Peter Heinz, leader of GAiN Austria, has worked with Agape for many years. He has also been involved in the work in Haiti almost since it began in 2010. Now, after making numerous trips to Port-au-Prince /Leogâne to work in the Ça-Ira Orphanage, he takes a look back and reflect on his experiences as well as the results of the work in Haiti.
In the following interview, he shares his insights on the project and the changes he has observed in the general situation in Haiti over the past four years.
Why did you go to Haiti in the first place? What made you want to get involved there?
When the earthquake happened on 12 January 2010, Klaus Dewald [leader of GAiN Germany] and his wife Claudia were visiting us in Austria. He got a call from a partner in Germany saying that AirBerlin had offered them 20 tons of free freight transport for aid materials, but they did not have enough to fill the space. Klaus used our computer to check the availability of materials in the GAiN warehouse in Giessen, Germany. He put together a package of first-response goods, coordinated the pick-up with the partners and made sure everything got delivered to the airport in time for the flight early the next morning. AirBerlin was so impressed with Klaus’ spontaneous reaction that they offered him another 40 tons of freight space. Once again, he managed to deliver the goods on time.
I was so fascinated by the whole thing that I decided to go to Haiti for the first time in June 2010. We visited two projects, and the rebuilding of a devastated orphanage immediately caught my interest. I was impressed by the professional approach of both GAiN Germany and Canada. After that visit, Klaus and I talked about how GAiN Austria could be part of rebuilding the orphanage.
Over your four years of involvement in Haiti, what has impressed you the most, and what has caused you concern?
When I went to Haiti in 2013 with a group from Austria, I was most impressed that GAiN groups from the Netherlands and Spain were also involved in the project under leadership from the German organization. The fact that an Austrian hydraulic engineer agreed to come to Haiti at his own expense to help with the planning of a new water system for the orphanage, and the generosity of other Austrians to support the project with €50,000 in donations to date have continued to astound me over the years.
I have seen how the orphanage grounds have been transformed since the disaster. This year we were able to complete the guest house, open two new dormitories for the children and install the roof between the two dorms to create a new covered auditorium area.
The ongoing support of so many volunteer teams from Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Spain, England, Canada and the USA is amazing. The tireless work of Art Rawding, our local building coordinator, has been an important factor in moving everything forward.
On the other hand, the devastated Haitian economic system and the high level of corruption are disturbing factors. Because GAiN is not willing to pay bribes, we have had to wait up to a year to receive container shipments in Haiti.
How has your opinion of Haiti changed over the years? What prejudices or expectations have you dealt with since you first visited the country?
I’d like to think of myself as a person who can go into a new country without prejudice. I have certain expectations, of course, but I wouldn’t call those prejudices. Before going to Haiti, I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew that it would be warmer than at home, but it was a LOT warmer.
I have discovered that although Haiti is a Caribbean nation, their culture seems much more related to Africa. When I have discussed my experiences with different missionaries who have served in many places in Africa, a lot of what they experienced also reminds me of things I’ve seen in Haiti
Haitians are masters of improvisation – this is a great quality in many respects, but if you look at their cars, you’ll get a different idea! Just one example- when we need a specific tool for a certain job, we just go to the hardware store and buy it. They have hardware stores in Haiti, but buying things is out of the question for most Haitians. They just take a piece of wood and a piece of metal, screw them together somehow, and they’ve got the tool they need – whether a dustpan or something else.
"My thoughts are still in Haiti, and I really miss all the kids! Ever since I got home, I’ve been going crazy seeing all the useless things we have and waste our time doing here in Europe! Uughh!!!
I don’t think I’ve ever been as genuinely thankful and happy as I was in Haiti. Although the people there have almost nothing, I think they are happier and more grateful than we are."
Another aspect is planning for the future. We Europeans often by things in advance – to stock the fridge or the freezer. We think about today and tomorrow. Most Haitians don’t own refrigerators, and if they did they would be dependent on the whims of the local electricity company – which typically only provides service for 2-5 hours a day. So, most people just go to the market each day and buy fresh meat or vegetables to cook and eat that same day.
Most of us plan ahead and set aside something “for a rainy day” – just in case. But as far as I can see, this is not the Haitian way. Whatever income they have is usually so little that they need it all to meet their daily needs.
We in Europe enjoy our free time and many people are involved in clubs or groups. I have a Haitian friend here in Austria, and he says this is one of the biggest problems in Haiti. People just hang around all day doing nothing. There are no organized groups to occupy people’s time. Sure, there’s the usual small talk on the street corner or in a shop, but that’s it.
I witnessed this problem myself. During the past year in Leogane, lots of people worked hard to build a community center with play areas, benches and lots of other things. The entire area was surrounded with a fence made of corrugated metal. When I went back months later, I could hardly believe my eyes. Nothing had survived. Every paving stone was broken, the fence was still standing, but it was dented all over. My friend gave me his interpretation of the situation, “People are just bored and then they do these kinds of things. They really need some kind of functioning volunteer system.”
What aspects of the work with GAiN in Haiti are most important for you? What are your hopes and dreams, your goals for the project – and for the local people?
I hope that this project will be an example of how well things can run in Haiti – not to show off how great we Europeans are, but rather to show the benefits of partnership between Europeans and Haitians. I hope that this project will show that it is possible to work together to create something good, something that has a positive future. I want people to see that it is possible to change lives, when we work together and with help and wisdom from God.
I also want to show the Austrians who take part in the project that many people live differently around the world. Although the orphanage is a very protected environment, foreign visitors realize quickly that people outside the walls of the children’s home have to fight to survive every day .
It's important to remember that Haiti is only one half of a shared Island. The eastern side of the island is the Dominican Republic – a well-known holiday destination for many Europeans. However, the Western side is marked by poverty, chaos and suffering. The people I have taken there are both shocked and intrigued when they drive through Port-au-Prince for the first time. The city is hot and loud; the smells can be overwhelming, and it often seems as if there are no rules at all. Every street is lined with people selling their wares – a very unusual sight for a European. Driving is an adventure, a prime example of “survival of the fittest.”
It is important for me to realize that travelling to Haiti can be a life-changing experience for the people who join us on a project trip. One young woman who came along with me last year shared an important realization about personal happiness in her project evaluation after she returned home to Austria. So far, everyone who has gone to Haiti has showed an interest in returning.
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