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On my third and fourth days in Haiti, I had the opportunity to accompany part of the NVM medical team as they set up a “mobile clinic” outside of a growing tent community on the edge of Port-au-Prince.
These tent “villages” are springing up all over the place here. Some of the residents have lost everything they owned. Others are simply terrified of moving back into their unstable houses. Both types of people have one thing in common: they are living on the brink.
When we pulled the bus up to the small cliff overlooking one of the tent camps and began unpacking our supplies, people streamed out of their tents and up the hill. Within minutes of our arrival, lines started to form in front of the canopy we had set up… adults on the left, parents with babies and small children on the right.
Some people were clearly in pain. Wincing and limping, they were dragged up the hill by their friends who begged the doctors to see them first. Others waited patiently with more “routine” ailments (more on that in a minute). Somehow, word had spread that we were there to help, and for the next two days, there was a constant stream of people in line.
The doctors and nurses began sitting down with patients. Our team of interpreters worked hard to communicate medical jargon across cultural boundaries while the doctors attempted to diagnose problems and prescribe medicine accurately with limited resources and equipment.
Taking in the view
Once things were well under way, I decided to take a look around. I walked up to the small ridge overlooking the tents and took in the view.
My very first thought was how shocking it was to see so many people in such a tiny area. Hundreds and hundreds of men, women and children living in just a couple of acres.
This new “village” has sprung up in what was once nothing more than a dusty valley next to a dried up riverbed (click here to see the site from the air). It’s essentially just a giant trash pit, filled with rusty metal cans, plastic bags, broken glass, and now, families.
As I mentioned above, most of the people our team helped had “routine” illnesses. But what is routine here would be viewed very differently back in the U.S.
For example, many, many people came in with complications due to malnutrition. Children were faint, weak and tired. Mothers had a hard time producing breast milk for their babies. Young women complained of a lack of appetite and severe heartburn (which can come from a lack of food).
Gastro-intestinal illnesses were common as well. With no clean water for people to drink, diseases like intestinal worms, parasites and diarrhea were rampant.
Just about everyone we saw had respiratory problems. Right upwind of this specific tent village is a cement plant spewing up a cloud of thick white dust all day long. Down among the tents, it was literally snowing white powder.
Combined with the ever-present dust and thick automobile pollution here, there are few that can last a week without developing a cough, pneumonia or a sinus infection.
And then there were the tiny, simple things that had turned into problems much more severe. Small cuts had become raging, life-threatening infections. Simple diarrhea had dangerously dehydrated children. One man had lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis) in his leg simply from being bitten by too many mosquitoes.
For a lot of this stuff, you or I would simply run over to the closest Walgreens to pick up an armful of cheap medicine. We might call in sick for a day and lay on the couch eating chicken noodle soup. Or if things wouldn’t just clear up in a day, we might run over to our family doctor and have the lab run tests.
For many Haitians, none of that is even an option. Their only choice when they get sick is to simply keep moving. To suck it up.
Sticks and Trash
On the morning of the second day, I looked out over the tent village again. From the time that we had left the evening before, more than 25 new tents had sprung up. People were constructing more every hour. I wanted to see it all up close.
I decided that the best way to find out what life is like down there would be to get my hands dirty. So I went down with a roll of duct tape and my big, sturdy camping knife. I helped people dig holes and set up their new tents, and made a nice mess of things since I had no idea what I was doing.
While I was down there talking with people and soaking it all in, I made three simple observations.
First, the “tents” these people are constructing are quite literally made out of sticks and trash. They stick flimsy, inch-thick twigs into the ground and tie them together with leaves or torn fabric. Over the top they drape trash bags, old sheets, rice sacks… anything they can find. It’s hard to even call that “shelter.”
Second, the women and children who have no men to help build much more flimsy structures. Several times I came across tiny, 10 year-old boys scraping the dirt with pickaxes or thin old women poking the ground with machetes. I can’t imagine what will happen to their new home the next time it rains.
Finally, I noticed the conspicuous absence of something I’ve seen in every single slum and village I’ve visited over the years… cooking fires. Nobody was boiling water. Nobody was frying plantains. People were simply sitting in their tents… Waiting.
For what? I don’t know.
As the sun dipped behind the clouds on the second day and we packed up our equipment, I took one last look at the tent camp. Even since that morning, it had grown.
But this tent village is only one of thousands springing up around the city. Right now, preparations are under way for a massive new tent community just a ten minute walk from the village of Chambrun (where Nehemiah Vision Ministries operates). The plan is for 50,000 Internally Displaced People (IDPs) to begin living there soon.
Like the “village” we visited by the river-bed, this place will be full of sick, weary, and hungry Haitians who need ongoing help and development. But unlike the village we visited, these IDPs will not have to rely on a single bus-load of doctors…
In fact, NVM is just months away from building a brand new hospital and kitchen/cafeteria next to their existing clinic and school in Chambrun. They will be there as a beacon of hope for this new tent community.
Imagine… Instead of sitting sideways in a cramped bus seat, patients will be able to recline in a well-furnished hospital room. Instead of relying on a bin full of medicine, they will have access to a fully stocked pharmacy. Instead of checking the horizon each morning to see if the medical bus has come, these people will know that help is always just around the bend.
It is no accident that Nehemiah Vision Ministries has been led to work in Chambrun. After having an incredible impact in one small village, they are now in a position to touch the lives of tens of thousands more.
In the midst of this devastating earthquake, God is using his people to bring hope, comfort and support to the broken people of this nation.
It’s clear to me now that nothing can stand in the way when the kingdom of God starts breaking in. This world is meant to be restored, and you and I are meant to be a part of it.
Now let’s jump in and get to work… there’s a hospital to build!
- Do you have skills in engineering or architecture? Nehemiah Vision Ministries is looking for volunteers. Email Aaron Sherrick from NVM (email@example.com) for more information on how to get involved.
- To finish the hospital, NVM will need $50,000. Would you consider investing in this new venture? Click here to contribute.
- Please continue to pray for the millions of Internally Displaced People in Haiti. It will be many many years before things begin to fully recover.
About the Author: Barry is the founder and director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.