Practicing Tikkun Olam in Haiti

With the rains coming, Israeli aid workers in Haiti are trying to figure out their next move.

by Micha Odenheimer

The Petitionville refugee camp, stretched across what was, before the earthquake, a country club for the Haitian elite, houses some 60,000 people – it’s the largest refugee camp for the earthquake victims in country. Thousands of tents, constructed of red, yellow, blue or orange tarp, cover the rolling hills of the camp like strange plastic flowers; in the distance, you can see the sea.

People from all over Port au Prince and from a cross section of Haitian society are living here – some come from crowded slums not much different than the camp, others are middle class families; all of their former lives, and often some of their closest relatives are buried in the rubble of their homes.

Amidst the crowded, precariously steep dirt pathways, there are unexpected sights – tents that have been converted into fledgling businesses – beauty parlors, tiny shops, bars – even one tent with a sign that reads “cyber café”, probably powered by a generator, as there is no electricity in the camp. The most popular image here, appearing even on some of the business signs, is a drawing of Haiti with an eye painted on it, turning the map into a face; a large teardrop is rolling down the country’s cheek.

There are thousands of children in the camp, but only one school, run by volunteers from the Israeli non-profit Tevel b’Tzedek, and funded by IsraAID, an umbrella organization of Israeli groups working in the developing world.

I founded Tevel b’Tzedek, which has been working with poor and marginalized communities in Nepal for the past three years through its service learning programs that combine volunteering with the study of poverty, Jewish social justice values and globalization.

The nine Israeli and US Jewish volunteers of “Tevel” have been here for the past two months. As I walk through the camp with them, they seem to know everyone, from the children to the US Marines providing camp security. There is an amazingly unlikely moment as we climb the steep hill towards the school – we meet a group of Nepali UN soldiers, and the Tevel Nepal graduates chat with them in Nepali – it seems like the harbinger of a new world.

Besides the schools, which reach 260 children, Tevel has put up community tents with programming for preschoolers, teenagers, and adults – the volunteers learned informal education techniques, like the use of theater, during previous stints with Tevel in Nepal, and are applying everything they learned to the even more chaotic reality of Haiti. They work using theater and song, local talent and local translators, and teach leadership techniques (“leadership means motivating people”) as well as health and geography.

During an art class, Yonatan, one of the volunteers, tells the kids to paint what is on their minds – one of them draws a picture of people screaming against the background of a collapsed building – this is a scene etched on his memory, right after the earthquake, he says.

My job is to figure out what to do next. With the rains and then typhoons coming, the camp is not safe, especially for those on the bottom of steep hills. The camp will empty out over the next few months. Should we go to work in the next phase of semi-permanent camps? Should we move to one of the villages, where we can also use Israel’s agriculture expertise to boost food production, a major priority in Haiti even before the earthquake?

J/P, an organization headed by the actor Sean Penn, is a major source in the camp. Penn himself has been here nearly continuously for the past two months. Last week, after the rains, he worked side by side with the Tevel b’Tzedek volunteers, taking instruction from Israeli army veterans about how to put up the tents.

Whatever one thinks of his radical politics, Penn is for real, working day in and day out in the hot sun, living in a tent himself. His people think we should stay with the refugee camps. “You guys are amazing,” Penn tells me. “You’re the hardware, we’re just a little piece of software,” I answer him.

Micha Odenheimer is the director of Tevel b’Tzedek. For the past two months, nine volunteers from Tevel b’Tzedek have been running the only school in the Petitionville refugee camp.

Tevel b’Tzedek projects are a component of the comprehensive aid program offered by IsraAID – the Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid – in Haiti which includes emergency medicine and relief, medical rehabilitation, micro finance, food production, water management and more. These projects are supported by the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, Jewish Federation of St. Louis, Jewish Federation of Washington, Jewish Federation of San Francisco, UJA – Federation of New York and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.