‘We’ll fight through this’: Haitians in Philly scramble to organize aid after earthquake, avoid mistakes of 2010

A family eats breakfast in front of homes destroyed by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Les Cayes, Haiti, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Joseph Odelyn)

A family eats breakfast in front of homes destroyed by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Les Cayes, Haiti, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Joseph Odelyn)

When news of Saturday’s devastating 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Haiti reached Josephys Dafils, one of his first thoughts was, “We don’t want to make the same mistakes we did in 2010.”

Dafils leads Haitian-American United For Change, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit. Usually, he assists members of the local Haitian community with visa and green card issues, and helps make sure people have food and housing.

But for the past day, his time has been consumed with helping people get in contact with loved ones in Haiti.

“Some people, their families, they haven’t heard from them,” he said. “They’re trying to call, they cannot get in contact. The phone is jammed because everybody’s trying to call, use Whatsapp, or calling cards.”

He’s also trying to figure out how to best help his home country over the next weeks, months, and years.

That’s why Dafils’ mind went immediately to 2010. The powerful quake in January of that year wreaked havoc on Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince, and later became a stark example of humanitarian failure. The American Red Cross raised millions of dollars for aid in the wake of the disaster, but Haiti ended up with startlingly little to show for it. A 2015 NPR and ProPublica investigation found the group only ended up building six permanent homes.

This quake was even more powerful than the one in 2010, though its epicenter was in a less populous area in the country’s southwest, about 80 miles from Port-au-Prince. Two cities, Les Cayes and Jeremie, reported heavy damage. As of Sunday evening, Haiti’s civil protection office says more than 700 people are dead, at least 2,800 are injured, and somewhere around 7,000 have been left without homes.

Dafils said he was able to make a rare phone call to a friend who lives in a hard-hit city. She was unhurt, but told him the devastation is enormous. “The church, people’s homes, all destroyed at this point,” he said,

So now he’s putting his head together with other Haitian groups in the Philadelphia area to figure out the best course of action. One thing is already certain: They’re avoiding the Red Cross in favor of smaller groups with a history of productive work in Haiti.

“We don’t want to just give it to big organizations, and the money and help doesn’t get to people in time or they don’t get it at all,” he said.

Jean Guillaume is on a similar page. He leads another Philadelphia group for Haitian Americans, Haitian American Voice. He’s also a member of the local Haitian Chamber of Commerce.

He was able to get in touch with family members in Port-au-Prince, and heard from them that loved ones in Jeremie and Las Cayes, who are still mostly unreachable, had survived. Their houses were destroyed, though.

“There’s a lot of life lost down there,” he said. “It’s really chaotic.”

As he was checking on friends and relatives, Guillaume was meeting with fellow members of the Philadelphia Haitian Chamber and local Haitian clergy members and business leaders. They ultimately decided they would try to organize their own trip to Haiti to help with the relief efforts.

The group has a GoFundMe it’s hoping to use to finance those efforts, and Guillaume says they’re beginning to talk with humanitarian organizers who are based in Haiti.

“We know what happened with the Red Cross in Haiti,” he said. “We learned from that. This time around, we want to do it differently. We‘re not going to buy goods from the United States to go to Haiti. Not only are we going to have people, we’re going to stimulate the economy down there by spending that money in the country.”

The earthquake came at what was already a tumultuous time for Haiti. In July, heavily armed gunmen assassinated President Jovenel Moïse in his home early in the morning. A power struggle ensued, and though a new president, Ariel Henry, has now assumed office, the country remained in a state of political turmoil, even before the earthquake.

“It’s really tough,” Guillaume said, “[to] have an earthquake in a country that is politically divided. The Haitian people are very helpless right now.”

“It just gets worse. It just gets worse,” Dafils said. “You’re trying to grapple your mind around what happened, and trying to find out who did this, who supported this, who wanted something like this to happen in Haiti? And now a month later, then you have an earthquake. It’s just like we cannot catch a break.”

He paused, and added, “yet.”

“I know that one day we’ll get a break,” he said. “It’s tough but we’re resilient people. We’ll fight through this.”

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