Her name is Yasmine Joachim. She is Haitian. Her skin is dark. It is, like her native land, blacker than a thousand midnights. She arrived in Detroit only a few weeks after what is perhaps the worst earthquake in her country’s history. And she has witnessed and endured pain and tribulation that most people cannot even begin to imagine.
The 26-year-old Yasmine was out shopping for a gift for her nephew when the 7.0 earthquake hit. It took about 38 seconds to destroy the house that she and eight members of her family lived in, but all of her family survived, and in that she is more fortunate than hundreds of thousands of her countrymen.
“Rev. Smith is one of the mission members to Haiti and he goes there all the time to help the people,” Yasmine said. “And he was the one to get me a visa to be able to come here.”
Even before the earthquake, about 80 percent of Haitians lived in abject poverty with unemployment hovering around the same percentage. But in the wake of the recent disaster, Haiti is immersed in “a perfect storm” of human suffering and need.
It’s been almost two months since the devastating earthquake, but the dire and deadly situation in Haiti is still catastrophic. Basic human necessities like shelter, medical care, food, water and clothing are lacking, unavailable or out of reach. These shortages are not recent developments but have plagued the small nation for centuries, but in the wake of the disastrous quake, millions of lives hang in the balance with each second.
Rev. Robert Smith is pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church located on Linwood Avenue in the heart of Detroit’s west side. It is a ministry steeped in the best tradition of the Black church. The legendary Rev. C.R. Franklin led the church throughout the ’60s and ’70s and used the pulpit to pursue freedom and justice for oppressed people.
Rev. Smith began making humanitarian trips to Haiti in 2004. He met Yasmine the same year in the aftermath of hurricanes Ivan and Jean and was impressed by her intelligence and compassion. He facilitated her transition from Haiti to the U.S. and she currently resides with Rev. Smith, his wife and family in Detroit.
Smith is a large, portly man who speaks with the authority of someone that not only has seen hardship and human misery and folly but has, (with the help of God), triumphed over them. One cannot be a pessimist or a cynic and be an effective church leader and minister of God. And after spending time in Smith’s presence, one senses he is a perennially hopeful man, although his optimism does not diminish his powers of evaluation.
“Other people are planning what Haiti is going to be from now on,” said Smith. “And they’re leaving out the Haitians. There have been economic summits planning the future of Haiti and President Rene Preval was not invited to the summit. That’s something to think about. But if they think that the Haitians are going to lie down they’ve got another thought coming.”
Haiti has a glorious history of standing up. It was the second republic in the western hemisphere to fight against tyranny and win its independence. (The United States was the first.). And its people seem to remain strong in spirit despite the incredible catastrophes they’ve endured throughout the centuries. The earthquake is only the latest in a sequence of events and machinations-political, economic, and otherwise-that has undermined and destroyed Haiti’s vibrancy as a nation.
According to Rev. Smith, the Haitians have suffered a blockade around their nation for over 100 years. They have also been the target of extortion and usurious loans from European banks, yet they will not allow their nation to become a tourist attraction for the benefit of outsiders and corporate-owned hotel chains while Haitians are shut out from sharing in development and profits.
Even in the midst of the incredible outpouring of money and supplies to Haiti there is criticism that these desperately needed resources are being misappropriated and not getting to the people it is intended for. Yet, Rev. Smith encourages people to continue to open their hearts and give.
For although all of the help that is sent may not make it to those who need it most, if we allow this to discourage us many will die who might have lived.
“There are no jobs there right now,” said Yasmine. “So I came over here so that I can be able to work and go to nursing school and then go back to Haiti and help. The spirit of the Haitian people is strong but sometimes they get discouraged.”
March is the beginning of the three-month rainy season in Haiti and because of the gross lack of shelter and sanitation, the waters could cause diseases like malaria and other plagues to develop. The country is in desperate need of housing materials, latrines, water purifiers and sanitation supplies.
“Haiti has poverty, illiteracy, overcrowding, no infrastructure, environmental disaster and large areas without the rule of law,” said historian Alex von Tunzelmann. “And that was before the earthquake. This is a catastrophe beyond our worst imagination.”
The tragedy in Haiti and the help that is needed there is ongoing, and it is how we respond to this need which will act as a barometer of our faith and of our very humanity.
“To indicate that one cultivates the presence of God does not necessitate the outer symbols of the pious look, the somber clothes, the ostentatiously carried Bible, the dangling cross,” wrote the late, great Adam Clayton Powell Jr. “But it does necessitate the bringing of more beauty, truth and goodness into the world and into the lives of others — of all peoples in all places, wherever one can find them or their need.”
Steven Malik Shelton is a writer and human rights advocate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org