Americans open hearts to help Haitians after earthquake
Monday, January 18, 2010
Just a week ago, Haiti was covered by a single American foreign correspondent from a major news organization. Americans' knowledge of Haiti was limited to a few images and stereotypes. Like boat people. Voodoo. And, of course, disaster.
Now the great gulf between America and Haiti, a chasm greater than the 700 miles that separate the western end of the island of Hispaniola from South Florida, has been bridged by a vast outpouring of compassion.
The power of television has brought home the intensity of Haitians' suffering. It would be an exaggeration to say that we're all Haitians now, but for the moment, Haiti's not alone.
The question is, what will happen in two months? Two years?
"I worry that when the cameras go away, you know, people will start looking away. Right now it's a dramatic story. It's Haiti on its knees," said Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-born author who lives in Miami and has been anxiously waiting for news from her relatives.
Americans care about Haiti -- but how much they care and whether they will care in the months and years to come are questions that can only be answered with the passage of time. Amy Wilentz, a journalist who has written extensively about Haiti, takes a jaundiced view: "We only like them when they're dying. That's when we care."
Perhaps this catastrophe is so big that it will permanently transform the relationship between Americans and Haitians. Not all disasters are created equal. On television we see Haitians clambering over bodies and coping with the intensifying stench of corpses. We see bodies buried in makeshift landfills without so much as an identifying snapshot. It's like Hurricane Katrina, only much worse.
So it was, Sunday morning, that compassion arrived at the Haitian embassy in Washington -- and pretty much inundated it. Word had spread on the Internet that the Greater Washington Haiti Relief Committee needed donations of clothes, medicine, batteries, diapers, baby formula and so on. The start time was set for 11 a.m., but people began showing up at the embassy on Massachusetts Avenue NW more than two hours in advance. By noon, the bags of donations had stuffed the old mansion to the rafters.
A chain of people passed the bags up the staircase, where they piled up in an elegant dining room. Hundreds of volunteers diligently sorted shirts from blouses, folding everything, stacking, and trying to stay ahead of the incoming bags.
"We're out of boxes!" someone shouted.
"It's not a complicated story," said Deepak Marwah, 29, a consultant who answered the call for help. "This is about humanity."
"When are they going to lose our attention span? Probably the next news cycle. Who remembers the earthquake last year in China?" asked Cathy Kohn, a Bethesda housewife whose middle-school daughter was among the volunteers at the embassy Sunday.