Let’s focus concern on Haiti, where Isaac threatens vulnerable families

My mouth dropped open when I read the words of ABC News reporter Amy Bingham in an article about the potential effect Tropical Storm Isaac could have on the city of Tampa as the Republican National Convention kicks off there on Monday. Most of the commenters on news stories like this made fun of the fact a storm was bearing down on a group of Republicans.

A family in the southern mountains of Haiti
Nadѐge Moise and her family live in a rural village in the mountains of Southern Haiti, an area that has been severely damaged by hurricanes. Tropical Storm Isaac is expected to bring 12-20 inches of rain to this area this weekend.

But my shock was over the complete lack of regard for the people of Haiti who are in real danger.

“Under the best case scenario, the storm could smash into the mountains of Haiti … then the weakened storm could sweep over the Bahamas and swirl off the east coast of Florida … missing Tampa…” wrote Bingham.

Seriously? A storm smashing into the mountains of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere is the “best case scenario”?

I was just in those mountains of Southern Haiti in June. There are families and communities in those mountains who are extremely vulnerable to storms like this. They all talked of the terrible flooding that overtook their homes and villages in 2008 when four hurricanes hit Haiti. They are terrified of disasters, and because of their remote rural location in these mountains, most of them probably don’t even know another storm is coming their way.

I was glad today to see NBC News and a few others focusing on the danger to Haiti. If Isaac continues on its current path and strengthens into a hurricane, it will likely cause much damage to the homes and lives of the millions of people who live in Haiti.

World Concern is preparing staff members in Haiti and gathering emergency supplies to respond.

Kids near a canal in Southern Haiti.
Children in Côtes-de-Fer, a village near Bainet, along the southern coast of Haiti, stand near a canal built by World Concern in 2010. The canal is part of a disaster risk reduction project and is designed to direct rainwater away from homes and into the ocean.

We’ve also been working to reduce the risk to communities in this region, like Côtes-de-Fer, a village near Bainet, along the southern coast of Haiti. We worked with community members to build a canal in 2010 that is designed to direct large amounts of rainwater away from homes and into the ocean.

“The water used to flood my house,” said Dieudonné Felix, who lives in Côtes-de-Fer. “The last time it rained, the rainwater went straight to the sea. This is a big improvement.”

But even communities with canals are at risk because Isaac is expected to dump more than 12 inches of rain—possibly up to 20 inches—on Haiti today and tomorrow.

Please join me in praying for the people of Haiti, World Concern staff and others who work in this area, and all who will be affected by this storm.

Learn more about our disaster response work, and partner with us to bring immediate help to families in need.

Dream of safe housing in Haiti is closer than before earthquake

In response to Deborah Sontag’s investigative report on the state of housing for earthquake survivors in Haiti, I wanted to expound on why building permanent homes is so challenging and revisit the idea of transitional shelters (T-shelters) and repairing damaged homes as ways to provide shelter for the homeless after a disaster.

Inside a T-shelter in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Twelve extended family members live in this home, two T-shelters built side-by-side, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The home has a concrete foundation, wood walls on the upper half and a metal roof.

In countries like Haiti, between one-third and one-half of the urban population lives in informal slums, essentially trespassing on government or private property. Many of these shelters are well below the minimum humanitarian standards to which aid agencies adhere. While working in informal settlements in Port-au-Prince, World Concern found that many people preferred the cramped quarters of a one-room shelter for large, extended families over the option of moving out of the city, away from jobs, transit and markets. In other words, moving people to outlying areas where large pieces of land might be developed for housing is not the best solution.

T-shelters are intended to last three years, with the understanding that a permanent housing solution will not be available before that time. It is important to note that the alternative is replacement tents every six months, which would cost approximately the same amount over the same time.

World Concern was one of several agencies that focused our work on repairing more than 2,000 damaged “yellow”-coded houses. Where houses could not be repaired, World Concern developed T-shelters with a permanent foundation, providing homeowners with a solid beginning on which they could build earthquake resistant housing within their own means.

An independent report prepared for USAID concluded that, of the 894,588 people who fled to camps in the days after the earthquake, more than 85% had returned to their homes by May 2011. This report concluded that there are many in the camps who are “hoping to take advantage of the aid; not necessarily renters.” This same study showed that yellow and green houses had a return rate of more than 95%, including renters.

One of the key contributions of foreign aid was the removal of more than 5 million cubic meters of rubble from the streets, walkways and private properties of Port-au-Prince. More than 50% of homes would not have been accessible without this work, and the cleared roads have enabled construction crews to rebuild more quickly.

Inside a repaired home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
An earthquake victim stands inside his home, which was yellow-coded after the earthquake. World Concern repaired the damage so he could move back in safely.

Demolition of condemned buildings is not only expensive, but it’s a time consuming process. Many of these buildings are multi-story rental units or larger homes of wealthy families. Some of the latter have left town or even left the country, leaving a condemned building with no hope for new opportunities. Other landowners want the demolition to occur, but are not willing to accept single family units on their plot of land, preferring rather to wait until they have enough funds to replace the multi-story complex they once had.  Land rights are an important part of democratic rule of law. If a former landlord refuses to rebuild, or to accept the affordable housing solutions offered by aid agencies, that is their prerogative.

It also takes time to work with the government to implement aid. Before the earthquake, Haiti did not have an urban redevelopment plan, so agencies have worked with the government to ensure an enforceable strategy is in place, rather than willy-nilly construction which creates a new hazard for the future. This strategy, while slow, is seen as the only way to prevent the cycle of calamity repeating itself again.

After the 2004 earthquake in Banda Aceh, it took more than five years to replace 140,000 homes. After two years, Port-au-Prince is only just shy of the same average rate of construction, with most of the heavy lifting already done.

While there is much more to do, the dream of safe housing is much closer for most Haitians than it was before the tragic events of 2010.

Pondering home in Somaliland

Recently I’ve been thinking about home. This happens every time I travel, and I know I’ve been on the road too long when I hear Michael Bublé in my head, “Paris and Rome, but I wanna go home…”

But my recent trip to Somaliland made me think of home in a different way. As a self-proclaimed “global nomad,” I like to say that I can be at home anywhere, but honestly that’s not true. I can survive anywhere for a period of time, but changing beds every two nights for three weeks is not enjoyable, and coming home to an empty room is lonely. (Queue the Bublé…)

Somaliland nomads
A nomadic family on the move in Somaliland.

In Somaliland, I spent time with real nomads. Not only do they move with their herds of camels and goats from place to place in search of water, they often do this away from all other social contact for weeks, maybe months at a time. My wife and I may not see our family very often, but at least we have church, colleagues, and neighbors. True nomads just keep moving, but in Somaliland that is changing.

Years of drought and desertification, coupled with conflict, are making the nomadic way of life much more risky. Rains are fewer and far between. I’ve visited places that get rain two or three days per year. Ironically, so much rain falls that day that it causes walls of water 15 feet high to roar down dry river beds, washing away whole families. Between the constant wind and these flash floods, soil is eroded away and the high central plains are mostly bare rock, with a few inedible shrubs.

Driving across this expanse of desert, not passing a vehicle for days, it is easy to see the comfort of the nomadic life, as well as the struggle for existence. It’s very peaceful—just a few wild animals, the sky, vast stretches of land, quietly grazing herds. But the daily trek for water can be 30 or 40 miles, and there is no health care, no education, no places of worship. You live alone, and you will likely die alone. Why then does this way of life persist? Why is it so heartbreaking to see nomadic families lose everything, and be forced to live in villages, where they make less than 50 cents a day?

It’s about home. Home is not your living quarters, whether a hotel room, a grand palace, or a bundle of sticks and a tarpaulin. Home is not who you’re with, but who you miss. Home is about a sense of purpose, a feeling of well-being, regardless of services and amenities that are available. Home truly is “where the heart is.” But what does this have to do with me and Somaliland?

Donkey in Somaliland carrying firewood
Donkeys carry firewood and jerry cans in Somaliland.

In disaster recovery theory, we do not accept that we can enable a return to pre-event conditions. This is especially true in slow-onset disasters like droughts, where it is difficult to even set a time and place which is accepted as normal. Rather, there is a move towards building a new normal—a safer, more resilient, and more risk-adverse normal. In Somaliland, this means smaller herds, diverse income sources, and improved rangeland and water management. Technically sound, but for the old man who just wishes he could die the way he was born, on an open plain to the sound of camel bells and the blowing wind, it’s hooey. Recovery must be something you can believe in.

In my mind, recovering from a disaster is about accepting a new sense of the word normal, and embracing a future that is quite different from the past. It’s about acknowledging the inevitable march of progress, and anticipating the opportunity for previously unknown joys. It’s about coming home to a new home.

Seeing Beauty in Haiti

Children walking home from school in Port au Prince, Haiti.
School children in clean, pressed uniforms walk home from school in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

It is beautiful here in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. That’s not something I imagine many Americans say on their first visit to this city—the poorest in the western hemisphere and home to about 3 million people. I expected it to be ugly, foul-smelling, really hot (which it is), and scary.

Blue skies blanket this city, and blooming fuchsia-colored bougainvillea drape over concrete walls that protect homes and buildings from the chaos on the other side. The smell of spicy grilled street food fills the air. Narrow, unpaved roads wind through hilly neighborhoods. The streets are clogged with honking vehicles and pedestrians who seem oblivious to cars and trucks swerving around them at terrifying speeds. Sidewalks are lined with vendors selling everything from shoes to dish soap.

But these are not the things that make it beautiful here.

This is the kind of beauty Isaiah describes in 61:3—the kind that comes out of ashes. Much of Port-au-Prince was reduced to dust in 2010 after a powerful earthquake crumbled its fragile cinder block structures. The city became a massive concrete grave for 230,000 people.

There are still piles of rubble every few blocks. Things have been cleaned up, but at first glance, it looks as though not much has been rebuilt.

To me, the chaos here is beautiful. The people here are beautiful—children in pressed uniforms and women carrying huge baskets filled with heavy loads on their heads. Mothers washing children’s clothing in metal tubs of soapy water.  Families are starting over, making homes out of simple shelters.

Elias and Louis in their home in Port au Prince, Haiti.
Elias (right) and Louis live with 10 other family members in the home World Concern provided for them. They say the help was a "gift from God."

The concrete floor is swept clean and the bed is neatly made in the home of Elias and Louis, a precious couple in their late fifties who welcomed us in, offered us a seat on the bed, then put on their best clothes to have their photos taken. A thin curtain separates the two shelters that were built together by World Concern so that the family of 12 could all live together. Their home is one of more than 3,000 World Concern has built or repaired after the earthquake.

They are retired teachers who lost their home in the earthquake. Louis rested her hand on her husband’s to try and still his trembling caused by Parkinson’s disease. Elias got tears in his eyes as he talked about their life, their losses, and the blessing their home has been.

“It is a gift from God,” he said. “After the earthquake, first God saved us, then World Concern helped us.”

Our eyes met and our hearts connected as we shook hands and thanked them for sharing their story and inviting us into their home.

“God bless you,” said Louis, in perfect English.

Beauty for ashes.

Strength for fear. Joy for mourning. Praise instead of despair.

Elias and Louis—and thousands of others who are starting over from nothing—are living examples of the “display of His splendor.”

We join with them in thanking God for the transformation that is happening in Haiti.

“Not to us, Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.” Psalm 115:1

Resurgence of displaced families creates new crisis near Kenya-Somalia border

Maria Abdi and her children in the Horn of Africa.
Maria Abdi and her children are among those recently arriving in the border town of Dhobley, Somalia.

Maria Abdi arrived in Dhobley, Somalia, with her five children and nothing but the clothes on their backs. She fled her hometown of Afmadow because there was no work there and the children were hungry. A relative paid her way to travel to Dhobley after Maria pleaded with them, having heard there was assistance here. But there was a charge for luggage and she couldn’t afford it, so she came empty-handed.

“I need everything a human being needs—all the basic necessities,” she said.

Maria’s family is among a new influx of arrivals in Dhobley, a transit point near the border for those traveling from Somalia to the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya.

World Concern has been responding to the crisis in Dhobley since August, but staff members are seeing a sudden sharp increase in new arrivals. Ongoing drought and conflict in other parts of Southern Somalia are to blame for the influx. However, some people are returning from the refugee camps in Dadaab, citing insecurity and lack of food and other support in the camps as the reason for leaving.

“We visited the areas where families are settling in Dhobley and conditions are bad,” said World Concern Africa Director Buck Deines. “Most live in very temporary shelters, inadequate to protect them from the harsh weather. In some cases the shelters are nothing more than sticks and mosquito nets. We saw the interiors of several shelters, and in most cases, the families have no supplies of any kind.”

Deines estimates there are approximately 12,000 people that have settled in makeshift camps and are in immediate need of help. World Concern is planning to distribute vouchers that will supply families with a two-week supply of food, as well as emergency supplies like tarps, blankets, cooking pots, water jugs and more. However, additional funding is needed to respond immediately.

World Concern has been supporting people affected by the famine and drought in the Horn of Africa for nine months, and the recent increase in displaced families presents an urgent need.

Khayro Yussuf sits inside her shelter made from faded garments and held together by rope. Two metal cups are the only possessions inside her tent, except for an orange flask, which a relative uses to bring her tea.

A shelter in Dhobley, Somalia
Families arriving in Dhobley are living in temporary shelters like this one, made of sticks and a mosquito net.

She fled her village after three of her brothers and her uncle were killed in front of her. Khayro and her children came to Dhobley, fearing for their lives.

She received some food rations, but when she put it on a donkey cart, the owner of the cart took off with her only food. “When he realized I was not a resident and that I didn’t know where to go, he ran away with it,” she said.

Shortly after arriving, Khayro sent her son to Dadaab. “I was afraid he would be absorbed by militia … I never wanted my son to carry a gun or to join such kinds of groups,” she said.

Her daughter is staying with her in Dhobley. “If she is to die, she will die here with me,” said Khayro.

To learn more about the current situation in the Horn of Africa or to donate, please visit www.worldconcern.org/crisis.

An IDP in Dhobley, Somalia
Khayro Yussuf fled her village after family members were killed in front of her. She arrived in Dhobley with few belongings and no food.

Crisis is brewing in the Sahel

Sahel map showing drought and malnutrition
A UN map shows areas of the Sahel affected by drought in pink. Red circles indicate expected cases of severe malnutrition in 2012.

There’s a crisis brewing in the Sahel – a swath of dry land that cuts through Central Africa. The people who live in the Sahel are familiar with crisis. They face ongoing challenges – armed conflicts, drought, poverty and lack of resources.

It rarely rains in parts of the Sahel. Nevertheless, entire populations are dependent on rain-fed crops for survival. The rains this past season were less than average and sporadic. Crops failed, food prices soared, and now, the UN is alerting the world to a looming food crisis.

In Chad, where World Concern works with families displaced by the Darfur war and conflicts within Chad, a million and a half people are at risk of hunger. The UN estimates that 127,000 children under the age of 5 will be affected by severe acute malnutrition this year in Chad’s Sahel region.

A mother in Chad with her donkey plow.
A mother in Chad gets ready to plow her field with her donkey plow she received from World Concern.

The lean season—the period between harvests when families depend on stored food from the previous harvest—is expected to be the most severe in years.

World Concern’s programs in Chad provide families with farming tools, training and seeds to grow drought-resistant crops. Now is the time to respond to this growing crisis and help families survive the lean season, and prepare for the next harvest.

You can help save lives and prevent this crisis from worsening. Click here to donate.

Horn of Africa crisis is far from over

World Concern is expanding its drought response in the Horn of Africa into several new communities near the Kenya-Somalia border, reaching a larger number of displaced, hungry families and refugees who often travel through or settle in these towns. We’re providing vouchers for emergency food, supplies and access to water through repaired wells, rehabilitated water pans and construction of rainwater catchment systems in these unreached communities.

Despite the declaration by the United Nations on Feb. 3, 2012 that official famine conditions have ended in Somalia, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says there are still 9.5 million people in need throughout the Horn of Africa. In Somalia, 2.3 million people are still suffering the effects of drought and ongoing conflict, and in Kenya, 4.3 million need assistance.

Habon Farah with her 9-month-old twins
Habon Farah and her 9-month-old twins fled their hometown in southern Somalia because of drought and famine.

Among those we’ve helped is 23-year-old Habon Farah, a mother of 9-month-old twins who fled her hometown of Jilib, Somalia, and traveled on foot 155 miles to Dhobley.

Habon says she left Jilib because her family was hungry. There had been no harvest for three years, according to officials in the area. Although she hopes for a better life for her children, right now, her biggest concern is survival. We met her in a crowded tent with about 30 other families and have assisted her with food, water and emergency supplies.

With support from donors, we’re able to expand our response in the Horn of Africa and reach more families like Habon’s.

The crisis is far from over. We will continue to help save and protect lives affected by this disaster, reaching as many of those suffering as possible,” said World Concern President David Eller. “Our expertise working in challenging conditions enables us to remain on the front lines of this disaster. With the generosity of our donors, we’re grateful to be able to expand our response and reach even more people in need.”


Bringing hope to Thailand flood victims

World Concern staff distributes food in Thailand floods.
World Concern helped distribute food and help evacuate flood victims in Thailand.

A foul smell emanates from dark, stagnant floodwaters in many parts of Thailand as evacuation orders continue in Bangkok. Flooding has affected 64 of Thailand’s 77 provinces, caused by 40 percent more rain than average.

By supporting Christian Volunteers Serving in Thailand (CVSI), World Concern has been able to respond quickly, evacuating families and distributing food, medical supplies and survival kits to remote areas – some of which have received no help from government or aid organizations.

Volunteers discovered families who had been unable to leave their homes because those offering boats for evacuation were charging inflated, illegal rates just to take families to the main road.

Grateful flood victims began to recognize the volunteers in their bright orange life vests and inflatable boats, calling them the “Christian boat.”

True to our commitment to serve the unreached and those in greatest need, we helped evacuate and feed isolated families from these areas, including an apartment complex of immigrants who had recently moved to Bangkok to work. Most knew no one and had nowhere to go.

Families being evacuated during Thailand flooding.
Families evacuated called World Concern-supported rescuers the "Christian boat."

Families were sheltered in local churches. We provided 6,000 hot meals, as well as survival kits containing rice, sweet potatoes, infant formula, basic medicine and other necessities to more than 1,000 people.

Our Disaster Lifeline fund enables us to be able to respond to disasters in areas where we work, quickly and efficiently, reaching people with life-saving assistance.

Learn more about Disaster Lifeline and donate here.


Seeing stark reality in Southern Somalia

I have just left Dhobley in Southern Somalia.  My travels with World Concern have taken me too many difficult places.  I have been to refugee camps in Chad, holding camps after Sri Lanka’s civil war, and South Sudan before independence.  Even with all of this experience with poverty and suffering, seeing the people in Dhobley was tragic.

A Somali mom with her sick child.
A Somali mom with her sick child at the clinic in Dhobley.

We visited a medical clinic that we partner with and saw three young children laying on mats with IVs, so weak they could not walk.  Their mothers were hoping that they would survive.  To be honest, I’m not sure whether they will make it or not given their acute diarrhea.  It’s devastating to know that beyond these three there are many who didn’t make it to the clinic.

The people in Dhobley broke my heart.  It was not just the extreme need.  People are hungry, sick and without resources.  There was such defeat in the eyes of the people on street.  They are not only lacking the basics of life – clean water, food and shelter – they have no sense of security.  The week before a battle took place in this town that sent people fleeing again into the bush to survive.  Are they safe today?  None believe they are.  Living day after day in insecurity has taken a toll beyond any I can imagine.  There is sorrow upon sorrow.

Yet in the midst of such darkness, there is hope.  When we engaged with people on the street and talked, the spark of hope was still there.  Hope comes in the form of others caring and reaching out.

A joyful family receives a food voucher.
Hope and joy on the faces of one family after receiving a World Concern voucher to buy food.

World Concern is bringing food and other essential items for survival, but they need so much more. There are people in need of love, joy, hope and peace.  God has called us to care for the least of these.  I found them in Somalia.  I pray we can bring healing beyond survival.

Today, as yesterday, the issue for the people of Southern Somalia is survival, and the World Concern staff is pouring themselves out to keep people alive.  My desire is to see us walk together through this immediate need into a time and place in the future where people can live in peace.

Learn more and support our work in Southern Somalia: www.worldconcern.org/crisis

Providing aid in the face of violence

Ambulance carrying the wounded.
Ambulances carry the wounded after an attack on the Somali border town of Dhobley.

World Concern staff members are safe after an attack on the Somali border town of Dhobley by the militant group al-Shabaab. In the early morning hours of Sept. 30, al-Shabaab attacked the town where World Concern, along with partners Medical Teams International (MTI) and AFREC, have been providing aid to families affected by the famine and insecurity in Somalia.

We’re grateful that no staff members or partners were in Dhobley at the time of the attacks, but our hearts are broken over this deadly attack on a town that is already suffering so much. Initial reports indicate that 44 Somali military members were injured and 30 were killed in the attack. Two civilians were also killed and two others injured, including a young girl. There are reports of seven al-Shabaab members being killed in the fighting.

Dhobley is a place where many families traveling from all over southern Somalia can get food, water and rest on their long journey to the refugee camps in Kenya. Despite daily security issues, World Concern has been able to feed 13,000 people with two-week rations of beans, rice, oil, sugar and salt, and provide emergency supplies such as blankets, water jugs, mosquito nets and more to another 1,300 families.

A wounded soldier from Dhobley
A soldier wounded in the attack on Dhobley, Somalia, on Sept. 30, 2011.

World Concern and MTI staff will continue to assist in the response just across the border in Liboi, Kenya. As soon as it is safe to return to Dhobley, World Concern will resume activities there, as we’re one of the few international organizations able to work in the area.

Insecurity has been a major challenge for humanitarian organizations to reach people affected by the famine. “We could double or triple our food distribution with better access,” said Deputy Director of Disaster Response Chris Sheach. “Every day we’re not able to get into Dhobley represents 2,500 people who don’t receive help,” he said.

One way World Concern is working around these challenges is by using vouchers, which are redeemed for food and emergency supplies at local merchants. We then reimburse merchants through direct cash transfers. This system supports the local economy, builds relationships with community leaders, and ensures food ends up in the hands of those who need it most.

Please pray for the families affected by the attack this morning and that further violence will not hinder our ability to reach people in desperate need.

Learn more and donate at www.worldconcern.org/crisis.