Building havens in Haiti

The 23rd of November 2012 was the beginning of a whole new personal perspective on life and the inequalities in our world.

The 23rd of November 2012 was the beginning of a whole new personal perspective on life and the inequalities in our world.

On this cold November morning, I joined 66 other Irish volunteers with an Irish Charity Haven to embark on the journey of a life time. We left Dublin airport at 10.05, our destination was Port au Prince, Haiti.

Haven’s aim for the trip was to build 100 houses in collaboration with ex- US president Jimmy Carter’s charity habitat for humanity. Each volunteer had to fundraise €4,500 to go on “build it week 2012”.

Haiti is a small country approximately the size of Munster, it is also the poorest county in the western hemisphere. For years it has suffered through political turmoil, international sanctions and civic and social unrest. It is also regularly battered through environmental factors, particularly hurricanes, that have cost many lives and widespread damage. The earthquake in 2010 had a devastating effect on an already impoverished country, leaving up to 316,000 people dead and 1.6 million homeless.

These conditions, witnessed by Cork man Leslie Buckley while visiting Haiti on business nearly 10 years ago, shocked and appalled him so much so that he founded Haven. Leslie, and his wife Carmel now spend a lot of time supporting and initiating programmes that are helping build sustainable communities and providing training and jobs for local people.

We arrived in Port au Prince on Saturday afternoon; the arrivals area of the airport resembled that of a big shed. The minute we stepped of the plane we experienced the intense heat and humidity of the Haitian climate. The mood was high and jovial among all the volunteers, who were relaxed and relieved we had finally arrived. We were staying in Christaniville, a camp site approx 28 kms from the Haitian capital. The 67 Irish volunteers and 600 Habitat for Humanity volunteers eagerly boarded the 11 yellow buses which were to be our mode of transport to and from the build site for the week. Security is a major issue in Haiti. Kidnappings, robberies and murders are not uncommon. For this reason the 11 buses traveled in convoy every where we went. For the duration of the week we were protected by armed security 24 hours a day.

As soon as all the buses were filled with eager volunteers, we started our journey through the streets of Port Au Prince. This is an experience I will never forget. Quickly the mood on the bus changed from excitement and joking to shock and disbelief. Nothing or no one could have prepared me for the sights we were about to see. An awestruck silence enveloped the bus for the entire journey. The poverty, primitive conditions and squalor which these people live in was astounding. The streets were littered with rubbish, there were tents and shacks visible from every direction surrounded by muck, goats, hens and pigs. There was an endless stream of people standing on the sides of the streets,little children scantly clad looking in amazement at the spectacle of 11 yellow buses traveling through their city. As a mother of two children, I found these scenes heart wrenching to think that any child or adult would have to live in such conditions in the year 2012. This is how I imagined Ireland would have been around the great famine.

The journey took a little over 2 hours due to the poor infrastructure and traffic. On arrival to the camp site each and every volunteer was visibly shocked by what we had seen en route, and what became evident was our gratitude for the privileged lives we lead. No matter how hard things were at home, they were certainly not as bad as this.

Wake up call was 6am Sunday morning, we all had breakfast and then boarded the buses to begin our journey to the build site. Once again we witnessed harrowing scenes of poverty, hardship and squalor. On site, the volunteers were divided into groups of 10 or 12. Each team had two houses to complete. Galway man, Micheal Davie and myself the two Irish volunteers in our group. We spent the first two days assembling the wooden frames and nailing hurricane clips onto the rafters, two days roofing and two days painting. The work was full on and made all the more intense due to the blistering heat and humidity.

Each day we travelled in convoy to and from the build site. Every evening we arrived back to the camp site and queued for a badly needed shower and dinner. The first evening, as I was standing in the cold shower I thought to myself “Caroline why do you put yourself through this?” and suddenly ashamed of myself, the images from the journey from the aiport to the campsite came flashing back to me. At least we had water to shower, a bed to sleep on, albeit a thin foam mattress and we were safe. This was a 1000 times more than any of the people we passed in the buses had.

During the week, I had the privilege of meeting amazing, kind, funny and witty people whom made the whole experience an outstanding one. Niamh McDonnell, Emer O’Sullivan and Declan O’Sullivan all from the peoples’ republic of Cork were first time volunteers. Their enthusiasm, excitement and daily sense of achievement at the work they had completed each day was infectious and kept everyone’s spirits high.

The exceptional hard work, dedication, enthusiasm and genuine desire to make a difference coupled with that fantastic Irish wit and brilliant sense of humor that every Irish volunteer displayed throughout the week made me proud to be Irish and is a credit to our nation.

However none of this work would have been possible of it were not for the generosity of all the people who supported the 67 Haven volunteers to fundraise for the trip.

I would personally like to sincerely thank my work colleagues at Midland Regional Hospital Tullamore for all their support, the people of Laois, Offaly and around the country who gave generously when I was bag packing and running various other fundraising events including a coffee morning in Helen and Tom Moloney’s house in Tullamore. Without your support our achievements would not be possible and as a result of your kindness and generosity 100 families in Leogone, Haiti will have a proper house which they can call home.

I will finish with words from our house owner Gilles Vilus which were translated by one of my team members.

“From the bottom of my heart I say thank you. You have given me strength and hope and I am so thankful. I will always remember you and I want you to always remember me. I can never repay you for what you have done so I want us to know how grateful I am”.