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Couple returns to 'post-earthquake' Haiti

Nearly five years after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Haiti, a Medford native and his Haitian wife, co-directors of an aid organization, say cleanup is now completed, but rebuilding, both physically and psychologically, has been slow.

Kurt Hildebrand, Wilda Mondestin and their 5-month-old daughter, Akila, on Saturday ended a two-month home leave in Medford with his parents, Don and Donna Hildebrand.

“We’ve picked up the rubble, but the reconstruction has just started. (The earthquake) just hit all the liabilities and weaknesses that were there,” said Hildebrand. “It just fundamentally changed the country. I think everyone thinks now there is pre-earthquake and post-earthquake. It’s like Sept. 11th.”

The couple work for the Mennonite Central Committee, a 94-year-old nonprofit that’s in 60 countries providing relief, development and peace initiatives. They are not missionaries, and the church-related organization does not proselytize, Hildebrand said.

Hildebrand went to Haiti in 2008 and became co-director of MCC’s effort there a year before the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake that killed an estimated 160,000 people and destroyed a quarter-million residences. Wilda joined MCC after contact through her Catholic Church. The couple married in 2011.

Post-earthquake, the organization finds itself working in five areas: shelter, education, health, livelihood and trauma healing. MCC partners with both in-country and foreign groups on projects. Wilda handles relations with Haitian partners, while Kurt works on financial and staff administration.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton called for Haiti to “build back better” after the earthquake.

“Five years later it seems like building back better didn’t happen,” said Hildebrand.

Now people are just hoping to get back to what was there before in many cases, although there has been progress, he said. Roads have been improved over their previous conditions. MCC has helped build potable water systems for thousands of families, which helps deal with an ongoing cholera outbreak.

To make things look attractive and hopefully draw tourists and investment, a slum was painted and looks much better, said Hildebrand. “It’s still a slum, and the people there have a difficult life still,” he said.

“One of our criticisms of both the Haitian government and U.S. involvement is that it really feels like they have chosen not to address some of the fundamental issues but rather cosmetic concerns,” said Hildebrand. People no longer live in tents, but many are in makeshift structures, he said.

Mondestin said she has seen improvements in health care, including the building of a teaching hospital.

“The health system has gotten better for pregnant women,” said Mondestin, adding that the country has learned about trauma. MCC has partnered with others to provide trauma help.

“For me, it was after the earthquake that I really learned about what trauma is,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of trauma historically. This has been a chance for us to learn about it. The earthquake created an opportunity among Haitians to talk about it.”

In-country volunteers are not much needed at this time, said Hildebrand, who encourages people to learn about what is going on with the relief efforts through websites or by friending MCC on Facebook. The organization's Web page on Haiti can be found at mcc.org/learn/more/haiti-earthquake.

“One of the best things we can do is educating people about Haiti,” he said. Americans should learn about their government’s role in the country because it is “outsized,” he said.

Hildebrand grew up in Medford and graduated from South Medford High School and later from Seattle Pacific University. After one more year, the couple will leave MCC and explore a still undetermined future. That may include living in the United States for a while.

“Haiti is not a country you can leave easily,” said Mondestin, whose family lives there. “There’s a certain magic there.”

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

Kurt Hildebrand and his wife, Wilda Mondestin, sit with their daughter, Akila, in Medford, days prior to returning to their aid work in Haiti. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore