earthquake

Nepal 2015 is not Haiti 2010

There’s been a trembling in my soul ever since I heard the news about the earthquake that has devastated Nepal. Since I just came back to the US last week, the images coming from the disaster zone have been bringing up too many memories. I have intentionally tried to avoid them as much as possible because I don’t need to see them to know what they look like. I have other similar images burned in my memory already. I don’t need to hear the stories to know what they say. I have 5-year-old stories that sound the same that replay through my head every day. I don’t need all of the details to understand the horrors and the trauma that the people of Nepal are living through right now. All I need to hear is the word “earthquake” and a mention of the ever climbing death toll and my heart and my spirit are already there with them because a large part of my heart and my spirit are always lingering back in Haiti, January 12, 2010.

And yet, I know that Nepal 2015 is not Haiti 2010. And for this reason, I have stayed silent. Because I know that the last thing that the people in Nepal need right now is one more person comparing them to Haiti. I know that the last thing that the people in Nepal need right now is one more person trying to tell other people where they should donate to or how they should help without any personal knowledge of the situation on the ground. I know that they don’t need more people a million miles away using their current plight to pretend that they care about humanity by donating some money through Facebook or to the Red Cross. I know that they don’t need one more person feeling bad for them. They’ve had their hearts ripped out and their lives turned upside down and all the truths that they thought they believed to be true about the universe suddenly challenged by something they cannot understand. So as long as their most basic needs are met, right now, I’m assuming that all that they need is some space to grieve. Some time to process. Some arms to hold them up when they feel weak and can’t stand in between the sobs that come without warning. They need something solid to lean on in midst of the fear.

This is what the trembling in my own soul would tell me because that’s what I needed in Haiti in 2010 but the only place that I could find it was through the Haitians who had been through the earthquake with me. Not from any other outside source. No organizations or volunteers or aid workers or government agencies. Other survivors.

Nepal 2015

Nepal 2015

Haiti 2010

Haiti 2010

But Nepal 2015 is not Haiti 2010. So I hesitate to offer any words at all to heap onto the situation. Words, after all, are what made the burden so heavy five years ago. This puts a writer into a difficult place who is used to expressing his feelings with words. And right now I feel so many things for Nepal that I had to write this down and get it out there. I hope that it builds up and does not only make the load heavier for anyone in Nepal who is already carrying around what may seem like tons of emotional rubble with them. Because I do not know what they are going through, I can only guess based on my own experience. I’ve read too many articles already of others trying to project their own emotions onto the victims and trying to predict what the near future holds through the relief effort and trying to prescribe solutions that I assume none of the victims are actually interested in right now. Yet at the same time, with something so personal, I cannot remain silent forever.

So, if I have any words at all that are worth contributing to the situation, here they are:

To my good-hearted American and Western friends:

I know you want to help. But the truth is that unless you have a direct connection to Nepal or at least a secondary connection to someone with a direct connection, there’s not much you can do. The most crucial parts of the relief have already been done by the people on the ground and the fact is that the victims will probably be able to find food and water and a tent regardless of whether you donate now or not. After that the rebuilding needs to be done by the ones who did the original building in the first place. Donating to organizations to rebuild homes or schools or temples does more harm than good unless those organizations are the ones who built the homes and schools and temples that got destroyed in the first place. It just takes agency out of the hands of the ones who have to deal with the consequences in the future. The Nepalese citizens who right now and in the coming weeks, are going to be hungry for nothing more than a sense of control once again. This, I can say from experience, was the most difficult thing to lose, a sense of control. And the more that donors put the power into the hands of NGOs, the more the common citizens lose control of their own situations. So, if you do have the direct connection to help those victims regain control of their own lives, do so by donating directly to them without any strings attached. And if you definitely want to donate to an organization, search out one that is locally led and was there before the earthquake and has sustainable plans to be there long after. Then once you’ve found it, make a long term commitment to supporting them on a regular basis. Next year, or in a few years are when they’re going to need the support the most.

To the Nepalese people now reeling from the loss and trauma:

I can’t feed you any BS about it how it’s going to get better because I know right now that would be of no comfort to you. The truth is that whatever sorrow, bitterness, anger, confusion, despair, fear, or whatever emotions you’re feeling right now, it’s okay. And it’s not going to get better anytime soon. It will eventually, but you’re going to be stuck in these feelings for a long time while everyone else around you tries to fix things. Take your time. And in those moments, cling to those around you who know what you’re going through. Lean on them for support and be there for them when they need to lean on you. Share your story as much as possible. Tell it to anyone who will listen because the more you keep it inside the stronger the aftershocks will be within you down the road. Cling to your faith and remember that you are more powerful that you may ever realize. No matter how many walls around you crumble, there is a sacred beauty and strength within you that cannot be destroyed. Allow it to push you forward.

To my Haitian brothers and sisters who remember what it’s like:

I know they gave you Cholera, forgive them. I know you lost 100 times more loved ones than they did, but the loss of even one to such tragic circumstances affects us all. Take a moment to grieve with them. I know that you don’t have any money that you can send or even have the ability to connect in anyway to the Victims in Nepal. The best thing that you can do for them now is to provide them with proof that it does get better. Show them that there is hope in the life that lies beyond the rubble. For the sake of the Nepalese people who are suffering right now and for the sake of the memory of our own that we lost 5 years ago, don’t take for granted the opportunity that you’ve been given to continue to make life in your communities as beautiful and as worthwhile as possible. I know that you were used as an experiment in aid 5 years ago, and that experiment didn’t go well. Don’t let it be in vain. Don’t let the world forget the lessons that they learned. Continue to tell your stories and remember who you are as Haitians. Remember the revolutionary spirit that has gotten you to where you are and allow it to push you forward. I know there are still aftershocks in your soul. If you ever need a shoulder to lean on, you know where to find me.

As far as what I’m going to do now with the own trembling in my soul for Nepal, I’m going to spend some time trying to form some direct connections in the coming months. And through those connections, I’m going to do some work with my artist friends in Haiti to try to build some bridges and lend some support emotionally, spiritually, and hopefully even financially to those in Nepal. I have a very strong sense that right now if anyone can help the people of Nepal, it’s the people of Haiti. I’m going to do what I can to be a part of making that possible.

I always have a donate button at the end of my posts here on the Green Mango. Usually if you are kind enough to click that button and donate some money, it just goes to keeping me alive. But this time, if anyone donates through that button in the following week, I’ll be using those funds to get this cross cultural project started between Haiti and Nepal. I’ll be sharing more details about the project over on my art website when I have worked them out more but for now, if you trust me enough to contribute, I guarantee you that it will be going towards something unlike any other “help Nepal” project out there right now. Thanks.

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4 Years of Words

We’ll, it’s that time of year again, when anyone with a Google news alert for “Haiti” starts receiving a flood of articles about “4 Years Later…” Sunday will mark the 4 year anniversary of the earthquake that has defined this country’s identity from the moment that it struck. And that means that all sorts of journalists and humanitarians will be throwing around their analyses of what has happened since. The progress that has been made and problems that have been born and lived will all be evaluated and discussed in an effort to show the world how disaster relief should, or more commonly, should not be done. It has happened for the last 3 years and will probably continue to happen every year until some other natural disaster comes along and wipes more than 300,000 people off this planet. Because that’s how we qualify a disaster, by how many people it kills.

And every time that this happens I feel like I’m back in grade school when the teacher would bring the naughty kid to the front of the classroom to make an example of him. “Okay kids, now did everyone see what Danny did there? Now we don’t want to be like Danny, do we, class?” And the entire class shakes their heads in fear while Danny hangs his head in shame. Then the teacher sends Danny back to his desk, now very aware of what he did but still very unaware of how to do differently in the future. Danny sits at his desk doubting himself and his potential to do good. And a week later when some other kid misbehaves they might get reprimanded but they can always say, “at least I’m not as bad as Danny.”

And so here sits Haiti just waiting to be made an example of once again by the loads of onlookers and researchers with the pure motives of wanting to do better next time. There will even be those who were personally touched or even present for the event that will take the opportunity to try to say something meaningful just because they know more people will be paying attention at this time. I know I, for one, will be posting something on Sunday. It’s like posting what you’re thankful for on Facebook for Thanksgiving; it just has to be done, as cliche as it may seem.

20140109-082030.jpg

Sure there’s still rubble in my front yard after 4 years, but behind and within there is growth and life that is what defines the present.

However, what I’m feeling at this moment leading up to Sunday is much like what I wrote in my book, The Grinder, that there have been enough words spouted at this situation already. And there will probably continue to be words spouted at it every year for the rest of our lives until the last survivor’s memory fades or Haiti surpasses all other countries in terms of development. Whichever comes first. For some people it’s their job to spout those words and we have an obligation to continue searching for ones that express ideas that are new somehow but eventually we have to honestly look at what those words are accomplishing.

On the day of the quake I was told that words broke my house and ever since then I’ve tried to be more conscious of what my own words are doing. Are they breaking or are they building? Are they enriching or are they depleting? Are they enlightening or are they adding confusion? Are they even necessary in the first place or are they just adding to the noise that surrounds us?

Unfortunately as I start to see these different articles pop up, although there’s truth in the reporting and sincerity in the stories, I struggle to find words that are capable of building, which is what this country needs now. Building up in its faith in itself. Building up in the resources it needs to move forward on its own. Building up in the strength to not be affected by what all of the outsiders say or write.

This post in itself is not those words but a call to other writers more talented than me to search for those words as we write our “4 Years Later” articles. It’s also a reminder to readers to look for the all of the real life being lived beyond all of the analyses of “what went wrong” “where’d all the money go” and “there are still tent cities”. Danny already knows he’s a failure and rest assured he’ll continue to make mistakes as he grows but let’s help him find a reason to believe that that’s not all that defines him. Let’s give his classmates a reason to forget about his screw ups too and have a reason to want to be his friend and walk alongside him through the good and the bad. Let’s make it a new day for Danny!

Damned if You Give, Damned if You Don’t

I had written this post a while back but never published it. I came across it now again and decided that with the recent events in the Philippines that it would be a good time to share it. Actually about a week and a half ago would have been a good time to share it, but no one can really be surprised that I’m late at something. At the same time I want to be clear that I’m a bit hesitant at sharing this because I don’t want to be perceived to be making the dangerous assumption that the current situation in the Philippines is anything like the situation was in Haiti after the earthquake of 2010. Both are overwhelmingly tragic natural disasters causing widespread devastation and loss of life that have triggered the response of well-meaning people all over the world who want to help bring relief. However, the cultural, geographic, economic, and governmental differences between the two places make the situations and how the survivors will be affected by them completely unique to each location. Just as it is with any disaster that may ever strike in the world, and I think it is always important for us to acknowledge all of these varying factors that come into play.

Okay Green Mango Readers, time for a little quiz.

1. What’s the best thing you can do to try to help with the relief effort in a time of disaster?

A: Give money.

2. What’s the worst thing that you can do to try to help with the relief effort in a time of disaster?

A: Give money.

You may be thinking, “Seriously? Can we never do anything right for this guy? We mean well, we just want to help somehow.” I understand, and as a victim myself once of one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of all time and first-hand witness to many of the world’s relief efforts in such a situation, I want everyone to know that you can help, and it is greatly appreciated, but I want to encourage everyone to do it in a way that is as effective and dignified as possible. So let me explain.

When disaster strikes somewhere in the world and fellow human beings are victims, even though we may not be personally effected by it, we each are touched nonetheless and often want to help in some way. We see the images and the stories on the news of lives devastated, homes lost, and communities wiped out and our heartstrings are tugged when we realized that Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate and it could really happen to any of us. So when it didn’t happen to us and it did happen to another we are flooded with feelings of sympathy and even guilt and immediately start searching for ways to bring relief to those who inhabit this planet with us. But when those feelings are activated and we need to decide the next step in how to help, we need to take a moment to make sure that our resulting actions are not done based purely on emotions but are indeed thought out well enough that they will genuinely make a difference and not just assuage our pity.

There are a lot of possible ways that we might consider getting involved and there have even recently been lots of writers address this issue and I don’t need to spend a lot of time repeating what they’ve already said. For instance, it is commonly understood and frequently stated that victims of disaster do not need our stuff. I hope that we can all agree on this. They don’t need our used clothes, they don’t need our medical supplies, they don’t need our canned goods, and they don’t need our blankets, our tarps, or our tents. This doesn’t mean that they don’t need these things at a time when they’ve lost everything, they just don’t need you to go to Wal-Mart and buy every last can of green beans that they have on the shelf to try to send to them. I understand that members of our churches or social groups feel more physically involved if they can donate items rather than just write out a check, but these donations usually end up costing the organizations that are in place to distribute such things more money and time to facilitate such distributions that they’re worth. And, because it’s not just as simple as giving things out on the other end, many of these donations end up going to waste completely because the logistics of getting them to the victims is not near as easy as the donors think. Nor does the local timeline of needing such items line up with the timeline of the donors giving them. So, in this case it is always better to simply find an organization that already provides those sorts of things and making a financial donation to them. They can much better coordinate when to give, what to give, where to get it from, and how to give it if they just have the funds to do it rather than boxes full of stuff in storage or even worse, stuck in customs. At the same time, if you donate your can of green beans or your t-shirt, it takes multiple people hours in their work day to make sure a victim receives those items, but the green beans and t-shirt can’t pay the salary of those people that made that donation possible for you. All of this is to say, giving money is always better than giving things.

But what if we feel like we are supposed to go to help hands-on with the relief? This one’s a little trickier to respond and the way I would answer is not near as clear cut as some other writers have recently suggested in popular articles. Many experts would say that unless you have highly specialized skills that are in high need at the time, just stay home and raise funds to send. But I’m still a bit conflicted on this issue because many people might see a disaster happen and see the images on the news and want to go simply to help out with the clean-up effort. They might not be surgeons or engineers, but they could certainly help clean up the debris and rubble and garbage in the streets, couldn’t they? And the experts would say that it’s better to send money to hire locals to do this untrained labor instead, then it provides them income that can help them help their families recover in the long run. And this is a convincing argument but the truth is even this is not that black and white. When the earthquake struck Haiti and left the streets strewn with rubble from collapsed houses, it’s true that there were plenty of strong, seemingly capable Haitian survivors who could physically do that work and greatly benefit from money that might be able to pay them to do so, but doing that sort of work also required a certain level of mental health that not one single survivor in the country possessed at that time. There were plenty of Haitians that could have done the work to clean up all of the rubble and debris, but not one of them would agree to do it because no one was going to volunteer to do a job where they could potentially lift up a chunk of cement to find the crushed body of a cousin of theirs, a friend of theirs, or a neighbor of theirs.

Whereas, if a Canadian, for example, swooped in after the quake and did the clearing of the rubble, it was still understandably, emotionally traumatizing to that person to uncover the victims, but they’re not near as connected to the trauma as those who were there themselves when the earth actually shook and who may even potentially know the victims personally. So, in that sense, I appreciated having some foreigners there to do that sort of work. However, it still holds true, whether you would come in to just clean up or if you have very specialized skills, for the money you’d be spending to travel and stay in the location, a locally operating organization could probably hire someone with the same skills from a neighboring country to come do the same work for a longer period of time and even have money left over for other interventions. So, even in this situation, I would still say that giving money is better than going. But, speak with the organization you’re supporting first to see if they need volunteers at that time and what for. Then, if you do decide to go, please do so with a lot of humility and very low expectations. Going into such a situation to help, things will never be as simple or as well organized as one might have hoped and you will never be doing what you actually expected to. Communicate thoroughly with the locally operating organization ahead of time to make sure that you’ll actually be needed and that they wouldn’t rather just have a donation. And make sure that you have a clear idea of what you will actually be doing but then still expect to be disappointed.

So, giving money is better than giving things and it’s better than going. So why is it also the worst thing that you can do in such a situation? Because if you only give money during a disaster than your money is never actually going to go to relief of that disaster. No matter the organization, it is logistically almost impossible to use donations directly towards the actual work of helping after a disaster. The organizations that are always the first responders to a disaster have to be prepared to get involved immediately when it happens so they need a source of funds on reserve ready for the moment that it does happen. They don’t have time to wait for your heartstrings to be pulled or for your favorite celebrity to jump on the bandwagon and make a plea for your funds or for your pastor to appeal to your sense of religious duty. Even then, by the time that your donations are able to be processed and transferred and administered so that they may be used, that organization has already moved on to the next phase of helping the population recover. This means that your funds will probably more likely be used for a longer term program for development or put back in the pot so that the organization can be prepared for when the next disaster hits. Which isn’t the worst thing, it’s just not what you expected for your money. Disaster relief has a very specific, and very accelerated timeline that usually doesn’t match up with the timelines of donors, banks, or even the victims. Sometimes, because of the emotional and mental trauma victims endure after a disaster, they’re not even ready for the intense intervention being offered right away by relief agencies. Disasters are often exploited by organizations to boost funding that they know they’ll need for their other operations, and sometimes entire agencies are even formed in the wake of disasters exclusively because of that promise of funding. But by the time your funds actually get to them in a usable fashion, their priorities and the priorities of the victims have already changed. Even with the modern technology that has streamlined the efficiency of receiving donations, technology hasn’t been able to bypass bureaucracies and politics. This exploitation of disasters for funding is what makes money the worst, but that’s not on you, the donor, that’s on the nonprofits that are receiving the money. You, the donor, just need to fully understand that this is the reality of NGO operations and don’t get offended if your $5 donation that you texted or tweeted or put in the offering plate didn’t go straight to buying a blanket for a cold baby. In some, sometimes very indirect way, it is still going to help victims of Disaster.

So, if you’re damned if you give, damned if you don’t, what’s the solution to satisfying our human need to wanting to help one another? Give. Please, give. But give regularly and give with awareness. Instead of waiting for that celebrity or that pastor or that sorry looking photo in the news, do your research, starting right now, and find an organization that you fully believe in and can feel good supporting and then do it on a regular basis. Decide an amount that you can give to that organization every month, and set up an automatic payment to them through your bank or your Paypal account. It’s easier than you think. Make sure that you sign up for their newsletter so that you can always catch updates from them and then if a disaster does strike and that organization will be involved in the relief, you’ll be one of the first to know specific ways that they would like you to be involved. Maybe it will mean just giving extra on your regular donation for that month, but if you’ve been supporting them already, then you’ll know that they were prepared to respond when the disaster struck. And then you’ll know that your continued donation long afterwards will still assure that they’re able to help the victims recover in the long term which is just as important.

My friends, we have created a world in which we can guarantee natural disasters will always be happening and they will always be devastating in some form or another. There are no easy answers as to the best way to help, but one thing that is easy is not waiting until another one strikes to show we care. Let’s make giving part of our lifestyle so that we know in all times that the organizations that we do care for are prepared to take care of our brothers and sisters in this world whenever the need may arise.