It's been more than seven years since the massive earthquake flattened Haiti's capital of Port-au-Prince, seven years since the UN and US showed up vowing to rebuild and help 1.5 million displaced. What followed was one of the largest humanitarian and foreign policy failures in history, one we would still be talking about today if it wasn't for the magnitude of the Haitian disaster being eclipsed by the other major humanitarian disaster of the Obama era in Syria. This week's Sunday Long Read examines this legacy this failure as it still stands as a huge favela-like slum city outside Port-au-Prince, the ragtag, sprawling mess of the "city" of Canaan.
A city is made of two parts: the physical and the political. The physical comprises what people need to sustain life in a particular place; the political determines how they live it.
In Canaan, the physical forms each time someone claims a piece of land. If a plot appears unused, he might ask around to be sure. If the land is indeed already claimed, he offers a small amount of money for the rights to it. He hires masons to line the plot’s edges with concrete blocks; iron rebar flowers up from the corners. At that point, construction usually pauses, since most people migrating here lack enough money to build a house all at once. In the meantime, the foundation reinforces the claim until the builder can follow through with an actual home. It’s common to find goats and chickens grazing where bedrooms have yet to take shape, giving some plots the appearance of a sort of cinderblock petting zoo.
One morning, in a sector where a dozen or so of these concrete foundations were taking shape, I met up with Salma Simeus, whom I found walking one of his goats, straining to hold it back as it pulled toward a group that had begun devouring some nearby bushes. Simeus was born in Haiti’s agrarian central plateau, where, as a young man, he became attracted to volunteer work, raising money to help neighborhood kids attend school and organizing seminars to educate people about matters of health and disease. In 2000, he moved to Port-au-Prince to study at a local college, settling with his wife, Marie Celestin, in Tabarre, a sector tucked into the mountain that forms the backbone of the city. When the earthquake struck, he persuaded a nearby NGO to donate such staples as food and soap, which he immediately distributed to his neighbors.
Unlike others in Tabarre, the couple’s home wasn’t leveled by the earthquake. But after taking in so many displaced relatives and neighbors, their house became impossibly crowded. Rather than kick anyone out, Simeus and Celestin went looking for land on the eastern edge of Canaan, eventually landing in Onaville, where they moved into a zinc-and-plywood shelter built by TECHO, a volunteer NGO that had arrived after the earthquake. The TECHO structures were insufferably hot and prone to collapsing, but they were better than nothing. Soon enough, Simeus began volunteering for TECHO to create a list of people in need of shelter.
Celestin, meanwhile, began using her training as a nurse to help treat injuries and illnesses, advising people on such things as what medicines to buy, how to manage their diabetes, or how to prevent cholera. When one woman went into labor, Celestin delivered the baby.
Because of his and Celestin’s volunteer work, Simeus became a de facto leader in Onaville. He embraced the role, and began a campaign to beautify the area, which included getting a local artist to paint a mural and organizing residents to make street signs for the neighborhood’s dirt roads and alleyways.
“We wanted Onaville to be a grand village,” Simeus said as we watched a group of masons working on a foundation nearby. The idea was that it would serve as an example for other Haitian communities. “The garbage we throw on the streets here gets washed away to Miami,” he said, gesturing west toward the sea. “People see that, and that’s not the image we want.”
As time went on, international NGOs and agencies began offering funds to help beautify Canaan. The responsibility of trying to direct that money into Onaville fell to Simeus. Eventually he became a volunteer liaison between the NGOs and residents, conferring over one project or another. He became a man of many hats—or more precisely, many shirts: Once, between meetings, he took off his white Habitat for Humanity shirt and replaced it with a blue polo, then untucked a Red Cross lanyard from underneath. “Habitat doesn’t like you to have relations with another NGO,” he said. “I have an Oxfam shirt too.”
As Canaan takes on permanence, so does the corruption and despair revolving around the Hatian government and the NGOs running it...but there is still hope here among the rubble.