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Spending Thanksgiving in Haiti

Haiti, November 25, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Kaja Wislinska/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Members of the local Red Cross, trained by Mercy Corps to raise awareness around maintaining good hygiene, speak to market fair goers in the Central Plateau. Photo: Kaja Wislinska/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Ben Depp for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Team member Jerome Jonas speaks to Mercy Corps' cash for work beneficiaries in Trianon, Central Plateau, about how to prevent the transmission of cholera and what to do if they or someone in their community start exhibiting symptoms. Photo: Ben Depp for Mercy Corps

So today from Haiti, I'm thinking of all my people in States, sitting around the Thanksgiving table. What a great thought! I love Thanksgiving. In my home state of Oregon, it's cold and wet outside, meaning the holiday is a cozy day inside with family, with great comfort food (often involving marshmallows, lots of mayo, butter or cheese…), lots of old jokes and stories, and sometimes even new ones.

I've got to admit – that peaceful image of home, contrasted with what's been going on in Haiti, is making for an emotional day.

In the Central Plateau, our team is holding a market fair in a field in the town of Mirebalais. Today 250 local families received $225 to spend on the household basics that will help them host all the extended family and friends from Port-au-Prince who are staying with them after losing their own homes in the earthquake. We organized 25 vendors to be there and sell their goods, so all the money goes directly into the local economy.

Kaja, our program officer, just called and said today's most popular purchases were school tuition, mattresses and the metal sheeting that people use to repair their roofs. On the surface, it's an upbeat event: Everyone is really grateful to receive all these things they really need and it's a chance for the community to get together.

There's always another level to the story though. Yesterday a Mercy Corps colleague commented to me, "It's actually very moving to be at the market fairs, because I hear the little things that people say when they purchase their items."

Like what? I asked.

"I heard one women say, when she got a mattress, 'Oh, now my child won't have to sleep on the floor.'"

What else?

"I heard another man say, 'Now I won't be a burden on my family.'"

I'm so amazed at these families' endurance. Today, their hard times after the earthquake have only been compounded by the distress caused by the recent epidemic of cholera.

Our team is taking the opportunity of having everyone together at the market fairs to use it as a time to educate people about cholera. We trained local Red Cross volunteers to give presentations at the fair on how to prevent and treat the disease, and today they also got kids involved in demonstrations about how to wash their hands. Cholera hasn't been in Haiti for 50 years, so many people don't know much about it, and it's been creating a lot of fear and uncertainty. And it can so easily be fatal for poor families like these, who lack clean water and access to health care.

At the market fair today, and in all the area communities, our team is getting information out about the disease, answering questions, dispelling rumors and helping prevent any more deaths or the further spread of the epidemic.

The fact is though, that the epidemic is growing at an alarming rate. Mugur Dumitrache, a Global Emergency Operations team member who has been leading our response here for several weeks, told me today, "One village we visited near Mirebalais where there are about 500 families, we found that there were 29 people with cholera." He was alarmed at finding so many there, and he also learned that many people were having difficulty getting to the hospital, because no one wanted to take them in their truck or on their motorcycle because of the chance of infection. And it was too far for people to carry them on stretcher.

It's really difficult to bridge two starkly different realities like the one I write about at the top of this page and the one that is here in Haiti. But the fact is that our world always contains these extremes every day. And the power of our information sharing abilities through the internet (including blog posts like this one!) and media and mobile phones, means that many of us exist in more than one reality on a daily basis.

In fact, if you are reading this now, I might venture to guess that you are one of the special people in our world who has it pretty good actually, all things considered, but still you believe in how important it is to learn about and care about realities as extreme as this. You push yourself to experience the injustices and suffering of poverty in whatever way you can, so you remain engaged in changing it.

Today, I thank you for that. We'll continue that work together.