A Jewish Mission in Haiti

Sermon delivered December 9, 2011 by Rabbi Barry H.D. Block

In January of 2010, a devastating earthquake rocked the island nation of Haiti in the Caribbean Sea.    Aid organizations were quick to respond from all corners of the Earth.  Israel deployed rapidly, setting up a field hospital.  Like many others, our congregation responded generously, both as individuals and through our Temple’s Landsman Family Relief Fund.
Donations from our Temple and other Reform congregations were largely distributed to American Jewish World Service, AJWS for short.  AJWS was selected because of its track record, in Haiti and around the world.  After the Christmas, 2004 tsunami, which devastated south Asia, AJWS demonstrated that the biggest difference could be made by indigenous, grass-roots organizations already working in impoverished countries stricken by natural disaster.  With relationships and grantees in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and so many other countries on the rim of the Indian Ocean, AJWS was able to get dollars and technical assistance to the poorest of the poor, with a minimum of overhead, bureaucracy, or delay.
Last month, along with twenty others from across the United States, I traveled to Haiti with AJWS.  I hoped to see the difference that our dollars are making and to understand the challenge that yet remains.  I had been prepared, and not just with a slew of vaccinations, though I had those, too:  An AJWS study mission is no holiday.  The pace is grueling and much that we would see would be troubling.  But no words could have prepared me for the experience.
Leaving the airport, peering out the window of the bus, I was struck by two painful realities:  the tent cities and the trash.  Thousands and thousands of tents, jammed closely together – crude shelter, in a country where hurricanes are annual visitors and major storms a constant.    And mounds and mounds of trash, everywhere we looked.  Haiti has never had adequate public services, neither public schools nor public garbage collection, and the evidence is everywhere.
The three days that followed would offer me a closer look.
We visited an organization called GARR, an AJWS grantee.  For twenty years, GARR has addressed the challenges faced by Haitian refugees from the Dominican Republic, through advocacy as well as legal and humanitarian assistance.  In the back yard of GARR’s office is a courtyard, surrounded by a wall, with a metal door in the middle of the wall.  Two years ago, a large open field was on the other side of the wall.  Like all open fields in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, that land is now crowded with tents.  In GARR’s courtyard, our group met about a dozen women who live in that tent city.  Through an interpreter, they told us about their lives:  the danger of rape in the tent cities, their fears for their children’s future. They also told us that they could not have survived without the assistance of their neighbors at GARR.  These particular women are not refugees from the Dominican Republic; they are not really the population that GARR was established to serve.  But GARR’s leadership could not ignore a humanitarian disaster just beyond their back gate.  AJWS knew GARR, and GARR knew AJWS, long before the earthquake, and supported its critical work on behalf of some of the poorest, most oppressed people in the world.  Thanks in part to AJWS, GARR could be there for the refugees; and AJWS is there for GARR.
What struck me most about these women was that they had smiles on their faces, unless telling a story that brought tears to their eyes.  Their clothes were neat and clean, which seemed remarkable to me, considering the squalid conditions of the tent city where they live. I asked how they could wear those smiles and manage those clean clothes.  One woman answered that, no matter how desperate her poverty or her conditions, she would retain her human dignity.  Everywhere we went, we saw children dressed in clean, pressed private school uniforms, shiny white shirts and plaid skirts or khaki pants.  If I camp out one night, in conditions far superior to these tent cities, I am dirty and smelly at best.  But in Haiti, is impeccably dressed, their outward appearance reflecting their self-respect more than the conditions of their lives.
We passed through that metal door at the back of the courtyard, and into the tent city.  Our group was under strict instructions not to give any hand-outs; remarkably, nobody asked for any.  Approaching these tent city residents was a daunting human challenge:  How not to be voyeurs, gawking at an existence none of us could remotely imagine leading ourselves?   We reminded ourselves of the kavod, the honor due every human being.  We approached humbly.  Our leader asked permission before taking each picture, and the rest of us left our cameras behind.  We do not share a language with these refugees, but Creole has much in common with French.  We said “bonjour” to everybody whose eyes we met, and we thanked them, “mesi,” as we walked away.  The passages between the tents are narrow.  If I were to reach out my hands, each of my arms would have been into facing tents, up to my elbows, halfway across each tent.  But of course, we did not invade their homes.  We looked in where invited, and we were greeted with kindness and generosity by people who have received so little of either.
Fonkoze, another AJWS grantee, provides micro loans to Haitian women, supporting their small businesses and enabling women to feed their children and send them to school.  With success rates, including repayment rates, well over 90 per cent, Fonkoze has touched thousands of Haitian women, and countless thousands of others in their families and communities, by offering working capital, technical assistance, and so much more, so that these women may grow their businesses and improve their lives.
Some women, though, are not yet ready to utilize a loan, so Fonkoze began a program for the poorest of the poor.  We visited a rural area near the town of Mirbalais, on the side of a hill, in an area that was not affected by the earthquake. On a precipice no wider than this bimah, we met a woman, standing next to her home, a crude lean-to about as wide as our Temple aisle and less than four feet tall.  Nine people sleep in this hut – the client, her husband, and seven children.  Only now, with the help of Fonkoze, the children are in school.  Only now, with the help of Fonkoze, the family has a proper latrine, critical to their health.  Only now, thanks to Fonkoze, she has a couple of goats, some milk to sell, and the prospect of kids for meat or for sale.  Soon, she will have chickens, too, providing eggs to eat and sell, readying her in six months to move on to the next phase of Fonkoze’s partnership, a small business micro-loan.
After meeting that first Fonkoze client, we met a second, several miles away – but in other ways, worlds apart.  This second woman has been a Fonkoze client for almost six months, and she is ready for a loan.  She has several pigs, as well as goats and chickens, all built up from nothing.  When she looks at her goats, she says, she sees cows in her future.  When she looks at her pigs, she sees a horse to pull a plow.  Before Fonkoze’s partnership, this woman had no animals bringing her income, and she had no hope for a better future.
Finally, we visited an area that had been demolished by the earthquake.  There, Fonkoze clients who had been making great progress and regularly repaying their loans suddenly found themselves homeless.  Now, rebuilding homes is outside of Fonkoze’s scope of service, but it had clients who had already been successful, and who would be successful again, if they only had a roof over their heads.  AJWS provided funding to build new homes for these clients, now ready to withstand hurricane or even a future earthquake.  But don’t misunderstand:  These are not luxury homes.  The crude “kitchen” is more or less a lean-to appended to the house by the occupants at their expense.  Sanitation consists of communal latrines.
Judaism commands us all to offer tzedakah, most often mis-translated as “charity.”  As we teach in our Religious School, tzedakah actually means “justice.”  We give to right the world’s injustice.  Make no mistake:  The earthquake did not bring poverty to Haiti, which has wracked the Island nation since.  Haiti gained its independence in a slave revolt not long after our own American Revolution.  Sadly, that revolution did not change the plantation economy, benefiting only the elite.  Haiti has suffered several repressive, non-responsive regimes, further impoverishing the people – often, I’m sorry to say, with American support.  Our government pledged some $2.4 billion in post-earthquake aid to Haiti, but two years after the disaster, some $2 billion has never left the U.S.  What has arrived has often been in the form of American rice, dumped upon Haiti in quantities that devastated Haiti’s farmers, unable to obtain a fair price for their produce. Put another way, American foreign aid, paltry as it is, most enriches powerful American farming and shipping interests, whose campaign contributions fuel our flawed political system.  Sewage, as they say, flows downhill, and Haiti is at the bottom of the world’s economy, flooded with excrement.
We have a Jewish mission in Haiti:  tzedakah to right the world’s injustice.
Our Medieval sage, Maimonides, taught that the highest degree of tzedakah is to help another person to help him- or herself.  For four days in Haiti, I saw AJWS grantees doing just that:  Helping the poorest of the world’s poor to improve their own lives.
In Haiti, AJWS teaches famers how to increase their crop yield, and shows women how to feed their families, starting with a few goats and chickens.  In Haiti and throughout the global south, AJWS steps in where our government shamefully will not, to provide family planning, so that poor people can improve their own lives.  AJWS also enables local organizations like Haiti’s Serovie, gay and lesbian Haitians advocating for their own rights and seeing to the needs of their own communities.
At this time of year, we are moved to be charitable, even as we shop for gifts.  We are understandably concerned about the poor in our own midst and about the causes we hold dear.  This year, I pray, we will also make a place in our tzedakah for the poorest of the world’s poor, though they live very far from us and their lives are very different from ours.  We do have a Jewish mission in Haiti.  Please visit www.ajws.org; learn more and help AJWS do more.
As Hanukkah brings light into the darkest time of the year, so may we, a light to nations, bring light to the darkest places on Earth, even to the tent cities in Haiti.