operating in Haiti and see what they report. Do their reports tell you what they are doing? Do they have a good history of support in emergencies?”
Sarajean Rossitto, of Tokyo-based volunteer group People for Social Change, also offers a note of caution.
“Give to organizations already doing work in Haiti — not to groups that are now starting up an office or project. They will need to spend too much of the funds on the setup,” she advises.
Of course, you do not have to be in Haiti to help Haiti. Ayano Ninomiya, a violinist trained at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, organized a charity concert in Tokyo with AAR Japan last month that raised over ¥500,000 for the NGO’s work in the country.
“Tokyo Tower is a symbol of Tokyo. You can see far out into the world” from the capital’s most famous landmark, Ninomiya said on the choice of venue. “Music has no prejudices.”
Music plays an integral role in Haitian life, says Bordes, the acting ambassador. The Haitian people will have to draw deeply from this well of strength as they cope with the emotional and physical hardships of the coming months.
“Haitians cannot be pessimistic; it is not our nature,” Bordes explains. “Whatever we have, we transform it in a song. We are dead, we are singing; we have joy, we are singing; whatever it is, we are singing.”
Another crucial source of strength in the years to come will be the ongoing support of Japan and the rest of the international community in rebuilding the nation.
As is written on the Haitian coat of arms, “L’Union Fait la Force” — “Union Makes Strength.”
For more tips on giving from Sarajean Rossitto, see the Haiti box story at search. japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20100119zg.html. You can donate to MDMJ via postal transfer (Medecins du Monde Japon — 00110-8-172839) or online at www.mdm.or.jp/donation/select.php. Donations to AAR Japan can be made via postal transfer to 00100-9-600 (Nanmin wo tasukeru-kai — please write “Haiti” in the correspondence column). A video by Louis Deraville about containers for Haiti is at www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=880408572089&ref=mf. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org