Confronting Haiti’s Trauma
Moving past physical relief to repair the national psyche
by Audra Jennings Tuesday, May 11, 2010
It is difficult for anyone—but particularly for us in the U.S.—to comprehend the scale of what happened in Haiti. The destruction was widespread, affecting every department (region) of the small nation. By way of comparison, imagine fifty Hurricane Katrinas spreading devastation to every state in the U.S. Even then, it is likely the U.S. infrastructure would make for comparatively efficient relief and rebuilding efforts.
Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Its people are accustomed to suffering. But the effects of the quake have been far more shocking, more destabilizing than anything Haiti has suffered before. The psychological effects of trauma this great have been well documented. Symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can range in severity from depression and anxiety to suicide. More than anything, this kind of trauma has a way of freezing victims in time, trapping them in the emotions of their darkest moments.
Trauma is an immobilizing force. Until victims begin to heal from it, many will not be able to move forward with their lives. How can a nation tackle the mammoth task of rebuilding when half its citizens struggle to sleep each night?
Even compared to other PTSD victims, Haitians face unique challenges. When people survive the trauma of a plane crash or car accident, they are rarely forced to walk past the burned out hull of the plane or the totaled vehicle on their way to work each morning. At this point, the Haitian people have no escape from the evidence of their trauma. Haiti’s president has publicly predicted that cleanup and rebuilding efforts will take as many as three years. The streets overflow with the rubble. Everywhere the people look, they see reminders that buildings fall. Is it any wonder that so many Haitians—including the affluent and educated—are still sleeping in the streets? Though some have homes that survived the quake, they cannot bring themselves to go back inside. Children will not venture inside a school. Climbing to a second story is particularly nerve-wracking.
Dr. Dieumeme Noelliste, professor of Theological Ethics at Denver Seminary, recently returned from a pastors’ conference held in Haiti, where he ministered to a group of people he believes will be instrumental in helping the nation to process and move forward from its trauma. In Haitian Creole, it would be said that Noelliste is “Haitian natis natal,” a Haitian of Haitians. He was born in the heart of Haiti in the region Arti Bonita, north of Port-au-Prince. Like so many of Haiti’s middle and intellectual classes, Noelliste has spent the greater part of his career away from his homeland. After studying law in Haiti in the 1970s, he moved to the United States to study theology and stayed there for ten years until he had completed his doctorate.
From there, his calling took him back to the Caribbean, but not to Haiti. He spent 20 years in Jamaica at the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology. Since the mid-1990s, he has served on the board of
Seminary of Evangelical Theology of Port-au-Prince. As vice-chairman, he travels to Haiti every year.
Noelliste recognizes that Haitian pastors and other Christians are being called on as never before to minister to the suffering. Few pastors or ministries in Haiti have ever had access to training in trauma and grief counseling. That’s why he has been instrumental in the creation and distribution of a free Haiti trauma kit from David C Cook (DCC), a nonprofit organization located in Colorado Springs, CO. DCC is offering the kit free of charge to pastors, ministries, and international aid workers in Haiti, as well as to ministry leaders serving Haitian immigrants in the U.S. The content includes five pieces tailored to address the Haitian experience. Several pieces that were used successfully to reach survivors of the Rwanda genocide have been adapted for Haitian audiences. The kit also includes two titles just for children.
Even as they experience the psychological effects of living through the quake, many are also dealing with the reality of living without their loved ones who perished. The circumstances of these deaths have made them even harder to accept. No society, let alone a poor nation, could be prepared for the scale of death and destruction Haiti has suffered. The 250,000 dead far outnumbered the available coffins. Bodies were stacked on the sides of streets and disposed of in ways that stripped them of all human dignity.
“When people died before, you had a sense of closure because you could see them buried,” says Noelliste. “Now there are thousands of people who don’t even know what happened to their loved ones or if they’ve been buried or disposed of.”
Many families suffered multiple losses. “A pastor at a conference in Port-au-Prince last month stumbled into my arms and hugged me and cried,” Noelliste says. “He had lost five members of his family in different places around the city. He held on to me and wouldn’t let go. He passed his pain on to me, and I cried. People are desperate for ways to deal with soul pain and panic.”
Because Haiti is a desperately poor nation, many relief organizations and ministries from around the world maintain programs there. Noelliste appreciates the international assistance—in fact, two of his colleagues, therapists from Denver Seminary, served on the advisory board for DCC’s trauma kit—but he also points out the importance of Haitian leaders who are ministering to their own people.
In Noelliste’s view, no outsiders, no matter how sincere their intentions or extensive their study of Haitian culture, can understand a Haitian view of life like the Haitian can. To help people move forward from trauma, counselors will need to address the Haitian psyche and to initiate difficult conversations.
“The Haitian pastor is best suited to meet the needs of his people. There are things that Haitian pastors can say to grieving Haitians that people on the outside cannot say,” says Noelliste. “I should know. I spent 20 years in Jamaica, and even then—as a black man and a native of the Caribbean—I was still an outsider. There were still things I could not say to Jamaicans. When it comes to the quake, its aftermath, and the trauma it has caused to the Haitian people as a whole, it takes someone who can penetrate the mindset, the inner mentality, the psyche of the people to be truly effective. This is how human beings are. Even in the U.S., my second country these days, I have to be careful what I say. Cultural sensitivities must be taken into account if we are to communicate effectively. Otherwise, people will just tune us out.”
In spite of Haiti’s overwhelming need, Noelliste is encouraged by his homeland’s opportunity to rebuild. “I believe with all my heart that the Haitian people long for a level of leadership that can empathize, inspire, and provide vision for a better future. To me, this is our greatest need at this time, and I must say that I can sense it in my interactions with people. At a meeting with a group of ministers, my colleagues and I challenged them to seize the opportunity of this moment to begin making positive changes in Haiti. Many said they don’t feel the presence of leadership, someone who addresses the nation, soothes the people, and casts a vision.”
More than anything, Noelliste says, Haitians need leadership at a national and local level who will help to fight the feeling of despair that seems to have a nation in its grip. Several months after the quake, some areas still appear as if the quake happened yesterday. The faster those areas can be rebuilt and improved, the sooner people will find their way past debilitating trauma.
In Noelliste’s view, one good thing about the tragedy has been the media’s interest in the Haitian people. “Now they are saying, ‘Tell us more about you.’ Haiti has a proud history. This country of poor slaves was the first to light the flame of freedom for enslaved people in the West. Our middle class contributes to cultures and economies around the world. And back in Haiti, it has taken a resilient people to survive such misery and poverty. This is the character of the Haitian people. If we fail to seize the opportunity of this moment to rebuild and revitalize our nation, the 250,000 who perished in the quake will have died in vain.”
Photos available upon request. For more information contact Diane Morrow 800-927-1517 firstname.lastname@example.org
Audra Jennings is Senior Media Specialist at The B & B Media Group. Since 1987, The B & B Media Group, Inc. has used its broadcasting, marketing and advertising experience to provide the specialized and strategic publicity necessary to achieve the public relations goals of each client. The Barnabas Agency, a division of The B & B Media Group, Inc., is a proven provider of exceptional public relations and personal management services for authors, speakers, ministries and organizations.
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