In conjunction with the the third anniversary of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, several newspapers have published essays about my experiences in Haiti. Over the next few weeks I will post them on my blog. Here is the first one, which the Worcester Telegram and Gazette published on January 8, 2013.
I never met Britney Gengel, the Lynn Universty student from Rutland who died in the 2010 Haiti earthquake. I never even heard of her until five months after she died, when serendipity led me to her parents. As an architect who had worked in Haiti before the quake, I wanted to lend my hand in its recovery. As grieving parents whose daughter’s final wish was to start an orphanage, the Gengel’s wanted to build one in her honor. We collaborated on designing the BeLikeBrit orphanage. We travelled to Haiti to select the site and plan the building. Eventually, the project consumed me; I scratched a mid-life itch for change, left my job, and volunteered to supervise construction. Hundreds of others, many from Central Massachusetts, contributed time and resources. For many of them, like me, the spirit of this girl and her family’s determination to make her final wish come true transformed our lives.
Haiti is a land of endless contrasts. It is dirty, backwards, corrupt, and intractably poor; yet it is also beautiful, tranquil; magical, and spiritually rich. Conflicts between ancient traditions and modern opportunities are heightened by Haiti’s extreme poverty. Most earthquake damage could have been prevented if construction had met standard codes, but since Haitians are equally inclined to attribute the earthquake to angry gods as shifting plates, construction crews were wary of the earthquake resistant features we incorporated in our building. Families are tight knit, yet official marriage is considered optional and eighty percent of children in orphanages have living parents who placed them there for a better chance in life. Haiti is a fiercely independent nation, but their turbulent history, insular culture and prohibitions against foreign investment crippled it; rendering Haiti utterly dependent on foreign aid. Perhaps the biggest conflict of all is that this country, dysfunctional by any measure, is so vibrant and endearing; as if a predisposition for protest, a disdain for authority, and a stubborn streak were the ideal ingredients of charm. Like many before me, I am aghast at Haiti’s poverty yet captivated by its people.
Anyone who visits Haiti returns to the United States a different person; after seventeen trips I hardly recognize myself. I am drawn to Haiti precisely because it defies comprehension. Haiti falls short of American life by any statistical standard, yet by less conventional, though equally valid measures, it actually surpasses us. By and large people in Haiti are happy; they are hopeful; they are not defeated by hardship. Community is strong in a country where life is too hard to even pretend a person can ‘make it’ on their own. And Haitians are mythically in love with their country. One evening I witnessed a skinny kid strolling the beach at sunset; he struck his arm to the sky and yelled ‘Ayiti!’ I marveled at his patriotic euphoria despite the devastation all around him, and wondered how many Americans would muster the same exuberance amidst our own bounty.
BeLikeBrit orphanage also defies comprehension. It is a solid, beautiful building, the most substantial building in town; though it would be unnecessary if such good construction existed before the earthquake. It is a monument to a young woman whose life was dashed in the first bud of adulthood; she inspires us by her lost potential as much as by her actual feats. It is a testament to humans coming together to serve a higher purpose; to share our capabilities and resources with those less fortunate in an attempt to transform our loss into something positive.
Every one of us involved in BeLikeBrit was fueled by motivations beyond standard measures of economic gain and loss; we gave of ourselves without expectation yet we each received more in return than we donated. Our good effort will never compensate for Britney’s death, but we can all be proud of the building that her spirit inspired.