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Haiti Hype is Dying Down, But the Rescue Continues

May 17, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

Jules Woodly is a passionate youngish guy with dreadlocks and a solid grip. When he shakes your hand, you get the feeling that big things are happening. He is an ex-helicopter tech and a journalist and cameraman. He is a close and loyal friend of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Haitian president overthrown in the 2004 coup and is prone to ranting when asked his thoughts about the current government. He is a fan of psychology and an inspirational speech-giver. He's also single-handedly responsible for the well-being of 800 people.

I met Woodly a few months ago while conducting post-traumatic stress classes at the Aristide Foundation for Democracy (AFD) in Port-au-Prince. At the time, I was sitting on the roof of the AFD with Roger, my friend and collaborator/translator, contemplating a double-layered half-circle of women who were in the midst of "doing introductions." We'd started the class by asking them to share their names, a bit about their children and families, and if they felt comfortable, something about their experience in or after the earthquake. By the time a few women had spoken, something of a theme had developed. Most women were, for lack of a better word, gushing: "My name is _____, I have two children, and I want to say that Mr. Woodly saved my life and my family. He found me on the street when I was alone and my son was hurt and he took us into his camp and gave us food and a tent. He paid from his own pocket. It is for the grace of God that Mr. Woodly came to us. He is an angel. May God bless him. May He keep him safe from harm." And so on.

Roger and I were touched, but after the eighth lengthy ode to Woodly, we were getting anxious about the time. It was going to get dark before we got around to any class content. Finally, one of the women, after delivering her own homage to the wonders of Woodly, pointed to the corner of the roof. "There he is," she announced. Indeed, there he was. Mr. Woodly. He was sitting quietly in the back, clearly trying to blend in despite being twice the height of the rest of the audience. His dreadlocks gave him away, as did his brightly-colored press pass. The women clapped. Woodly somewhat reluctantly stood up and introduced himself, and while he was at it, gave a thorough endorsement of psychological treatment. He studied psychology in college in Florida, he told them. "Yes you are hungry. Yes, you are tired. But all the food in the world will not save you if your head is not in the right place." He gives us the floor and Roger and I do our spiel. When we get to the part about how trauma sometimes affects one's faith in humanity, it is, for once, easy to make our point. As this group well knows, although this world is a place where bad things happen, it is also a world inhabited by very good people.

I am back in Port-au-Prince now -- it's April as I write this -- to visit and train Haitian college students to work as lay mental health workers as part of a new project, Sulaje Lesprit Moun (Relief for the Spirit). Woodly has kept me posted on the ups and downs at his camp, Centre d'Abri des Victimes du Séisme 2010 (Center for Victims of the 2010 Earthquake), nicknamed "CAVS", over email. He has sent me pictures of school construction and food distribution. When Roger and I arrive, late as usual after a day spent in heat and traffic and endless gas station lines, Woodly welcomes us heartily with hugs and kisses. He tours us proudly around the camp, introducing us to women cooking behind tents, children kicking an empty water bottle through the dust. As he approaches, people stop what they are doing to beam at Woodly and to smile shyly at us.

Woodly points out the orange tent he first pitched Jan. 12, the day of the earthquake. He was in his home in a nearby neighborhood when he felt the floor trembling and bending and a block fell from the ceiling and crushed his shoulder. He ran into the street, where he soon encountered the inspector of special police. "You are a victim," said the inspector, eyeing his bleeding shoulder, "and yet you are the best person to care for your fellow victims. You must start a camp." Woodly went to the wettest, greenest, safest place he knew -- a water distribution center in Tabarre spotted with leafy, fruited trees, surrounded by a tall black fence, and pitched his tent. And for next week he roamed the streets, taking in those who needed shelter, and feeding and caring for them with the help of a nurse. Woodly's words have the sound of a folk tale, a fable from ancient times. In reality it is a true story, just three and a half months old. "This is where we laid the injured and the dying," Woodly tells me, pointing at a scrubby patch of ground near the center of the camp.

We walk from tent to tent. When compared to other camps in the city which hold tens of thousands of residents, Woodly's camp is quite small, but the responsibilities still feel overwhelming. There are 800 people here now, he says, 90 Creole tents, 42 foreign tents, and very little food. There is a committee of seven that helps to manage the camp, but Woodly is responsible for securing resources. "I have spent all the money I have," he tells me. "We have no daily meat, and we need more medicines. Every day I look for things for the camp. Right now we need money for a tent to cover the school, the students cannot learn because the sun beats down on them. I talk to the NGOs and the international organizations. No one wants to give."

Jules Woodly's Camp

The lack of resources is hardly unusual, but despite the rough conditions, I have been in IDP camps all over the city and this place feels different. People are smiling and chatting and kids are moon-walking (no kidding) in front of a boom box in an open area. As we wrap up the tour, Woodly gathers a large crowd to greet me. He races around arranging kids and old men on benches and then shushes them in order to put me on the spot for an impromptu address. Roger and I say our hellos, and then the women that I last met on the roof of the AFD stand up to give us an update on their last few months. "How are you?" I ask.

"We are okay," they say.

"Really?"

"Well we're hungry, and there are no jobs and no money. But we are okay."

There is a little girl with two broken legs in casts sitting next to me. "By the grace of God, I am okay," she says, smiling at me with bright, sunken eyes. Everyone laughs affectionately when she speaks. "Both her parents were killed," Woodly tells me later. "She is an orphan and the camp is her mother." When I look over again a minute later, she is fast asleep.

The group updates me on camp developments: There is a small school for 40 children or so run by three volunteers, and there is a woman's group for sharing sorrows and strengths. The group has both a religious and a psychological focus; "We have taught the others about the 'common reactions' and about the breathing and the butterfly," the women explain, referencing the group at the AFD in which we discussed common reactions to trauma and practiced relaxation skills, including abdominal breathing and an imagery/self-soothing technique called the "butterfly hug."

Soon discussion turns to the rainy season. People get drenched when it pours at night -- they wake up halfway submerged. Yet everyone, even those with intact houses, continue to sleep outside. I gently inquire about this, and rows of faces look at me as though I am pitifully slow. "When the next earthquake happens, the big one, every house will fall," a thin, jittery man informs me. A young woman agrees and brings up cyclones and volcanoes and tsunamis. There are nods and murmurs all around.

Woodly shakes his head in frustration and launches into an educational speech he has likely given many times before -- "there is no scientific evidence that we will have another earthquake right now," he says, "predicting earthquakes is an imprecise science." But the Haitian president, Préval, recently got on television and told people that there would be another earthquake imminently, bigger than the first, that there would be massive destruction. Yet the government has made no visible preparations to protect the people and fear has reached a near-hysterical pitch. "Why would he do this?" I always ask when this topic comes up. Most often the response is shrugged shoulders; "Who knows? He was probably drunk."

When we discuss this later, Woodly, a political man, is visibly angered. He was a helicopter tech who worked on Aristide's personal helicopter until the coup in 2004, and a Lavalas (Aristide's party) journalist. He is called "Helico" by those who knew him then. He, like many Haitians (some estimate 80%) remains loyal to Aristide, who was, he says, "a president for the people." Some are, to say the least, disappointed by the current government, which had no immediate response to the earthquake. Préval did not make a statement for weeks, while Aristide, in exile in Africa, spoke to the people immediately, even announcing his readiness to return to assist in rebuilding.

We discuss the political and social issues that have taken a primary role in all earthquake-related conversation. After all, this was never a purely "natural" disaster -- the extent of the earthquake's destruction was made possible by rampant poverty and poor quality housing. And as time passes, discussion about the disaster focuses more and more on the "man-made." Conditions in the camps are largely unbearable, and there are serious concerns about fair, efficient distribution of aid received by the government. There is suggestion that Préval is benefiting from the earthquake, by using it as a pretext to remain in office past his term. And right now, at the forefront of everyone's mind is the "problem of gas" in Port-au-Prince -- a massive shortage resulting in closed gas stations all over town and endless lines at the few that are open. We've been unwilling to spend our waking hours in line, so have bought gas by the gallon off the street for exorbitant prices. Multiple times we've bought watered-down gas causing our truck to jerk wildly for miles (alongside other similarly jerking vehicles). We've run out of gas twice because we've been simply unable to find any for sale.

The explanation for the gas situation is unclear. I've read online about delayed shipments from Venezuela and Antigua. But the Haitians seem fully certain. There is plenty of gas, everyone says, but the government is hoarding it. They want to make money. Woodly and Roger fall into Creole for ease of ranting. I cannot understand everything but the gist is clear: the Haitian government will not take care of the people, nor will the NGOs. Nor, ultimately will the international community. It is up to the Haitian people. "I don't know how it will happen," Woodly confides soberly. "There is no money. But I will find some. I have to provide for them." As we talk, we watch Woodly's camp residents clear the benches away from the center of the camp. When the space is open, the women break into song and dance. They clap their hands and kick up the dust. Their song is not a happy one, but it is not sad either.

The next day, Roger and I visit Woodly's camp again with our ten young, newly trained Ajan Sante Mantal (lay mental health workers). They have just learned a post-traumatic stress class protocol and are anxiously awaiting their first practice-run with residents of Woodly's camp. When we arrive, the little girl with the broken legs is shuffling across the dirt with a beat-up metal walker. We watch her take several steps on her own and camp residents break into applause. The Ajan clap as well. This is a special camp, I have explained to the Ajan. At this camp, you will learn from the residents -- they will teach you about mental health, about resiliency. Your most important training will come from listening to those who can smile despite their hunger. As we make our way across the dirt, Woodly rushes over and begins exuberantly shaking hands. "You are very welcome!" he says to the cluster of Ajan, swooping his arm out to gesture at the camp as a whole, like the proud owner of a first home. "Let me give you a tour!"

Please visit cavs2010.wordpress.com to learn more about Jules Woodly and his camp, CAVS 2010, and to make financial contributions to feed camp residents and to construct a tent to shade their school.