This story is featured in the Nov. 16 issue of the Magazine.
JANUARY 12, 2010, is a cold and short winter day in Boston. I wear double gloves to keep my fingers from freezing stiff when I bicycle through the dark to my morning yoga class. Afterward I eat breakfast at my desk, leftover chicken and rice washed down with a Diet Coke; make that two. I spend the morning coordinating equipment for Albany Medical Center’s new operating rooms, tedious work that is aggravated by all the compromises the project suffered. In the afternoon I revise the plan for the Newton-Wellesley Hospital Vernon Cancer Center, which sparks enough creative juice to remind me why, after 30 years, I still like being an architect.
About 8 p.m. my sister calls with news of Haiti’s earthquake. “As soon as I heard, I had to call you; I’m glad that you’re here, that you’re safe.” Pat has a flair for drama that I lack. It’s been months since I was in Haiti; I am in no danger. As she relates the tragedy, I realize she’s not calling out of any legitimate fear; she’s simply seeking the community we all crave in crisis.
After we hang up, I comb the Internet for information about the quake and field half a dozen calls from concerned friends and family. Everyone expresses gratitude that I am safe and offers personal sympathy. I am surprised by this collective impression that Haiti is central to my life. True, I volunteered to design a clinic there for Forward in Health, a nonprofit medical group from Gardner, and I had visited Haiti to review the construction. But I do lots of volunteer work. As a middle-aged, long-divorced man with two almost-grown children, I have ample time and prefer to spend vacations getting my hands dirty. It’s more practical than noble: A man alone benefits from structure and purpose when he travels, and fellow volunteers offer interesting company.
Now, as this earthquake pushes Haiti into the world’s consciousness, I begin to understand what others already know: how deep the country dwells in my psyche, how quick I am to regurgitate my adventures there, how my ordered and rational mind grapples to extract sense from that irrational yet beguiling place.
I set the phone down after talking with my nephew Jeff and stare outside. A film of frost collects around the corners of the storm window, but I feel hot, sweaty, and dirty. I want to do something — right now. I send an e-mail to John Mulqueen of Forward in Health, complete online applications for Habitat for Humanity, Architecture for Humanity, and the Red Cross; I send money through cyberspace. But that does not assuage my need. Haiti demands active engagement. I have something to offer: permanent concrete and steel. And though I don’t know exactly what it is, I intuit that Haiti has something to offer me; something that will nourish my soul, soften my brusque nature, and stir compassion I thought long lost.
HAITI THE SECOND TIME around is surreal, not just because of the detritus of the earthquake, the unexpected crack in the road that lurches my stomach, the random collapsed house marked with a deadly X, or the zombie eyes of the women in their market stalls who have seen so much pain they no longer see anything. It is also surreal because we are such a diffuse band of seekers.
We hatched this August 2010 trip two months earlier over steak and beer around John and Paula Mulqueen’s patio in Gardner. It was the first time I met Len Gengel, a guy from neighboring Rutland who found out about Forward in Health’s work in Haiti after his daughter Britney died in the earthquake. Britney, along with 11 other students and two faculty members from Lynn University, was on a service trip. On the afternoon of January 12, the Lynn group visited an orphanage. Britney reveled in the children flocking around her and texted her parents in Massachusetts: “They love us so much and everyone is so happy. They love what they have and they work so hard to get nowhere, yet they are all so appreciative. I want to move here and start an orphanage myself.”
When the group arrived back at the Hotel Montana, Britney’s roommate trotted off to the pool while Britney headed for the shower. Who lives and who dies can be as arbitrary as that.
Britney was but one of the more than 300,000 people who died in the 2010 earthquake, according to estimates by the Haitian government. Humans can acknowledge that 300,000 dead is a horrific statistic, a number that can invoke sympathy, even provoke rage. But 300,000 deaths numb our capacity for empathy. We cannot empathize thousands of times. Yet empathy’s the fuel of compassion; it propels us beyond our immediate interests and drives us to act. For many Americans, Britney Gengel became the face of the Haiti earthquake.
After the ground settled, Britney could not be found. The media picked up her story. Her father exuded grief so palpable it shot out of the TV screen and yanked at our collective heart. The cameras loved him, and he wielded their power to help find his daughter. He demanded to know what was being done to find the Americans missing in Haiti; he challenged President Obama to do more. Within days, the Gengels were told that Britney had been found alive. Len and his wife, Cherylann, flew to Florida to meet their daughter, reporters in tow, only to encounter a case of mistaken identity. Ten days after the disaster, Len visited Haiti with US Representative James McGovern to monitor the search for Britney and other missing Americans. He received national attention and ensured the search for bodies would continue, at least at the Hotel Montana, where Britney’s remains were found 33 days after the earthquake.
As Len retold this story, his grief was coupled with a fierce determination: “My daughter’s text is my mission; I want to open the orphanage on the first anniversary of the earthquake.” I knew a seven-month target was laughable, but I held my tongue in deference to his noble intention. We agreed to visit Haiti and evaluate Forward in Health’s site as a possible location for the Gengels’ orphanage.
In August, our somber group sets off on this peculiar mission. Our purpose is not one of temporary aid or shelter, but to conceptualize something permanent. Cherylann Gengel is here with her son Bernie and her sister Jodie, along with John and Paula Mulqueen of Forward in Health, as well as my 19-year-old son, Andy, and me.
Cherylann is in her own private shock. She reveals nothing as we motor through our agenda. There are moments when her eyes betray the same loss I see in Haitian women, but her grief is sharpened by its loneliness. Unlike the people in Haiti, all of whose lives were shattered, Cherylann suffers a solitary loss. Her friends and neighbors back in Rutland can offer condolences and sympathy, but they cannot share the bizarre reality of having your daughter vanish into the earth. Affluent Americans expect prosperity to buffer us from such arbitrary tragedy.
We spend four days together. We visit the Forward in Health site, five orphanages, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity compound in Les Cayes, and the hospital there. Orphans sing for us, march for us, and recite for us. In one place, 70 boys sleep three to a bed in one room. In another, the 600 orphans are kept out of sight; our tour never gets beyond a guesthouse courtyard. We are told things that surprise us: In Haiti, orphans have better opportunities for health and education than most other children. Many parents place their children in orphanages as a route to a better life and often visit on Sundays.
We part in Grand Goave. Andy and I will remain to help Mission of Hope International, a Christian aid organization, with reconstruction while the others return to Port-au-Prince and fly back to the States. At our last meal, I pull Cherylann aside and tell her that wherever the Gengels decide to build, they can count on me. She thanks me and says she will be in touch.
Andy and I arrive at Mirlitone, the guesthouse for missionaries in Grand Goave. At least that’s what it was last year. Now it’s just an expanse of beach along the Gulf of Gonave with a congregate bathroom, a lean-to kitchen, and a field of tents for volunteers.
The next morning we strap on tool belts and discover that nothing is more satisfying than building a house for a family in two hours, right before their eyes. Here’s how it works. Samaritan’s Purse, an aid organization based in North Carolina, provides pre-cut materials that include a wooden frame for a 12-foot-square structure, metal roofing, a gutter, built-in bunk beds, and a portable table/parents’ bed. The materials, including hardware, come packaged; five kits fit in a standard box truck. A Haitian crew carries the kit to the site, whether along a city street, a jungle path, or high in the mountains.
We are a team of 14 Haitians and Americans. Boss Pepe is our supervisor, a heavy-set local with a weary affect, an easy smile, and a Texas Longhorns baseball hat. His sole responsibility appears to be getting us to the site. Once arrived, he seeks shade and takes a snooze. Manuel, Johnson, and Frederick, the other Haitian men on the crew, are wiry and tireless. Then there is Michelle, the only woman I will ever meet in Haiti who crosses society’s strict gender lines. She is beautiful, with sparkling eyes. She is also an expert carpenter. The quality of the American workers varies. Andy and I join volunteers from World Race, evangelical missionaries who circle the globe, 11 countries in 11 months, to witness for Christ through words and deeds.
Manuel and Johnson lay out the sill plates. Craig and Tommy, two of the World Racers, dig a hole at each corner, fasten metal strapping tape to a pressure-treated two-by-four, and bury the wood in the ground. Michelle and Frederick lay each wall out on the ground and nail the studs together. Andy and I help lift the walls into place. In less than 10 minutes, the three-dimensional form takes shape. The crowd applauds.
Once the walls are upright, the Haitians scramble onto the top sill to install the joists. On day one, Tommy is the only American allowed on the roof; by the end of our trip, Andy is banging away up there as well. I am never deemed capable, and rightly so; my desire to be handy exceeds my ability. We build two houses in the morning, return to Mission of Hope for a lunch of rice and beans, build one more in the afternoon, and ride back to Mirlitone by 4, in time for a swim before dinner.
By day three, Andy and I are experts. We tramp along the narrow paths, we play with the children; it’s more fun than disaster relief ought to be. Which raises the nagging question, why do Haitians need us here? Erecting the houses is easy, and with more people watching than building, there is no shortage of manpower. Yet houses are only built when volunteers pitch in. Mission of Hope will eventually build more than 600 transitional homes, but nothing gets built without blan (Creole for foreigner).
I develop a theory, a Haitian variation on the Arkansas Traveler fable that insists there is no need to fix a roof when it is sunny, and impossible to do it in the rain. The Haitians we meet all seem appreciative of our presence; when the blan show up, they build with gusto. Yet when we are gone, they are not much disposed to action. I could be frustrated by their complacency, I could call them lazy. But having worked alongside them, I know better. Their world was difficult before the earthquake, and it is difficult now, albeit in different ways; weighing the relative levels of difficulty would simply breed pointless frustration.
BY OUR SECOND WEEK, Andy and I find patterns in our day. After work, we swim in the Gulf of Gonave. The water is refreshing though we tread lightly; the bottom is murky, and we have to dodge floating debris. One afternoon we float in the shallows and a trio of tall boys wades toward us with a soccer ball. We toss it about, dive after it, laugh, and generally show off. I cannot recall adult strangers in the United States joining in spontaneous play, but no one seems much of a stranger here. Everyone is equally poor in possessions yet equally rich in spirit, everyone is related to everyone else, and if good fortune blesses someone with a soccer ball, it’s more fun shared with a wide circle.
There are more than 50 people camping at Mirlitone, all evangelical Christians except for us. Their prayers grow particularly loud before dinner, so Andy and I escape the throng, propping plastic chairs into the sand and leaning against the chain-link frames filled with boulders that form Mirlitone’s breakwater.
This is our savasana, time to digest our adventure. I contemplate why I find such peace in this traumatic land. Over the next three years, I will revisit Haiti 17 times, and eventually quit my job to spend two weeks of each month designing and building the Gengels’ orphanage and a school for Mission of Hope. Andy’s musings are more immediate. His systematic, scientific mind considers how the aid flooding into Haiti can be used in a comprehensive way. “Take the garbage, it’s everywhere. Why don’t we build power plants that run on solid waste, pay people twenty-five cents a bag for trash, and use it to create electricity?”
He’s also a master of dry humor, fresh from hiking the Appalachian Trail with two buddies. “Being in Haiti is just like hiking the AT; life is reduced to its essentials. You wake up every day and spend your time finding food and clean water and figuring out how to get from A to B. On the trail, A to B is twenty miles; in Haiti, it’s sunrise to sunset.” We look out over the water, at that green line that defines Haiti’s enduring challenges of erosion and sanitation.
We sit quietly during the few moments it takes for the sun to draw itself into a white ball and drop into the sea. A young man silhouetted along the beach thrusts his arm into the violet sky and shouts Ayiti! — the Creole name for this magical land. His proclamation is directed at no one in particular, yet for everyone to hear. His exuberance cements a truth I have considered for some time: Happiness arises not so much from having things, as from having hope.
Related coverage:Architecture by Moonlight: Rebuilding Haiti, Redrafting a Life,” published by the University of Missouri Press. Copyright 2014. Send comments to email@example.com.