Neighbors From A World Away

by Torri Singer

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I decided to write this because I didn’t want to just know what happened in Haiti, I wanted to understand it. I wanted to know about the culture of these people, who I honestly knew little about before the earthquake. I wanted to see the faces of the children who were affected, and be brave enough to look at images that would confirm the reality of the event. I researched this in order to wake myself up, and hopefully wake up some who like me, became so preoccupied with their own lives that they developed a disregard for important priorities.

I think it’s safe to say that our lives sometimes become muddled with time-suckers: sports games, celebrities, reality shows, Facebook. It is easy to get distracted (and practically typical teenager criteria), so it’s understandable that sometimes we find ourselves only scratching the surface of painful issues. The completion of my high school career (yes, finally) is just months away and I find myself now more than ever extremely hung up on impermanent, irrational aspects of my life that have no real impact. Unintentionally, I feel disconnected with the rest of the world and wrapped up in my own needs and wants. Armed with my findings from this project, I hope to change the perspectives (if not change, then maybe enlighten) of those who insist, “well that’s not our country, it’s not our problem, the United States is doing the best it can” because I don’t think our national allegiances really have that much to do with helping people in need on a human level.

An aerial view of Leogane--courtesy of H. Pallotta

This is what I found: Léogâne is a coastal city in Haiti and was the epicenter of the earthquake, which had a measurement of 7.0 magnitude and killed approximately 100,000 people. An estimated 3 million Haitians were affected. These numbers alone are shocking. I can’t even begin to grapple with the lives that these numbers actually represent.

With close to 10 million residents, Haiti is one of the most densely populated and least developed countries in the Western Hemisphere. It also ranks highly as one of the poorest; an overwhelming 80% of its population falls under this classification (according to the CIA World Factbook, which is an annual publication by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States containing basic almanac-style information about the various countries of the world). As I dug through articles, timelines and facts, I was astounded by Haiti’s turbulent historical record.  The more information I gathered, the more apparent it became to me that this tragic disaster may act as a wakeup call that finally turns the world’s magnifying glass toward a broken country.

Tangled in political fraudulence, societal unrest, dictatorship, suppression, and one humanitarian crisis after another, it’s incredible to me that these people still manage to have a vibrant culture embedded in their roots. There is an abundance of nationalism and pride among Haitians, who lack material possessions but more than make up for it with their resilient spirits. Family is extremely important to the residents of this island country, although survival is extremely difficult. I learned that nearly 54% of Haitians live on less than one dollar a day. Many resort to eating what are called “cookies” to satiate their hunger. “Cookies” aren’t referring to the kind that you and I are accustomed to, but mean mud and dirt clods.

Current generations still recognize the expulsion of the French in 1804 as a tremendous triumph and turning point in Haitian history. This event made Haiti the first independently black-ruled nation in the world. Haiti is also the second country (the first being the United States) to achieve independence from imperial Europe. As I sifted through the facts and figures, my attention was drawn to the photographs of children, of mothers and daughters, celebrations and family gatherings. I began seeing these people not as victims distantly tied to me through the breaking five o’clock news, but as neighbors, no different from you or me.

Destruction in Haiti--courtesy of H. Pollatta

Human suffering and pain are universal, and the aid process should not be the result of some calculated decision based upon political ties and the state of the economy. This needs to be about the social contract which humanity shares that permeates the boundaries created by our borders. When you see a child crying and alone, lost in a crowd and separated from his mother, you help him because, – well, how could you not? I can’t say that Haiti lost 180,000 men, women, and children that day, but I can say that collectively, we all did. I can’t separate “them” from “us” because there is no separation in times of tragedy. “We” are all people and that is what I think some have forgotten in the midst of this tragedy.

I wrote this because I want to express in words how surreal this event is to me. I have no family from Haiti, know no one who was personally affected, and yet I feel my heart sink deep into my chest when I watch the news and hear recordings of the desperate screams of helpless victims. I feel guilty for being so privileged, I feel thankful and sad, and want so badly to abandon any personal obligations in order to volunteer and truly be there amidst the unrest.

However I am filled too with a sense of overwhelming fear. I realize though that I can make contributions in countless ways other than being physically present in the chaos that is occurring. If you or someone you know is interested in making a donation, the Rumson Fair Haven French National Honors Society is hosting the talent show and donating proceeds to the Doctors Without Borders Foundation, and Character Education is also running a fund raiser for the same foundation. The American Red Cross International Response Fund can also be contacted through redcross.org or 1-800-RED-CROSS. Additionally, by simply texting the word “Haiti” to the number 90999 ten dollars will be added to your phone bill and the proceeds will go towards relief.

As optimistic or cliché as it might sound, the difference that one individual can make is astonishing, and a small donation could mean the preservation of life.

To see photographs like the ones I used to write this article, click on the link below:

Haiti Earthquake

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