January 2012: We’re Growing Vegetables and Playing Soccer in Port-au-Prince Again
At this moment two years ago the city of Port-au-Prince collapsed. In a matter of minutes hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives as this proud city crumbled to the ground. On this day of remembrance and mourning we ask that you take a moment of silence to honor the dead and share the suffering of more than 500,000 people who remain homeless in Haiti’s capital.
There are many reasons to despair when remembering the tragedy that took place two years ago and the terrible suffering that continues today. But on the second anniversary of the earthquake that has brought so many of us together on a common mission to help Haiti, we want to share with you a story of hope. The story starts in Parc Izmery.
In those awful first days after the earthquake, when we drove our old pickup truck down from Cap-Haitien, overflowing with the emergency medical and food supplies that your donations helped us buy, we moved into the yard behind the Matthew 25 Guest House, next door to the Parc Izmery soccer field. During those awful first days, when aftershocks were still shaking our almost broken hearts, we watched Parc Izmery turned into an emergency field hospital with volunteer medical teams from around the world conducting lifesaving surgeries on Matthew 25’s dining room table and providing ongoing medical care to the people moving into tents crowded together in the hot sun on the former soccer field.
A young man, who used to be a star player in one of the soccer teams that regularly held practices and tournaments on the Izmery field, was among the people who, newly homeless, moved into the park. One day when this young man was walking across the field he found $2000 in cash that had dropped unnoticed onto the ground. In those early days of chaos when the banks were still closed, many volunteers were bringing in large amounts of cash to purchase clean drinking water, tarps and emergency food, and it’s likely that one of the foreign aid workers at the field hospital had dropped the money. This young man, who had lost everything in the earthquake, quietly put the cash into his pocket and walked it over to Sister Mary who runs the Matthew 25 Guest House in hopes that she could return the money to its owner. Sister Mary agreed to keep the money in a safe until someone came forward to claim it, and in the meanwhile people across Port-au-Prince continued to clear away rubble and build again.
The small team of people at SOIL who had first came down from Cap-Haitian slept for weeks on mattresses circled up at the edge Parc Izmery, under the starry Port-au-Prince sky. Day after day we woke to the sounds of people singing and praying and going about their lives in the refugee camp that was once a soccer field. When we finally were able to catch our breath from endless days of distributing clean water and transporting injured people to medical care, our new friends at Parc Izmery helped us to construct SOIL’s first EcoSan toilet in Port-au-Prince. Haiti’s beloved musician, BelO, volunteered to perform at the inauguration ceremony and our friends from Parc Izmery and from around the world came out to celebrate the strength that was propelling us forward and allowing us to believe in the potential to rebuild.
Over time the SOIL staff moved out of Matthew 25’s backyard into a small room across the street where we lived and worked for many months, sleeping on the floor beside our desks, and then into a office just down the road where we continue to live and work to this day. Several of the people who helped build the first post-earthquake SOIL toilet in Parc Izmery joined us as staff and Sister Mary became a trusted SOIL board member. Together we went on to build hundreds more EcoSan toilets in camps across the city, providing sustainable sanitation to over 20,000 people who previously had no access to a toilet and setting an example that has since been lauded around the world for being a revolutionary, low-cost and effective emergency sanitation response.
Down the street from us, the Parc Izmery camp committee (an informal leadership group tasked with managing the camp’s ongoing needs) diligently started working with the people living in the soccer field to help them find permanent homes. Some people moved in with extended family, some people were able to repair their homes to a point that was livable and safe again, some people rented rooms in new households. It seemed like every time we stopped by the Parc Izmery EcoSan toilets to collect the toilet wastes and deliver them to our compost site for treatment, there were less people cooking diri ak legim (rice and vegetables) on charcoal stoves in front of their tents. And then, one day, all the tents were gone.
Sister Mary met with the Parc Izmery camp committee (which included the young man who had found and returned the cash so many months before) to tell them that the money had never been claimed. The committee decided that they would use the money to rehabilitate the park into a public community space and a soccer field. And one of the first things that they wanted to do was purchase a small amount of SOIL compost (generated, in part, from the EcoSan toilets at Parc Izmery) to re-seed the soccer field. SOIL has since gone on to sell compost to organizations working on agriculture and reforestation across Haiti, thereby generating money for ongoing sanitation provision, but we will always rejoice that our first buyer was Parc Izmery.
On this second anniversary of the earthquake it is easy to look out across the Port-au-Prince skyline, dark with electricity outages and exhaust fumes, and feel despair over how much work is still to be done and how much harder it will be to do as people around the world read about the vast sums of money that were seemingly squandered in the reconstruction effort and how little there is to show for it. This is surely one of the stories to be told, but on the second anniversary of the earthquake, we choose instead to celebrate the generous individuals and the small community organizations that responded to the needs of their communities and built toilets and then gardens and soccer fields with the compost they generated.
Donations to Haiti have slowed disastrously over the past year, and we ask you, our dear friends and supporters, to donate a small amount on the twelfth of each month as a way to stand with the people of Haiti and tell them we will never forget and we will work hard to make sure everyone has access to a clean toilet and a roof over their heads and food on their stove.
And now, if you come down to visit us in Port-au-Prince we will still take you over to Parc Izmery. But this time, instead of touring a camp, we will ask you to stay and watch a soccer game. If you need to go to the bathroom, there is a sparkling clean and beautifully painted EcoSan toilet right on the edge of the field.
With love and solidarity,
your dear friends at SOIL
Sign up as a recurring donor for SOIL at www.oursoil.org or donate by sending a check to:
124 Church Road
Sherburne, NY 13460
See this story through photos on SOIL’s Flickr page.
Also view a memorial slideshow made months after the earthquake by SOIL co-founder Sasha Kramer.
Will you be in Haiti on January 22nd? Come out to celebrate the opening of a new SOIL EcoSan toilet and a community garden in Cite Soleil.