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Visiting Haiti, Almost Two Years Later

Editor’s note: Jana Sweeny is the Director of International Communications at the American Red Cross national headquarters in Washington, DC.

Last week I found out something that made me hopeful. Regina, the translator who was invaluable to me in the early response phase of the Haiti earthquake, was given a scholarship to a pre-med program at Dartmouth. She is a lovely young woman who showed up at Red Cross base camp to volunteer because her university had collapsed and she knew her ability to speak English, French, Creole and Spanish could be put to use. She worked tirelessly not only serving as a translator, but also helping us design response systems that were culturally appropriate and feasible. This one story is a microcosm of what I saw in Haiti recently – small victories, movement forward and hope that this country will thrive in despite of terrible odds.

Like most Americans, I watched in horror as reports began to pour in from Haiti on January 12, 2010. The devastation was unfathomable, the pictures on television unbelievable. That March I was given the amazing opportunity to head down myself and work on the Red Cross relief efforts that had been ongoing since the day the quake struck.

It was as bad as I had imagined. Rubble was everywhere, roads were impassable, people still looked dazed and lost, and makeshift camps covered every inch of spare ground. The work seemed endless- there was so much suffering. Everywhere we turned people needed food, shelter, water, and basic necessities just to survive. We worked every day to lessen that need, but it felt like no mater how many supplies we shipped in, no matter how many hands were working, we were barely making a dent.

Last week, I had a chance to go back. For nearly two years Red Crossers have been hard at work addressing ongoing challenges from housing, to healthcare, to disaster preparedness, to job creation. Is it fixed? Not even close. Is it better? Yes. Where a tent camp once stood, the city park has now reopened and a flower market sprung up. Semi-permanent housing communities with clean water and latrines continue to be built at an ever increasing pace. Children have returned to school and businesses have reopened. Piles of building materials have replaced piles of rubble.

Don’t get me wrong, hundreds of thousands are still homeless. Pancaked buildings are still visible. Access to clean water and sanitation is still a daily challenge in many communities and cholera continues to be a threat. Haiti has a long way to go to recover. However, I headed home knowing that the money donated to the American Red Cross has made a difference, that progress is occurring, and that nearly two years of hard work is paying off and improving the lives of vulnerable people. Haitians have one of the most vibrant smiles I have ever seen and it was wonderful that many more faces had smiles on them this week… including mine.