Sunday 25 September 2016

Kim Bielenberg: "We might think we have it tough at home, but spend any time in Haiti and you quickly realise how privileged we are"

Published 27/11/2012 | 10:11

Niamh McDonnell from Mallow, Co. Cork at the Haven site
Niamh McDonnell from Mallow, Co. Cork at the Haven site

COLM HOLMES, an engineer from Co. Carlow, persuaded 25 of his male friends to take part in a sponsored leg wax to pay for his trip to Haiti.

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Others volunteers did raffles, quizzes and mountain cycle rides.

What kind of person signs up to fly across the Atlantic to build houses for some of the poorest people in the world?

The volunteers who travelled with Haven for this week's construction blitz include high-powered lawyers, Gardai, soldiers, a fireman, county council officials, and a man who organises Antarctic cruises.

Some are close to retirement age and work relentlessly in the searing heart from early morning until dusk, lifting blocks and planks and hammering in nails.

Bernadette Costello, a teacher from Tralee, said a visit to the slums of Haiti was an "absolute culture shock".

"You become aware that we in Ireland are among the privileged few," Bernadette told me. "If you have a square meal and a roof over your head you are privileged. Many of the people of Haiti are the poorest of the poor."

There is a strong camaraderie among the volunteers. They live in tents together, eat and work together. Many have made strong friendships, returning year after year.

This is the last time that volunteers will travel out to Haiti to build houses for Haven. The charity now wants to concentrate on employing Haitians on its construction, water and sanitation projects.

Yesterday afternoon I was due to go on a trip away from the building site to the heart of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Expatriate workers here do not drive, but are usually transported by armed guards.

Pierre, a Haitian ex-soldier who drives for Haven, warned us that there was a general strike on. Protests flare up at the drop of a hat here, and reports were filtering out to our camp of cars being stoned and set on fire.

We set off any way, and there was little sign of riotous scenes when we reached the capital.

John Moore, Haven's country director, took us to an old disused, derelict soccer stadium that became a tented city after the 2010 earthquake. Haiti’s national team used to play some of their international matches here.

Haven is working to restore the sports ground as a community park.

Amid all the squalor there are signs of hope. Volunteers who came a year ago told me that there had been some improvement in conditions. A lot of the rubble from the earthquake has finally been cleared.

John Moore took us to the Marche de fer, a popular old covered market area selling a hotch-potch of bric-a-brac in the centre.

The market was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake, but then rebuilt by Denis O'Brien, whose red Digicel logo can be seen everywhere in Port-au-Prince.

High up on the hills there are shops that would not look out of place in a European suburb. Here a sole Domino's pizza franchise is a sign that we are in an affluent area.

Elsewhere little has changed since the earthquake. The emergency tarpaulins bearing the logo "US Aid", which were supplied after the disaster, can still be seen protecting families from the elements almost three years later.

Haven is seeking donations. For more information:

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