At my daughter’s ballet class the other day, I got talking with one of the moms about Haiti. She was telling me about some people at her church, people who go often out of the country and do volunteering and stuff, and what she said, basically, was that in Haiti, they’re not being helpful to volunteers.
I’m afraid my response was a little too snippy to count as polite. “Well that might be because I heard that last week a bunch of volunteers showed up at the airport asking for water and supplies,” I said, “and the first responders weren’t exactly thrilled at having these folks expecting water when all these Haitians who had JUST BEEN IN AN EARTHQUAKE kindof needed it more than they did.” Ok, well the second part of my response is more what I wish I’d said than what I actually said. But I did get the point across.
Lots and lots of people have been seized by the urge to do something and, perhaps unfortunately, because Haiti is so much closer to “us” than Sri Lanka, people really were just jumping on planes to the Dominican Republic and getting themselves to Port au Prince, all ready to help. Unfortunately they hadn’t thought it through much further than that. Many didn’t have their own supplies. Or a place to stay. Or contacts. Or facility with Kreyol. Or useful skills and expertise. Or, let’s face it, common sense.
The impulse is understandable and even noble. But it’s the kind of ‘helping’ impulse that not only gets people into trouble, but causes trouble for others. The urgency of doing something is hard to resist and there was a sort of massive surge of compassionate, anxiety and adrenalin-fueled energy that took hold of so many of us in the first week or two. In my heart I’m thanking the people who resisted that impulse and who recognized that their desire to help needed to be couched within a realistic assessment of their ability to actually be helpful.
That energy has ebbed a bit, the stories of Haiti have migrated first ‘below the fold’ on the front page of the paper, and now right off the front page altogether. The need has hardly lessened. Just the other day a message came through and someone observed that the streets are full of amputees. Somehow that image stuck with me with incredible force, because I realized that the streetscape of Port au Prince, and the entire nation, will be transformed for an entire generation not just because the skyline will never be the same, but because for the next few decades, the streets will be full of people with missing limbs, a living embodiment of the literal and figurative dismemberment that Haiti has suffered here.