BY JENNIFER RAWLINGS
I didn’t know what to expect when I went to Haiti a couple of weeks ago. Of course, I knew that is was the poorest country in the Western hemisphere and that the 7.0 earthquake had further devastated the country’s already crumbling infrastructure. I knew that hundreds and thousands of people were living in tent cities in and around Port-Au- Prince. I also knew that Haiti, population 9 million, had over 380,000 orphans BEFORE the earthquake. UNICEF estimates that the number has now doubled. Only a handful of these orphans are lucky enough to live in an orphanage. Most of them are forced to live on the street.
The poverty in Haiti is almost unimaginable. Even before the earthquake most of the country lived without indoor plumbing- they use bowls and bags to dispose of waste. There is very little access to clean water and most people don’t have electricity. Basic healthcare is not readily available and simple diseases go untreated and turn into lifelong disabilities. There is no public education in Haiti and only those of means can send their children to school. The median income in Haiti is less than $100 a month. So very few children can afford to attend private school, resulting in generation after generation of Haitians that cannot read or write.
Everywhere you look in Haiti there are piles and piles of gray, decomposing garbage. These mountains of trash are several feet high and covered in flies and maggots. Often I would see a small child (a toddler), with no underwear or pants on, alonw, digging thru the garbage looking for something to eat, or to sell.
As I visited the tent cities the story remained the same. Children were alone sitting in the mud, with no supervision and nowhere to go. Rape is a huge problem not only for women in the tent cities but also for the helpless and hungry children.
All the orphanages seem to be filled to capacity and if the UNICEF estimates are correct, approximately 15% of Haiti’s population is orphans. In the orphanage that I visited, no child was turned away due to a medical condition.
There were children that I visited that will spend the rest of their lives in a wheelchair due to cranial swelling. In most countries in the world, this condition would have been treated at birth with simple antibiotics. Now, instead of a simple solution, these kids are permanently handicapped and will lead very short lives.
Many of the birth defects that I saw in the orphanage could have been prevented with simple pre-natal care or medical treatment at birth. A young girl about six, lying in the shade on a stretcher had severely curled limbs. She couldn’t speak, walk, or even sit. She communicated with me by tugging on my necklace.
I held a little baby, Daniel, that was born with webbed hands and webbed feet. His eyes were uneven and couldn’t track. Like most babies he was fascinated with my sunglasses and my necklace and he tried to grab them with his paddle like hands- but he couldn’t grasp hold of the strands- he had no fingers.
What I found on my trip to Haiti was that the disaster facing Haiti was not the earthquake- it was the man-made plague of poverty.