Twin Cities group commemorating first anniversary of Haiti quake

One year later, a group of Minnesota residents and nonprofits are working to ensure that the plight of those devastated by the earthquake that rocked Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010 doesn’t fade from public consciousness. 

Konbit-MN/Haiti is organizing a “Bells for Haiti” event to take place on the one-year anniversary of the quake that left approximately 300,000 dead and 1.3 million homeless. 

At 3:53 p.m. on Jan. 12, Konbit is asking churches, schools, universities and city halls across the state to toll their bells in unison for 35 seconds. The timing and duration of the event are meant to correspond with the brief span of time during which so many lives were turned upside down last year. 

“We know that what happened in Haiti is bigger than one person or organization, but we want to honor the lives that were lost and also recognize the hundreds if not thousands of Minnesotans that stepped forward to help,” said Therese Gales, public affairs manager for the Loring Park-based American Refugee Committee. 

The ARC manages four camps of displaced Haitians that collectively house about 83,000 people and offer health care and clean water services.

Prior to opening the camps, the ARC organized an effort culminating in four cargo planes delivering 90,000 lbs of donated emergency medical and shelter supplies from Minneapolis to Port-au-Prince last Jan. 27.

The supplies “came mostly from corporations based here in Minneapolis,” Gales said. 

The ARC has about a $10 million budget for its work in Haiti. Gales said that the organization plans to maintain its presence in earthquake-ravaged regions “as long as there is a need and a role we can play.”

In Haiti, a konbit is a cooperative peasant work team that shares the work of community. The informal Twin Cities-based group bearing this name formed after 35 individuals representing 25 organizations with long-term interest in assisting Haiti met in a Minneapolis church last April. 

Uptown resident and Konbit member Ruth Anne Olson is part of a partnership from St. James Church Episcopal Church in Minneapolis that has traveled to Haiti numerous times, most recently in November of last year. The partnership helps finance a school located in the village of Biognet, though Olson says that the primary focus of the collaboration is simply to build relationships with Haitians. 

During her last trip to Haiti, Olson split her time between the rural mountain village of Biognet and Port-au-Prince. 

Though she wasn’t surprised by the extent of the destruction she observed, Olson said that she was impressed by the resiliency the Haitian people demonstrated as they put their lives back together in the midst of the massive destruction wrought by the quake. 

She said that despite the fact that almost every structure in Bigonet was destroyed by the quake, villagers didn’t wait for the government or NGOs to help them dig out. 

“What is astonishing to me is that they have, completely absent any government help whatsoever, cleared all the rubble with their hands and created rural tent cities in areas of the forest,” she said.

Though Bigonet’s school was destroyed, teachers and students resumed classes three months after the quake. Classes were initially simply held outside, but this summer a Finnish aid organization donated a massive one-room tent under which teachers instruct 300 students. A Lutheran social services organization has since helped the village construct nine temporary classrooms. 

Olson, 71, recently completed a book entitled Images of Haiti: Stories of Strength based on her travels. The book “is a collection of real people’s stories,” she said. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, located on the north end of Lake of the Isles, is hosting a reading, discussion, and book signing on Jan. 13 at 7 p.m.

Though the Bells for Haiti event is only symbolic, Olson believes it is important to remind people that much work remains to be done as an already poverty-stricken country struggles to deal with massive property damage and incipient public health crises.

“The Haitian government has been ineffective. There is certainly no question that the international aid community, too, has been largely ineffective” in responding to the quake, she said. 

But Jacqueline Regis, a Haitian-American attorney and author who has lived in the Twin Cities since 1983, said that for her, the Bells for Haiti event has a more basic meaning.

“It is not a political statement, it is simply a humanistic statement reminding Haiti that we stand with the people who continue to struggle there. It is definitely a reminder that we care about humanity and we continue to care about what happened to Haiti,” Regis said.