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Story Publication logo April 29, 2013

Haiti: Trying to Explain How Somewhere So Close Can Be So Different


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An Iowa-based medical team has been traveling to rural Haiti for years, assisting residents with...

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Peterson Germain and I sat in the back of a battered white school bus, trading questions about each other's countries.

The bus chugged through the dense, chaotic traffic of Port-au-Prince, whose bustle matches its poverty. Hundreds of Germain's fellow Haitians lined the sidewalks, peddling plastic chairs, used clothes, mangoes, plantains, car batteries, plastic fans, old TVs. In this part of town, little rubble was left from the 2010 earthquake, but plenty of quake victims were still trying to rebuild their lives.

As we pulled through the outskirts of the city, we could see thousands of shacks that had been thrown up. Many of their roofs are covered in the blue plastic tarps that disaster-response experts handed out as a stopgap form of shelter three years ago. The shacks climbed up barren slopes bordering the road. "Before, this was all just mountain," Germain said, sweeping his hand across the scene.

I had taken the 90-minute flight that morning from Miami. I'd read about all the problems in Haiti, but was still startled to see how severe the poverty was in a place that is so close to the United States. On a flight the day before, the lady next to me was studying a People magazine article about the latest American diet fad, which involves fasting for a few days. In Haiti, I would see several kids with the telltale orange hair and stunted growth caused by starvation.

Germain, 37, said he's lucky that his father sent him to English language school, which allows him to work as an interpreter for the American aid workers and journalists flooding the island nation. The work has been especially steady since the earthquake. That's good, because he needs money to rebuild his home in the town of Leogane, which was near the epicenter of the quake. He and his pregnant girlfriend were in the house when the shaking started. They ran out just before the concrete walls and ceiling collapsed. He doesn't focus on the loss of their home, he said. He focuses on their survival and on the good health of their toddler son, Peter. "I thank God for that," he says. "God did that."

He said there was something he always found puzzling about America. Is it true, he asked, that many people there kill themselves?

Well, I said, suicide isn't exactly common in the United States, but it's not unusual for Americans to take their own lives.

Germain locked shocked. "Why?" he asked. "Is life too hard for them there?"

Then he chuckled and waved off the issue. He knows that Haiti and America are two different places, with their own problems.

My task as a reporter would be to help Americans understand why Haiti continues to struggle so severely. That question wouldn't be any easier than the one Germain posed about America.


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