About the Author: Nathalie Gardere is a Foreign Service National at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Against all odds, we inaugurated our first American Corner in Haiti this January 20, 2011. Last Thursday was the realization of a two-year labor of love. Why so long? Actually, we were planning to open the center in January 2010, but here in Haiti, the unexpected, even the improbable, has a habit of intruding and turning your world upside down.
Last year, reality shattered the boundaries of my darkest nightmares as I sat dumbfounded on the sidewalk, numb and covered in dust, staring in disbelief at my collapsed family home and listening for a sign of life from my three dogs. How deafening was that silence those few seconds after the deep rumbling stopped, before the screaming started, and before the relentless aftershocks dragged us further into the surreal. I waited for my parents and brother to return home; the three of them took four hours to make their way across the wounded city. Waiting there, I began to receive information from one of the few radio stations still broadcasting, or from other survivors who had walked marathon distances, and the magnitude of the calamity began to reach me. As bodies lined the streets, my neighbors and I began rescue efforts using our bare hands. The next day, we found our dogs, miraculously unscathed.
My family and I slept in our cars for four months, until we were fortunate enough to be able to relocate. After a week I returned to work and found that my office, the Information Resource Center, had been transformed into sleeping quarters for emergency personnel. My bookshelves, so lovingly arranged, had not withstood the seismic aggression, either. Books and magazines were piled into corners to make room for sleeping bags, and then office space for U.S. military personnel assisting in the relief effort.
As I adjusted to this new reality, news about our partners began to filter in. The Centre Culturel Pyepoudre, a favorite Friday stop for high school students, had collapsed. The historical main building of the Haitian-American Institute Binational Center was gone. The National Library, safe keeper of our written patrimony, was badly damaged, and the National Archives, too. Most public and private libraries did not make it.
But just like many other organizations, the library world has stood as one with Haiti. Institutions such as the American Library Association, the Smithsonian, and the Digital Library of the Caribbean have done much to help rebuild our libraries, and donations for Haiti's libraries have started to come in. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has continued its efforts, and I hope that this collective momentum will continue for as long as possible.
The Monique Calixte Library, hosting our new American Corner, was able to recover from physical damage a year later. The Harold Courlander American Corner of Port-au-Prince, named after an American anthropologist who studied Haiti's folklore, music, and religion, has 500 books and three Internet terminals, important in a country with few libraries and only three percent of households have Internet access. It is a celebration of life, a merging of two cultures yearning to re-connect with one another and share with another the best of what they have to offer.
We recently commemorated one year since the earthquake. At that time, we remembered those who died and everything we lost. But now, Haitians are looking forward, and we are rebuilding. Supporting the birth of better-equipped libraries will give our children access to the tools they so badly need to prepare themselves for the challenges that await them.