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Earthquake survivor -- the Haitian character

By Marjorie Valbrun
Sunday, January 17, 2010; A23

My country is devastated, my people are dying, my father is missing, countless cousins and friends are unaccounted for . . . and yet, a strange calm has descended and carried me through each day of this most distressing week.

Fearful relatives throughout the United States have been calling, hoping that, because I'm a journalist in the political capital of the world, I have inside information or influence, that I have high-level friends who can do something, anything, to help them find loved ones in Haiti and push the Obama administration to "save" Haiti more quickly.

I tell them what I know, what humanitarian agencies they might reach out to, what Web sites to check for information, and I try to comfort them. Concerned friends -- 65 and counting -- some of whom I have not talked to in years, call asking about my family and what can they do to help, which groups they should contribute to. I respond in mass e-mail updates, thanking them for their love and sending electronic hugs.

I go to work and joke with my colleagues. When I return home I talk until the wee hours to my worried sisters, trying to reassure them that our willful father, whom we unsuccessfully badgered not to go to Haiti before the quake, is fine.

Papa is a rail-thin but spry 82-year-old who believes he's trapped in the body of a strapping 40-year-old. The only thing that could lure him from part-time retirement in Haiti, he insists, is an "important job" in Washington with the Obama administration. Trying to manage him is as exasperating as it impossible. But he is, like the great majority of Haitians, incredibly resourceful, and that's why I believe there is a very good chance he is okay.

My sisters worry that he has nothing to eat. That roaming bandits will hurt him. That he'll try to go back into our partially collapsed house to retrieve some prized possession and get hurt or trapped in an aftershock.

"Oh, please," I respond. "You know how Papa is. He probably rounded up a few stray chickens roaming the streets and organized a backyard barbecue for the neighborhood."

Even that idea might be too small-time for him. Knowing my father, he probably appointed himself the block captain and is overseeing makeshift relief operations or has made his way to the base where U.S. Marines are camped out to ask if they need his help.

My Papa epitomizes the Haitian character; he is the ultimate survivor.

So I try not to worry. I limit myself to half an hour of news coverage and turn the television off when cameras turn to dead babies. I have not been a good journalist in the past week. I can't be, not if I want to keep my head. It's very irrational, I know. How can someone with so many ties to Haiti, so much at stake there, remain so composed?

"Calm" is not a word that those who know me well would use to describe me. The right word is "anxious." But not this time. I've reported on enough natural disasters, military coups, riots, epidemics, despair and unimaginable poverty in Haiti over the past 20 years to know that Haitians are astonishingly resilient. Over their 200-year history, they have had a lot of practice.

Haitians have an illogical, unexplainable ability to maintain hope in the face of stunning misery. Mondo survival instincts and a knack to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that better days are ahead, is part of their DNA. They -- we -- take great pride in this. It's a characteristic girded by strong religious faith and by the belief that the God who seems to have long ago turned his back on them will somehow come through and provide just enough for average Haitians to continue to eke out lives of abject poverty.

I don't mean to imply that Haitians are collectively a naturally happy lot. I'm sure any wide-scale study would find astronomical rates of depression, especially now. But the determination to endure keeps Haitians and Haiti going.

I don't know how they -- we -- do this but I've seen it through hurricanes, floods, mudslides, over and over again. No doubt Tuesday's earthquake will test this genetic fortitude and break down huge chunks of that strong wall of resilience, but I know that eventually, Haitians will pick themselves up and go on, as they have time and time again. They have no choice.

Marjorie Valbrun, a writer, lives in Washington. Her e-mail address is mval63@yahoo.com.

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