letter about the danger zone ahead in Haiti

Upon returning from Port au Prince, Jim Ansara, the founder and chairman of Shawmut Construction wrote diplomatically in his blog of the challenges and hardships facing Americans trying to help in Haiti: “Haiti is always great at giving you instant perspective about just how easy and secure a life most of us lead.” At dinner in Boston on Friday night he put it more bluntly: “Haiti just kicks your ass.”

Ansara is no stranger to challenge. He built Shawmut from scratch into one of the most successful construction companies in the country which builds restaurants and just about everything you can imagine. He climbs mountains and dives for lobsters which he catches with his hands. He and Karen are parents to four children.

The Ansara’s have been generous donors to Share Our Strength. Since selling the company to his employees three years ago, Jim has been exploring various options for deeper community engagement. He’d already been designing a new hospital in the Central Plateau region of Haiti for Partners in Health when the earthquake struck. He immediately flew some supplies to Miami and while there received a message from Walton saying “I need to you come help me in Port au Prince.”

Ansara spent the next 10 days restoring power, repairing generators, and building operating rooms. For half the time there, like everyone else, he had nowhere to stay. “At age 52 I just can’t sleep on the floor and the ground and go without sleep like I used to.” While he was doing that, Karen was in round-the-clock meetings back at the Boston Foundation to work out the details of a $1 million matching grant that she and Jim established to fund short and long-term Haiti rebuilding. They represent a rare combination of personal generosity and the literal sharing of strength.

Rosemary and I joined them for dinner at Turner Fisheries in Back Bay on Friday evening along with Partners in Health’s doctor David Walton and Heather Bedlion, a nurse, and Walton’s partner who went to Haiti for the first time for a week after the earthquake. It was a chance to step back and process what everyone had seen, and to brainstorm about how to help going forward. Jim wore a heavy fleece pullover, chilled from the contrast between Boston’s frigid weather and Haiti’s stifling heat.

As you’d imagine, our dinner discussion was all Haiti, all the time, including a 15 minute interlude when a Haitian man bussing tables overheard our conversation and proceeded to share his strongly held political opinions. Boston has the third largest Haitian community in the U.S. after Miami and New York. “Don’t give anything to the government. They take it all for themselves. I have property there but they have let six houses be built on it.” Embodying the complexity of the Haitian Diaspora, he’d only been back to Haiti once in 30 years.

“The real danger zone is the next month” explained Dr. Walton. “I’m worried about the complications caused by infection, homelessness, and poor nutrition. In the U.S. we often delay surgeries until nutritional status is improved. We’d never have done some of the operations here that we had to do in Haiti.”

“The amputees could number in the thousands. They will be incredibly marginalized. The unemployment rate in rural Haiti before the earthquake was 80%. Imagine trying to get a job as an amputee.” Heather told us of a mother who refused to let them amputate her daughter’s leg even though not doing so likely meant death. “Who would marry her then?” the mother asked?

We talked a lot about the challenges they encountered at the hospital of supporting Haitians but not being seen as taking. Haiti’s political and cultural history has made them acutely sensitive to such interference. There were times even during the height of the crisis when there was tension between the Haitian doctors and the many international docs who had come in and were used to doing things their way. “I have always sought to allow them to teach me before I teach them” explained David. The hospital seemed a microcosm for the even greater sensitivities and complexities that will be factors in going forward in building back better.

Dr. Walton is an amateur photographer and took more than 2000 photos, more than any other doctor there. We discussed how they might be used to help Haiti. Heather said “When you are invested in a place, when you’ve spent so much of your professional life there, and when you’ve lost so many people that you loved, that just comes out in the photographs. I really believe it makes the pictures different and people should see that. Even though David was involved as a doctor, he was still somewhat of a witness.”

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