Photo: Sylvie Corriveau/Shutterstock

Volunteer Dispatch: Building Houses in Haiti

by David Korn Aug 11, 2011
Located 15 miles northeast of Port-au-Prince, Onaville is the site of a massive Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp that was established after the 2010 earthquake. Previously uninhabited because of the harsh terrain, the rocky, windswept plain is now speckled with hundreds of makeshift tents occupied by refugees that were forced to flee their destroyed homes.

I’d come to Onaville with a Chilean organization called Un Techo para mi País, a “non-profit organization that strives to improve the quality of life of impoverished families across Latin America through the construction of transitional housing and the implementation of social inclusion programs.”

We arrived at dusk. I was with Dana, Nadia, and a handful of other volunteers from across the US and Latin America. There were about a dozen of us foreigners, but most of the volunteers had come from across Haiti. Some of them were students at Haitian universities. Some of them came from families just as impoverished as the ones they had come to help.

Our driver told us about the political climate in Haiti as the pickup truck rumbled and jolted along the gravely road. Onaville is not recognized as a legitimate settlement, so the three thousand Haitians living in tents the size of a walk-in closet are on their own. As these families continue to lack water, electricity, and other basic resources, NGOs are actually barred from entering and providing aid, due to the ongoing territorial dispute (the government is only one of half a dozen parties who claim ownership of the land). This is where Un Techo works.

“The government refuses to help these people because they can’t get the paperwork straight,” one of the in-country directors later explained to me. “When they get the politics sorted out, then fine, we’ll leave. They can move our houses; they are temporary. But until then, we are going to respond to this humanitarian crisis.”

We stayed in an abandoned orphanage, a dilapidated cinder block building, camping out in the tents we’d brought with us. I awoke stiff and exhausted the first morning, and we gulped down some eggs that had been cooked over a stove in the rubble-strewn courtyard before splitting up into construction teams.

Each Un Techo house was a simple structure: a 6×3 meter wooden space complete with windows and a door, a plywood floor, and a corrugated tin roof. The whole thing was set upon wooden posts in order to raise the floor a couple feet above the ground. These houses were not huge, but they would provide much needed space for the families that had been forced to stuff ten into a tiny tent.

It began with holes. Dana and I chopped into the rocky earth with heavy metal poles, slamming the sharp end into the ground over and over again. Another person used a different tool to dig down and remove the loose rocks and earth, and then we repeated. Slamming down to loosen the soil and break rocks, then remove.

Then I was on my hands and knees with a tin can, scooping earth out, until I was lying on the ground reaching up to my shoulder into the hole to pull out those deeply embedded rocks. We dug holes and more holes as the sun traced through the sky and baked down on our bodies. Each house needed 15 holes, each of them two or three feet deep. A wooden post went in and painstaking measurements were taken with a tape, the post was pulled out, and we continued digging.

Finally, the first stake was plunged into the earth and the hole was filled with rocks, gravel, and dirt. In the opposite corner, the next stake was planted, and we used a tube filled with water to make sure the posts were level.

The sun hung high overhead, and an old woman watched us as we worked. After a little while I moved towards her tent to seek shade, but there was none. The woman offered me water.

“Kreyòl?” She asked me.
I shook my head. “English?”
She smiled. “Français?”
“Français, no…español?”
“Español, sí!”

This house was being built for her, she explained to me in Spanish as she carved me out a chunk of ice from a massive block. We introduced ourselves; she articulated a long name, but told me I could call her Rosemary.

She spoke slowly and carefully, and wrinkles creased her face every time she smiled. She used to live in Port-au-Prince, she told me, but she fled to this wasteland after she lost her house and her brother in the earthquake.

“Thinking about all I have lost breaks my heart,” she said with a sad smile. “But I trust in God.”

After she fed us lunch, she took me inside her tent to show me around. The space was tiny; there was a small cot, a few stools, and not much else. There was no floor; everything rested directly on the dust. The tarps that covered these “houses” were imprinted with the words “USAID: FROM THE AMERICAN PEOPLE.”

It was mid afternoon by the time all 15 posts had been planted into the earth. A pile of prefab wooden flooring and wall panels lay on the ground nearby, delivered earlier that day, and in teams of four or five we lifted the huge 3×3 meter floor panels and carried them over to the house-in-progress. Once the flooring was nailed into place, we carried the huge prefab wall panels over to the house and heaved them upright until they rested upon the edge of the floor. Thin braces were angled against both sides of each wall, crisscrossing inside the house.

In the evening, I climbed up to the roof of the orphanage to watch the sun fall behind the mountains. I was doing nothing here, I realized. They did not need me.

Perhaps the worst part is that so many of us seem to have forgotten about Haiti.

The Haitians moved around the construction site easily, tossing materials into place, while I tried to stand upright without fainting in the heat. 350 of them, a dozen of us—they didn’t need our help at all. With the language barrier and our lack of construction experience, I wondered if we only slowed them down.

One of the volunteer coordinators had addressed this the night before; though we would be part of the construction teams, he explained, we were not really here to help build. We were here to experience the reality that many Haitians live with every day; we were here to share the dreams for change.

Our true work would begin once we returned home.

When I arrived in Haiti, I was more than a little skeptical. I’d heard the stories about NGOs coming here and doing precious little to help, all the while enjoying the profits generated by running ad campaigns depicting the poverty. But it seemed like Un Techo was actually getting things right – “Each house is like a commitment,” Alejandro, one of the directors, told me. “It’s just the beginning. After we leave, other Un Techo volunteers stay to implement Stage 2: social inclusion programs that will help the community lift itself out of poverty.” Un Techo regularly holds builds across Latin America. If you want to witness the situation for yourself, or if you’re just interested in learning about the positive impact an NGO can have on a community, then you should consider checking out Un Techo para mi País.

Our time here wasn’t really about building houses; it was about sharing the reality that the people here live every day – extreme poverty, zero access to basic resources like electricity or running water, little hope for finding work, and no way of knowing when or if things might begin to improve.

Perhaps the worst part is that so many of us seem to have forgotten about Haiti. After the initial media reports have faded, so did Haiti fade from our minds. Yet the long struggle continues. I often found myself wondering how it was possible for such a striking disparity to exist between this place and my own country, the two only a few hundred miles away from one another.

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