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International Chicago Mon Mar 29 2010

Haitian Aftershocks in Chicago

[The following piece was submitted by John Niederkorn, Maham Khan and Irakli Gioshvili.]

Judith Mayard was resting on her bed on a Tuesday afternoon in January, when she felt the room begin to shake. As the walls around her began to collapse, the days after led her through a rubble-filled maze of mass confusion. All Judith could think about was her mother in Chicago.

On Jan. 12 an earthquake with the magnitude of 7.0 shook the Haitian city of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas, forever changing the small Caribbean country. (For author photos of some of the devastation, click here).

Global efforts by individuals and organizations alike have been important in providing Haitians relief at their weakest moment -- including Chicagoans.

Chicago became involved almost instantly after the crisis occurred. On Jan. 20, a flight of 83 Haitian earthquake survivors landed at O'Hare International Airport, according to the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services. In the days and weeks that followed, nearly 300 evacuees came to Chicago. Some stayed, others moved on.

"Ninety-five percent of the evacuees departed Chicago on connecting flights within 48 hours of their arrival," said Anne Sheahan, director of public information at the DFSS, "some within less than eight hours. The remaining 5 percent connected with family or friends in Chicago."

The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago was instrumental in receiving the Haitians at O'Hare.

The Red Cross "starting working around the clock," said Jackie Mitchell, Chicago Red Cross director of marketing and communications.

All the evacuees who landed in Chicago had dual citizenship and the Red Cross took on the role to comfort and reunite the displaced survivors with their friends and family in Chicago.

The Red Cross coupled with their partner shelters helped to provide food, clothes and shelter for the evacuees, many of which only had the clothes on their back when they landed in Chicago.

"Chicago wanted so badly to help," Mitchell said.

The Haitian Congress to Fortify Haiti is another Chicago-based non-profit organization that has participated in providing support and supplies to Haiti. The organization was founded in Chicago shortly after hurricane Jeanne ravaged the Haitian countryside in Sept. 2004.

Aline Lauture, director of the Haitian Congress, said that its biggest challenge now is raising the funds to quickly ship the supplies they have here in Illinois to their contacts in Haiti.

"We wish they [Red Cross] would share the money with us," Lauture said when asked how the organization would effectively ship supplies to Haiti.

Lauture said the Haitian Congress has already spent $7,000 for just one shipment of medicine sent by airmail to Haiti. The organization has several storage facilities in Evanston filled with essential supplies that are waiting to be sent overseas. Lauture said she would prefer to send the supplies airmail because it takes nearly three weeks for the shipments to arrive via cargo ship in Port-au-Prince.

Another challenge Lauture would like to address in Haiti is providing aid to those who live in the surrounding areas around Port-au-Prince.

"We are trying to help as much as we can in the outlying areas... they just aren't being reached," Lauture said.

Chicago's medical community also played a significant part in the Haitian relief effort. The International Medical Corp., an organization that got its start in Chicago, was at the forefront of sending emergency medical personnel to Haiti shortly after the crisis occurred.

"Chicago was very organized in getting people over to Haiti," said Dr. Rahul K. Khare MD of Northwestern Memorial Hospital's department of emergency medicine. Dr. Khare was one of many medical volunteers from Chicago to go to Haiti shortly after the devastation occurred.

Khare said that of the entire volunteer medical staff in Haiti, around 30 percent were from the Chicagoland area. He said the experience itself was "amazing" but he had never seen death on such a scale before.

"There's not one person in Port-au-Prince who didn't lose a family member," Khare said.

Mayard said that her goal while she is in America is to learn some useful skills to take back to her country. She is currently looking into nursing because there is now an increasing need for medical personnel and social workers in Haiti, according to Mayard.

"I think the younger people of Haiti will have to play an important role in rebuilding the country," Mayard said before returning to packing supplies for people back home.

Anyone wishing to help further the relief effort in Haiti is strongly encouraged to contact the Haitian Congress in Chicago and the Chicago Red Cross.

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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