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Aid to Haiti - Tzu Chi gets involved

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Aid to Haiti
Tzu Chi gets involved
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Tzu Chi gets involved
This disaster and the story of the clay cakes made international news. With the assistance of Hsu Mien-sheng (徐勉生), the Taiwanese ambassador to Haiti, and Envoy Qi Wang-de (齊王德), Tzu Chi volunteers from the United States arrived in Haiti at the end of November to size up the situation. They decided to hold a large-scale aid distribution while assessing the feasibility of educational and medical assistance to the nation.

Actually, the love of Tzu Chi volunteers had already reached Haiti ten years earlier. In 1998, Hurricane Georges swept across the Caribbean, ravaging many countries in Central and South America. Tzu Chi promptly responded with a clothing drive and sent 60 cargo containers of cleaned and neatly folded used clothes to the area. Four of the containers went to Haiti.

On January 14, 2009, volunteers from the United States, St. Martin, and the Dominican Republic arrived at École Nationale Republique du l’Uruguay/Guatemala, the school whose name alternates with time of day to honor its two benefactors. It would serve as one of the two Tzu Chi distribution sites.

When the volunteer group arrived, the malodorous school restrooms immediately caught everyone’s attention. Volunteers dug holes, scooped feces out of the restrooms into the holes, and finally packed the dirt back in the holes.

They picked up scattered garbage and filled potholes on the school grounds to facilitate a smooth delivery of aid items into the school for distribution.

The students were curious about the strangers. Some tried to talk to the volunteers, and some just squatted and looked on. Then a boy picked up a piece of trash, and immediately several others followed suit. Volunteer Mu Jia-hui (穆家蕙) put her newly acquired French to use: “Merci! Thank you,” something that every child understood. Perhaps in the future, some of the children will pick up rubbish on campus or on the street when they see it.

The volunteers were almost ready for the distribution, but not quite.

Extraordinary, Act I—Not doing it for oneself
To make the relief distribution to 3,300 families as smooth as possible, members of the Tzu Chi advance team, employees of Overseas Engineering & Construction Co. (OECC), and local volunteers had to gear up first.

The volunteers needed to pack aid items into 6,600 buckets, and they had just four and a half days to complete this task. So everyone hustled to fill each bucket from piles of items like rice, corn meal, cooking oil, sugar, and dental hygiene packs. Blankets made from recycled PET bottles were too bulky, so they weren’t packed in a bucket. At the end of the assembly line, a lid was hammered on each filled bucket.

Many people worked long hours, from early morning, through 30° Celsius (86°F) heat during the day, until late at night, taxing their stamina to the limit. Though they were exhausted, they didn’t complain.

“I’m doing this for my country, not for money. Do you understand?” This remark came from a local volunteer, who said that he used to care about making money above all else. Through his time working with volunteers, he had experienced unselfish and unsophisticated happiness. Others had similar satisfaction: Some OECC drivers went to help with the distribution preparation whenever they weren’t needed at work, even after hours.

This was quite a departure from the norm in Haiti. Danel explained, “As a rule, individual people in my nation take good care of their own personal well-being. However, few of them work together towards societal or group well-being. We need more spiritual upbringing [like this].”

Cheers erupted among the 46 people who took part in the prep work when the 6,600th and last lid was hammered on its bucket. The participants could not easily communicate with each other since they spoke different languages. However, having toiled through the preparation together, they seemed to have developed a unique language of mutual understanding and bonding that made oral communication redundant.

Extraordinary, act II—Orderly distributions
Two distributions took place on January 15 and 16, at École Nationale Republique du l’Uruguay/Guatemala and École Foyer Culturel Saint-Vincent de Paul. Distribution claim checks had gone out beforehand to the eligible families. Many people could not believe that, with that little claim check, they were going to receive a month’s worth of supplies free of charge.

Some people couldn’t wait. About a hundred of them showed up almost three hours before the event was due to open. The venue suddenly became crowded and disorganized. Tzu Chi volunteers, with the help of translators, quickly turned the four huddling clusters of people into a single line. Order was established before it had a chance to spin out of control.

Order is a rare commodity in this nation. However, now the recipients were queuing up in an orderly long line. Nobody was jockeying for an advantageous spot to grab supplies before they ran out. Nobody needed to. This was the first time that many of them had experienced such tranquility during a distribution.

Prior distributions given by other groups were not like this in the least. Typically they didn’t so much unload their aid goods as jettison them off their trucks and take off, leaving behind a chaos of pushing and shoving. And the result was almost always the strongest people getting the bulk of the goods. The infirm and the elderly—those in most need of help—ended up with little or nothing. Soon, a culture of “survival of the fittest” emerged, and it has pervaded the nation ever since.

Tzu Chi volunteers did not just heft aid goods out of the trucks and leave. Quite on the contrary, they carefully and respectfully put them in the hands of the recipients. “These ‘white people’ respect us—they bow to us when they give us things!” a recipient exclaimed. Aid recipients were amazed by this display of humility.

David Chang (張士錡), deputy general manager of OECC in Haiti, remarked that in less than two months Tzu Chi volunteers had completed everything from damage assessment to aid distribution. It was proof enough that Tzu Chi really meant to help, and the locals knew it.

Danel said to Tzu Chi volunteers, “You have brought us food not only for our stomachs but also for our spirits. I see your love and respect in the faces of my fellow countrymen.” He pointed at his compatriots who were walking out of the school with buckets of goods. He believed that when the seeds of goodness sown by Tzu Chi spread and take root in Haiti, the country will definitely change for the better.