A generation's task in Haiti

The Fort National area of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.
The Fort National area of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. (Nikki Kahn)

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By Marjorie Valbrun
Wednesday, January 12, 2011

It's hard to believe that a year has elapsed since an earthquake destroyed Haiti. It's harder still to gird myself for the anniversary of wrenching images that will recall the suffering.

It seems illogical to feel apprehensive about an event experienced mostly through the safe distance of a television screen. Yet for us Haitian Americans who've spent most of our hyphenated lives in the United States, Jan. 12 has become a permanent scar on our psyches, a combination of sadness and survivor's guilt. It's a reminder that but for the grace of God, the ambitions of immigrant parents, economic privilege and dumb luck, we could have been among the 250,000 who died, or the more than 1 million left homeless, or the thousands maimed physically or psychologically.

My father, Austrel Valbrun, was among those who survived the goudou-goudou, as the earthquake is unaffectionately known. He saw friends and neighbors die, including a 1-year-old girl who lived across the street. Port-au-Prince surveyors have deemed his beloved house no longer safe for habitation and ordered that it be torn down.

I've watched him struggle with his emotions since the Red Cross brought him to Florida, where he also has a home. I've tried to understand why I also felt such a profound sense of loss. After all, I had not lived in Haiti for 40 years. I had not visited in 10 years. In my mind, however, Haiti, and its once-beautiful capital, where I was born, would always be there whenever I wanted to go back. Today, Port-au-Prince is mass of rubble, depressing and dangerous tent cities, and widespread suffering. I've resisted going back to this new reality.

In the past year, my rail-thin father has lost more weight than he can afford. He cries easily. Thanksgiving was tough, not because he wasn't thankful but because he couldn't think about eating turkey when so many people in Haiti are hungry. When it was his turn to say what he was thankful for, he sobbed as he cited his blessings.

Sometimes Papa is preoccupied with keeping track of the days of the week. I think this is because he lost count of the number of days he spent on the sidewalk in front of his house after the earthquake, unable to contact anyone in the United States, unable to get out of Haiti and uncertain whether help was ever going to come.

I realized he was having flashbacks when, months after the earthquake, he described how he sometimes felt the floor trembling beneath him when he showered. When it happens he leans against the shower wall in his Florida home to keep from falling down. Friends and relatives with elderly parents who survived the quake have reported similar behavior. The survival instincts and fortitude that served Papa and others of his generation so well have taken a hit. That boisterous Haitian can-do spirit is quieter.

What of my generation, we thoroughly Americanized Haitians? How to reconcile survivor's guilt when the disparity between our lives here and the lives of those in Haiti is so stark; when our compatriots continue to suffer long after the ground broke open?

Sending money, though necessary, is easy. I'm wrestling with how I can have a long-term impact. Should I give the extra room in my heart and my house to an orphaned Haitian child? Should I go to Haiti for a month or two and volunteer at a school, hospital, orphanage, church or street corner? Can I make even a small difference in the face of such overwhelming need? Surely I, we, can find a way to do some good.

My Papa, like thousands of others who sought to build better lives for their families in the United States and then returned to Haiti to live out their old age, gave our family a precious gift: a life of opportunities we could never have had in Haiti. But he also helped us hold onto our past by keeping us tethered to memories. I continue to love a country I left so long ago because, well, Papa taught me to.

Later this month he will travel to Haiti to assess the landscape, inspect his broken house, decide whether to rebuild or sell the land and be done with it. I will go with him and do some personal assessing of my own. It's time.

Even after everything, Papa still wants to eventually return to Haiti for good. When I ask why, he responds: "Your Papa still feels like a young man, why should I stay in Florida? To watch TV and wait to die like the other old people? Not me. I want to live in Haiti."

At 83, his work is done. It's time for all those Haitian fathers and mothers who sacrificed so much for their children to finally rest. Now it's up to my generation of Haitian Americans to reclaim Haiti and help it get back on its feet. Our work is just getting started.

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


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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