The Trump administration says “extraordinary conditions” caused by the 2010 quake “no longer exist.” Yet Haiti still has a severe housing shortage as nearly 60 percent of people live on under $2.42 a day. A reporter returns this spring amid big changes in U.S.-Haiti relations.
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — After the 2010 earthquake, Jean Ronald Cherisier was fortunate to take ownership of a one-room house with a concrete floor, wooden walls and a metal roof.
Federal Way-based World Vision built it east of Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital, in a new community called Corail. Cherisier thought factories and jobs might eventually come, but they never did. So he moved his family a few hundred feet away to a dirt-floor shack formed from scraps of tin roofing. Then, he rented out the “old” house for $15 a month.
Cherisier uses these payments to buy chickens, pigs and goats, which he butchers and sells to his neighbors through a bare-bones operation, without running water or electricity, under the blistering tropical sun.
“I would like to have another job opportunity,” Cherisier said. “But I have found a way to survive.”
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Eight years after the earthquake that killed an estimated 230,000 people and displaced 1.5 million more, grand dreams of harnessing billions of dollars in recovery aid to forge a stronger, more prosperous nation have faded.
The rubble is largely cleared, most of the vast tent cities are gone, and inspiring grass-roots efforts by Haitians have helped to rebuild lives. But this country — long the poorest in the Western Hemisphere — continues to struggle, gripped by a severe housing shortage as nearly 60 percent of the population lives under a poverty line set at $2.42 per day.
I visited Haiti twice in 2010, reporting on the plight of the earthquake survivors amid a wellspring of support from America. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush led the fundraising for a massive U.S. response that reached to the Pacific Northwest with volunteers rushing to the scene and World Vision, Seattle-based World Concern, Portland-based Mercy Corps and other groups joining in the aid effort.
I returned this spring at a very different time in U.S.-Haiti relations as President Donald Trump takes a tougher line on Haitian immigrants who came to the U.S. after the earthquake.
The Trump administration in November announced that the “extraordinary but temporary conditions” caused by the earthquake “no longer exist” and set a July 2019 deadline for more than 40,000 Haitians who had sought refuge in the United States to either leave on their own or be deported.
That decision appears at odds with the Department of Homeland Security’s internal assessment of post-earthquake conditions. Documents summarized Haiti’s progress as one step forward, two steps back, and noted that Hurricane Matthew in 2016 damaged or destroyed 236,000 Haitians’ homes and struck a serious blow to the nation’s agriculture.
Trump, in a January conversation with U.S. senators, reportedly referred to Haiti and some African nations as “shithole countries,” questioning why their residents should be admitted as immigrants to the United States. These reports prompted a protest in Port-au-Prince where defaced pictures of Trump were carried through the streets.
Trump’s comments (which he later denied) have not discouraged Haitians from trying to leave their country, but increasingly they are headed to Latin America. During the past year, Chile drew 105,000 Haitians — up from just 400 in 2008, according to border police. That prompted the Chilean government to issue new visa restrictions this spring.
Some expatriates have bucked the flight trend and returned to their home country. They include Jean-Francois Seide, who at age 22 organized a network of day-care centers in the tumultuous months after the earthquake.
These efforts earned Seide recognition and the opportunity to study for five years in the Pacific Northwest and for one year in Oxford, England. Then Seide last fall resumed his work in Port-au-Prince on behalf of disadvantaged children.
Yet Seide is uncertain how long he will stay. He recently quit his job and is pondering his next career move.
“I want to be able to use my skills in ways that make a difference, maybe in Haiti, but maybe elsewhere.”
“We do what we can”
Most of Seide’s college education — four years at the University of Portland — was funded by a scholarship to honor Molly Hightower of Port Orchard. She was 22 and a recent graduate of that college when she died in the earthquake while volunteering for Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH) Haiti, the same organization that had employed Seide.
In 2010, I went to Petionville, a wealthy suburb of Port-au-Prince, to visit the concrete slab remains of an old hospital — serving as a clinic and volunteer lodging — where Hightower died.
Today, on one corner of the site, a mosaic of brown stones rises up as a memorial for those who died, and includes the engraved name of Hightower. But most of the site has been converted into a cobblestone parking lot for the Royal Oasis, a luxury hotel next door.
“It doesn’t make any sense to rebuild there,” said Father Rick Frechette, a Catholic priest and physician who founded NPH Haiti and the Haiti-based St. Luke Foundation. He said the lot was too small, “so it was better to sell it.”
Frechette has focused on expanding a newer and larger hospital — St. Damien’s — that was a vital treatment center after the earthquake.
During a winter 2010 reporting trip to Haiti, I had overnighted at that hospital, where a Seattle orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Thomas Green, led a volunteer team mending broken bones. Since then, the hospital has added an 80-bed adult unit onto a complex that had previously focused on pediatric care. That tripled the patient load.
Frechette is a veteran of 30 years in Haiti, and in 2012 he received the Opus Prize for humanitarian work. He promptly invested the $1 million award into hospital and clinic operations that provide care for more than 120,000 patients annually.
When I met with him this year, Frechette was clad in khaki work pants and a brown T-shirt that he briefly covered up with a white robe for a 7 a.m. hospital-chapel Mass to start the day.
Frechette’s tasks range from holding a clinic in Cité Soleil — one of the poorest sections of Port-au-Prince — to sweeping floors and making periodic trips to the morgue, where he and his Haitian colleagues pick up unclaimed bodies and take them to the outskirts of town for burial in cardboard coffins.
“We do what we can without proper resources,” Frechette said. “We just try to make it a little more normal, and don’t pretend it’s a grand thing.”
One hospital ward is for undernourished infants, who often arrive with complications such as sepsis or pneumonia. One quiet girl was 27 months old but looked much younger and had the reddish hair and swollen belly that signal a severely deficient diet.
“We rarely have empty beds. Malnutrition is a serious problem,” said Dr. Péguy Lundy, a Haitian doctor who attends to these children.
Building a community
In February 2010, Rod Imer, a civil engineer then working for World Vision, talked about his ambitious plans to guide development of new Haitian communities. People would move out of tent camps into simple prefab shelters, which could gradually be improved as people gained income from industries that would locate nearby.
In Haiti, especially after an epic disaster, few things turn out as planned, certainly not resettlement.
It got underway in April 2010 as World Vision and other aid groups moved several thousand families from tents pitched on a flood-prone section of a Petionville golf course to Corail, an empty tract of land selected by the Haitian government on a plain some 10 miles north of Port-au-Prince.
Word quickly spread among the poor and dispossessed in Port-au-Prince and other urban areas about the potential to make a new start. In the months and years that followed, something akin to a Haitian version of the Oklahoma land rush unfolded as more than 200,000 people migrated to the hillsides above Corail, pitching tents, planting small gardens and building thousands of dwellings that now form a sprawling district known as Canaan.
Initially, the people in Canaan were declared squatters by the government, and many aid groups were leery of offering them assistance.
Even down in the flats, in the smaller Corail community of some 5,000 people, there was uncertainty. Would this be a permanent settlement, or was it only temporary because of a land dispute between the government and a private company that demanded compensation for the acreage?
World Vision would eventually invest more than $7 million in Corail, most of it for the construction of a school and 1,187 “transitional shelters” that included Cherisier’s home. Under an agreement that World Vision drew up for occupants, Cherisier was not supposed to rent out the dwelling. But he lacked a steady job to support his wife and daughter, and taking on a tenant looked like economic salvation. So that’s what he did.
“This was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Cherisier told me. “To be an owner of a small house.”
A World Vision statement sent to The Seattle Times said: “a lot more needs to be done, but resources are drying up … Most of the major donors have moved out but the camp in Corail is still surviving and surviving well. To us this is definitely a success.”
In Canaan, the aid agencies were much slower to invest money — initially put off by the Haitian government labeling this area an illegal occupation. But over time, it became clear that the people were not going anywhere. By 2015, the U.S. Agency for International Development, along with the nonprofit partners, moved forward with a $20 million package of assistance that included improving roads, legalizing land tenure and installing solar-powered lights.
But in Canaan and Corail, some of the most significant development work came from the Haitians who moved there, then dug in to make this place their home.
When major new employers failed to show up, they forged their own hardscrabble economy built on hundreds upon hundreds of small-roadside businesses, ranging from an auto-parts supply shop to a cafe that offers hearty plates of beans and rice.
They also built infrastructure and organized public services.
In Canaan, for example, residents formed teams to clear rocks to build a new road, and in some sections, “launched crowdfunding campaigns to buy materials to create an electrical grid of their own,” writes Jacob Kushner in a reporting project funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
In Corail, I found that dozens of volunteers have organized into a community-assistance group that picks up trash, cleans out toilets and sprays insecticides to control mosquitoes.
This sustained citizen activism, born partly out of the lack of government assistance, has emerged as one of the most hopeful legacies of the earthquake. It has helped to bind together the people who live here and encouraged them to put down roots.
Cherisier still hopes that the aid agencies or government can persuade a new industrial employer to bring jobs to Corail. But he has no plans to return to his old neighborhood in Port-au-Prince.
“Where I used to live, there were problems, people arguing all the time.” Cherisier says. “Here, there are problems, too. But we know how to fix them.”