I have just returned from Haiti after attending the July 31 graduation of 61 kids at Timkatec, our trade school in Haiti. Amidst the total devastation of the earthquake, Timkatec is a shining example of the success that can occur in these desperate times. I was accompanied by Tommy Stinson, current bass player for Guns’n Roses and Soul Asylum, and a founder of the Replacements. Tommy contacted me a few months ago to assist us in raising funds for our schools for our “street children.”
This trip, in the midst of the rubble was a great success and we saw what can be done by private means, as government organizations seem to crawl towards solutions. On July 31 the 61 graduates of Timkatec 2 started a new life.
I have been to Haiti many times, but even I was unprepared for the sights that I saw on arrival. The shock started when we went through the arrival procedures, which were in total chaos. For security reasons, we traveled in a convoy of two jeeps, a requirement of the U.N. and our partners at Catholic Relief Services.
The shock deepened as we saw the dreadful destruction all around us. The airport area has a refugee camp for more than 20,000, and near the Timkatec schools, another for 50,000.
Then on arrival at the hotel we saw that half of it was a pile of rubble. The Montana, where I last stayed, was destroyed with the loss of 200 lives. There are falling buildings and piles of rubble on every street, many of which are still impassible.
Since 2004 Haiti has battled disastrous floods, hurricanes and the January earthquake, which killed 230,000 people in Port-Au-Prince, a city of 2 million (about like metropolitan Orlando).
A similar number suffered serious injury and a million lost their homes. Although Timkatec received only minor damage, 140 students and staff remain unaccounted for out of 550. We hope they fled or are in refugee camps. They have been quickly replaced and in fact, we have just committed to increase the total students to 600 for 2010-2011.
In September 2009, with funding from a Canadian Mennonite foundation, Timkatec opened a girls school, Timkatec 3, for 70 girls, offering primary education and training as cooks, seamstresses and beauticians. At night, the school converts to a shelter for the homeless.
Sadly, we have increased the number of girls to 185. One terrible fact is that Haiti, a republic created by a slave revolt, has a dirty secret. According to the U.N.’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, an estimated 400,000 children, 10 percent of the population of children, are abandoned or sent to live as unpaid virtual child slaves known as “restaveks” by parents who cannot afford to feed them. In the aftermath of the quake many “restavek” families lost their homes and the tie was broken. They became equals in the camps and 185 of these girls came to Timkatec. Many were abused sexually and needed gynecological treatments. We also added a child psychologist to deal with the many children suffering post-traumatic stress disorder after seeing family and friends die or suffer terrible injuries, and the trauma of the many aftershocks.
Half a million people still live in tents throughout the city, in the rainy season with humid 100-degree temperatures. There is adequate basic food now, but living conditions are awful. The pace of renewal crawls as stocks of food and supplies pile up in the ports and airports caused by the slow pace of Customs.
About 90 percent of these supplies come through Florida and most is from donations. It is essential that the U.S. government stress to the Haitian government that there must be a system of pre-clearance, perhaps in Florida, to expedite this desperately needed aid to the Haitian poor and dispossessed. I was able to discuss this problem with Sen. Bill Nelson in Haiti last year and with his office and Gov. Charlie Christ's chief of staff after the earthquake. However, we are still hopeful for results.
While there, I was able to meet with a number of the non-governmental organizations constructing temporary or permanent shelters in the area so that we can place some of our newly trained apprentices.
I had no ties to Haiti before 2004, but also had a traumatic start to life. My mother died in war-torn Britain when I was 3 and as my father was overseas in the Army. I was put in a boarding school. My father became 100 percent war disabled, and died when I was 15. Many days spent in the air-raid shelter and years surrounded by the rubble of the Blitz created a powerful memory. I was accepted for a Royal Air Force apprenticeship three weeks after my 16th birthday, and I know the value of that training and feel I can empathize with the Timkatec kids.
On leaving for the airport, and while passing the large 50,000-person refugee camp, Father Simon, Timkatec’s founder commented, “It is an inferno on ear, a cavern of misery.” How true indeed and another lasting impression six months after the greatest disaster in the past two centuries.
Patrick O’Shea can be reached through his website, timkatec.org.