Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Haiti's future depends on it's own sustainability, aid worker tells local volunteers

May 10, 2010
By Liz Monteiro, Record staff

KITCHENER — Haiti’s future depends on Haitians controlling their own destiny and the outside world recognizing the sovereignty of the Haitian government, said a Mennonite Central Committee worker living in Haiti.

“We have to support democracy in Haiti,’’ said Alexis Erkert Depp, who’s in Waterloo Region this week speaking to local MCC volunteers about the work being done in the Caribbean nation.

“We can’t let institutions (non-governmental organizations) do this because they are not accountable to the Haitian people,’’ said the 26-year-old North Carolina native who’s been working in Haiti since July 2008. Today, there are about 9,000 non-governmental organizations working in Haiti, she said.

Erkert Depp and her husband Ben were in Haiti when the massive earthquake hit the island nation on Jan. 12. The pair wants to continue to work in Haiti and return there next week.

Erkert Depp said she’s hopeful for Haitians because the Christian organization she works for is committed to empowering Haitians to lead and direct their own lives. Such programs include reforestation and sustainable farming.

“It’s exciting to work with Haitians who have a vision for a different Haiti,’’ she said.

But Erkert Depp acknowledges the impoverished nation needs help from the international community. The Haitian government must be encouraged to legislate agricultural subsidies for its farmers and regulate food imports.

For example, American rice is imported to Haiti and sold there cheaper than Haitian farmers can grow and sell it because tariffs are so low, she said. Also, 70 per cent of all food eaten in Haiti comes from elsewhere, she added.

Erkert Depp said it’s also important that Western nations recognize their role in Haiti’s cycle of debt.

“Our responsibility lies in acknowledging that our lifestyle and government policies have led to further inequality and poverty in Haiti,’’ she said.

In addition, Erkert Depp said the Canadian government must help Haitians who are already here with their temporary immigrant status, stop deporting Haitians and welcome Haitian refugees.

Within hours of the earthquake, the United States sent 20,000 troops to Haiti, Canada about 2,000 soldiers, plus the 8,000 United Nations soldiers already there.

“Haitians were deeply offended that the response was militaristic. It actually slowed aid by putting so much effort on security,’’ she said.

“Haitians felt criminalized. They didn’t feel like victims of a natural disaster but they were treated as criminals,’’ Erkert Depp said.

Erkert Depp and her husband were at home in a suburb of Port-au-Prince known as Petionville when the earthquake struck.

“We heard it before we felt it,’’ said Erkert Depp, who didn’t know she was experiencing an earthquake until her husband told her they should go outside.

Erkert Depp said their house remained standing, but many houses in her neighbourhood crumbled.

“We spent the whole night digging people out of the rubble,’’ she said. “We administered first aid and gave away all our towels and blankets.’’

Erkert Depp said the hours and days after the earthquake are still emotional for her as she recounts those days.

“It was horrible the consistent aftershocks. There was lots of fear,’’ she said.

Erkert Depp recalls how her husband couldn’t sleep until he found another MCC couple who lived in a five-storey apartment building. When they arrived at the apartment, the building was a foot and half of rubble, she said.

“It was absolute chaos,’’ said Erkert Depp, who later found her friends safe in a clinic.

Erkert Depp said she experienced plenty of guilt because so many people were seriously injured but couldn’t get the help they needed. However, non-Haitians living there, who were white, all received medical care.

“I was really angry that it happened,’’ she said. “I was unable to reconcile my ideas of a just and loving God.’’

Erkert Depp said she was able to cope by witnessing the reaction of Haitians who couldn’t imagine why she was mad.

“It was inconceivable to the Haitians I know that I was angry. They were still able to praise God even in face of so much destruction and poverty,’’ she said.

Erkert Depp remained in Haiti after the earthquake and left for two weeks on a stress leave to spend time with family in North Carolina in February.

While in the region this week, Erkert Depp thanked volunteers for their work in putting together the relief kits that went to Haiti.

Erkert Depp said the response from Waterloo Region to Haiti was incredible with the money donated plus the 5,000 relief kits of personal hygiene items collected in the region.

“Haiti sees how much the world cares,’’ she said.

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