In Haiti, two years out from the massive 7.0 earthquake that affected more than 3 million people, the focus has shifted from rescue mode to rebuilding.

ABILITY’s Pamela K. Johnson spoke with Elizabeth MacNairn of Handicap International, a non-governmental organization based in Europe; Keren Odeah Johnson, her sister who works for the United States Agency for International Development; and Rachelle Salnave, a Miami-based filmmaker whose documentary, La Belle Vie (The Beautiful Life), seeks to capture the rich history and fertile culture of this storied Caribbean island.

MacNairn, Johnson and Salnave all visited Haiti between December 2011 and January 2012, and took time out to share their different experiences.
Handicap International

At a rooftop rehabilitation center in Haiti’s Petit-Goâve neighborhood, people who’ve been fitted with a prosthetic device after a limb amputation learn how to get back into the swing of life. It’s estimated that between 2000 and 4000 Haitians lost a limb during the quake, adding to the roughly 800,000 to 900,000 who were already estimated to have a disability.

By air, Haiti is only a 90-minute flight from Miami, and situated between Jamaica and Puerto Rico. Along with beautiful beaches, it has rich arts and music communities, and the distinction of being the first independent black republic, dating back to 1804. But it continues to wrestle with poverty, political corruption and natural disaster.

Before the quake, many of the nearly 1 million Haitians who were living with a disability, such as an amputation, nerve damage or cerebral palsy, had never received physical therapy, said MacNairn, who is executive director of Handicap International’s United States office in Takoma, MD.

In the days following the quake, her organization set up the Functional Rehabilitation Center in the Champs de Mars area, Port-au-Prince’s main park and the site of political power, where many buildings were destroyed.

As the team began to treat the injured, they discovered that people with a disability were not only dealing with their physical injuries, but also with a loss of esteem, said MacNairn, who noted that the Haitian Creole word for disability is cocobai, which means “worthless” or “a disgrace.” But with training and low-tech assistive devices, “people can feel they have value, and contribute to their families,” she said.

The rehab center staff is charged with creating assistive devices that help patients with daily tasks. One such invention was a stick with a scrub brush attached, so a patient could strap it to the leg of a chair, and then set the chair leg in soapy water and scrub clothes clean using one arm. Another device—a small wooden board with three nails—can hold a vegetable in place, while a person cuts it, again using one arm.

Patients and staff at the center sometimes cook a meal together in the rooftop’s enclosed kitchen area, breaking bread and forming an impromptu support group, where “they talk about what they’re experiencing,” said MacNairn. They also share nutrition and hygiene tips.

MacNairn first traveled to Haiti a decade ago, when her husband was the assistant country director of Catholic Relief Services. Five years later, she visited quarterly while working on an employment project there. More recently she returned in February 2010, a month after the quake, in her role with Handicap International (HI). The NGO is one of the six founding members of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. HI had a presence in the Haiti before the quake with their food-distribution program, but after the disaster it quickly repurposed its trucks to deliver a range of needed items, along with treated water, to devastated communities.

“We were struck by how some neighborhoods were hardly touched, while others were totally destroyed, such as the Champs de Mars area,” MacNairn recalled. “There was so much destruction, and so much homelessness. I was particularly struck both by the level of injury, but also the resilience. People were quickly back to selling things, trying to survive.”

In Haiti, and around the world, HI, works to alleviate the effects of poverty, exclusion, conflict and disaster. To address the widespread homelessness created by the Haitian quake, the organization built more than 1,000 transitional, hurricane- and earthquake-resistant homes, which are accessible to people with reduced mobility. The shelters are designed to serve the most vulnerable, and can accommodate more than 5,000 people in both Petit-Goâve and Grand-Goâve, coastal towns about 40 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince

The shelters are designed to last three years, but are weather resistant and can potentially last longer, if maintained properly. They have a wooden framework and walls of woven wooden slats, with a roof designed to withstand strong winds. The floor is made from a raised concrete slab, which will protect occupants from humidity during rainy seasons. The homes are also adaptable, and can include access ramps, wider doors, special door handles and other accommodations.

Available in modules with a range of surface areas, the shelters are adaptable to different size families. These prefabricated transitional shelters were prepared in kits by HI teams, and then transported to the field and assembled with families not only to foster “ownership,” but also to teach some basic repair skills.

When MacNairn first walked up to the rehab center in 2010, she recalled that it was an empty shell. But upon her recent return visit, it had blossomed into “an incredibly welcoming place,” where she interacted with some individuals whose experiences touched her. Among them was Katia Eloi, who manages HI’s rooftop training program. “She is also an upper-limp amputee and is pregnant with her first child. We talked about having a baby. It was one of those universal moments that women share,” MacNairn said.

From a previous visit, she remembered a young man named Beriton Merzil, a 46-year-old amputee below the knee “who found his way to us after the quake,” she said. “He was traumatized—although his amputation was from a long ago car accident—and initially he just stayed and talked with others who had just lost a limb in the quake; he created a very calming presence.”

A third individual that MacNairn recognized when she was there recently, was a young man named Marvens Point du Jour, who had lost his mother in the quake, and now lives with an adoptive family. Amid the disaster, he had to have his leg amputated below the knee, which made him“fragile” for a time. But now, with his permanent prosthetic, Marvens is up and running. MacNairn saw him kicking a soccer ball at the rehab center, and with his mobility restored, he can attend school, which many children with disabilities cannot.

“People with disabilities and the elderly may have delicate support systems that can be destroyed if someone who cares for them dies or is injured,” MacNairn observed. “We try to identify which communities are most vulnerable in advance, and work with local residents, area shelters and different organizations, so no one is left behind.”.... read more in ABILITY Magazine click here to order a print copy or to subscribe Or get a free digi issue with a "Like" on our Facebook page.

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Excerpts from the Hope-Dworaczyk Issue Feb/Mar 2012:

Qatar — The Fifth International Shafallah Forum

Haiti — Rebuilding After the Quake

Hope Dworacyzk — An Eclectic Career

Patricia Shiu — Holding Contractors to a Higher Standard

Documentary — Traveling the World on Two Wheels

Book Excerpts — How Do You Use Your Body?

Articles in the Hope Dworacyzk Issue; Humor — The Parent Trap; Ashley Fiolek — Teaching the Next Generation of Riders; Eleonora Rivetti — Italian Motocrosser Makes a Pit Stop; Sen. Tom Harkin — Keeping All Students Safe; Haiti — Rebuilding After the Quake; Qatar — The Fifth International Shafallah Forum; Chris Wells — Deaf and Blind Student Earns PhD; Patricia Shiu — Holding Contractors to a Higher Standard; Documentary — Traveling the World on Two Wheels; Recipes — Excerpt From the Forks Over Knives Cookbook; Hope Dworacyzk — An Eclectic Career; Smothers Brothers — How They Won a Trip to Washington; Assistive Golf — Jack Nicklaus Designs a Course for Vets; Book Excerpt — How Do You Use Your Body? ; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe

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