(Photo: AP Images / Rodrigo Abd)
Three years after one of the most devastating earthquakes in recorded history struck Haiti, killing more than 300,000 people, survivors are still facing critical problems and struggling to rebuild their lives – but are turning to God in even bigger numbers.
"Religion is at the heart of Haitian society. The level of suffering has been so high that clearly people feel dis-empowered to cope with the situation and the earthquake has led to an increase reference to religion and to churches," Haiti Program Director for Oxfam Yolette Etienne told The Christian Post in an email on Friday.
The catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake that decimated the Caribbean nation struck west of the capital, Port-au-Prince, on Jan. 12, 2010. Three years later, more than $12 billion has been collected through international charities and fundraisers to help Haitians recover from the tragedy, but a lot of work still remains to be done. Nearly 358,000 people are still living in over 500 camps scattered around the capital and rural areas. The people in these camps often lack access to basic services, such as health care, sanitation and education, and they are suffering from outbreaks of cholera and other diseases – although a flood of missionary groups has been working hard in assisting them to rebuild their homes and gain better access to food and water.
Etienne shared with CP that the situation in the country is still very critical. Many of the camps are located in less visible areas, where they are in danger of crime. Job opportunities are very scarce, and many people move from camp to camp in search of better living conditions. Some isolated groups are migrating to rural areas for short-term periods, but they know that their best chance of receiving support is if they stay closer to central authorities.
"The government's program for relocation, supported by some international donors, had reached around 44,000 people and it is expected to be extended to 50,000 more," Etienne said.
As for the $12 billion in funds gathered for Haiti, the program director shared that nearly 50 percent of that money had been pledged for reconstruction projects.
"Nearly all the rubble has been cleared from the street. There has been some construction of houses, roads and businesses. Donors must continue to support the government and its return and relocation program with emphasis on plans to address all camps and displaced persons. It is clear what is needed – a realistic long-term resettlement plan led by Haitians for Haitians that also puts people to work and build skills," Etienne added.
Women are especially suffering in the midst of the large-scale unemployment gripping Haiti, and Oxfam says it is working hard with the government to strengthen citizen participation and support employment creation.
Haiti has a long and unique history when it comes to religion – with most praciticing voodou, which was brought from Africa to the island during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. When the French occupiers banned the practice of voodou rituals, however, Haitians began integrating Roman Catholic saints and beliefs into their understanding of religion. Today, over 80 percent of Haitians profess to be Roman Catholic, while another 16 percent are Protestant – although traditional influences and practices still remain among many of Haiti's residents.
Etienne revealed that religion has been one thing that has been providing Haitians with a source of hope amid the chaos, and people are turning to church even more following the earthquake.
"To keep hope in times of desperation, people gathered in common spaces to pray together and to find community and strength when there seems to be no grounded plan to overcome the disasters and when disasters follow disasters. I'm not sure that people have changed significantly to develop more compassion, but they certainly seem to more often turn to religion. Even if there is no formal study, a bigger percentage of population is more regularly attending religious services," the Oxfam director said.
The government is facing a very long road in helping the hundreds of thousands of people in need – with foreign investments the major source of creating employment opportunities and pouring money into housing projects.
"However, given the challenges facing Haiti, these investments will take times, and it is important to advocate for a specific program to help the displaced people find a solution. It is obvious that most of the people in the remaining camps are among the most vulnerable in Haiti. It is still important to develop a timeline for closure of the camps and adequate investment in neighborhoods to improve access to basic services," Etienne insisted.
Various charity organizations are still calling on people to donate money for suffering children and families in the country, calling on them not to forget that the process of recovery still has a very long way to go.