Thursday, August 26, 2010

Haiti -- Reentry and Reflection

Me, with one of my new friends

It's been 12 days since I returned to Michigan from Haiti.  That seems both the blink of an eye and an eternity.  My return and reentry has presented an interesting opportunity for me to experience some of what I hear when I talk to people who have been in emergency situations first hand, because, while I was not in the earthquake itself and I was fairly comfortable for a brief week in Haiti, the shock to my worldview presented by what I saw and heard was real.

As I mentioned in my last post, I had some foresight to recognize that I might not be firing on all cylinders when I returned.  In addition to upgrading my flight to first class, I also prearranged with colleagues from the community crisis team on which I serve to have someone talk to me when I returned.  I was not surprised that I needed it.  I was somewhat surprised at the reasons I needed it.

I expected to come back with visions of destruction and tales of horrible trauma running through my head.  For the most part, that did not happen.  What I did not expect was to come back feeling as attached and responsible for the people I met as I did.  The conditions under which virtually everyone is living are of a type we simply would not permit in the United States.  Even after Hurricane Katrina when, it might be argued, we as a country failed our fellow Americans in a way never before seen, we did not permit this kind of living conditions for this long.  It felt callous to spend a week and then pack up my things and go because I "had" to leave.  It even felt callous to be asking for help with what I had experienced.  I experienced a week.  Those kids are experiencing a lifetime.

This brings us to another layer of how I was feeling.  Yes, it has been seven months since the earthquake.  In reality, however, while things are worse for these families now than they used to be, they weren't starting from a great position to begin with.  The level of poverty in Haiti is incomprehensible to someone used to US standards.  Most of the poor here would be doing fairly well compared to Haitian poverty, and in Haiti there is no government safety net.

I came back feeling like I hadn't accomplished anything.  I hadn't helped anyone.  I had come down, picked up my gold star for going, packed up and gone home.  Worse, that was all I could do, because the level of need is so high that even the most fabulous volunteers are not even going to make a dent in all that needs to be done.  I felt, and to some extent still feel, truly helpless.  And I feel that the world community has, throughout the 200+ year history of Haiti, failed in a moral obligation to at least try to give everyone a decent chance at a decent life.

At the same time, I feel guilty for talking like that.  Yes, things in Haiti are bad.  But this is people's home, and now I know some of those people.  I wouldn't walk into a friend's house and comment on how small or broken down it is.  Can you imagine going over to the neighbors and saying, "Geez, your house is a pit?"  In the same way, while it's no secret to the people in Haiti that they are poor and have little, it doesn't seem right to insult their country or their living conditions.  The fact is, they are making do with what they have, much better than I think I ever could.  They are playing the hand they've been dealt, and they're playing it pretty well.

So, I have mixed feelings.  That is the name of the game when it comes to complex, traumatic situations.  In these moments, I find myself thinking about the teaching we have in Judaism that, when God made the world, it was intentionally left imperfect.  It is up to us to repair the world, in partnership with God.  This, of course, is an overwhelming task.  No person could possibly repair everything that is wrong in our world.  Rabbi Tarfon, one of the great thinkers, is quoted in the Pirkei Avot (ethics of the fathers) on this subject:

It is not for you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.
I know I did something in Haiti.  Was it enough?  No, because it could not possibly be enough.  But I did not desist from the work, and I find some small comfort in that.

I hope you've enjoyed reading about my experiences in Haiti.  You can read this series from the beginning here.  We now return to your regularly scheduled Quarterback, commenting on the news as usual.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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