Two years ago today, a hurricane ravished the small Caribbean island of Haiti. It killed 220,000 people and injured more than 300,000. It left ruble in the streets, fear in the people's eyes, and scars not only on the bodies of the Haitians, but also on their hearts.
200,000 orphaned children live in institutions. The rest are fostered, live with relatives, or are street children. For thousand of families and orphans, their home is now a tent city with a small eight foot by eight foot leaking tarp structure. Each time it rains, the strong winds, or the blistering heat radiates, their new reality sets back in. The tragedy is widespread, the fear is real. Yet, in the midst of all this chaos and despair... there is hope.
This past summer I was fortunate enough to spend a few months in this devastated, yet beautiful country. My draw dropped when the plane hovered over Port Au Prince. I had seen pictures, I had watched videos, but to see it with your own eyes is indescribable, it leaves you at a loss for words. My heart ached as I walked out of the plane and was greeted by the wave of heat, and even more so when driving through the heart of Port Au Prince and passing the numerous tent cities along the roadside. It was like I froze, that for a period of time I didn't know who I was. I guess you could say it was an outer body experience. I was sitting in the back of a tap tap, yet I longed to be running through the camps hugging and helping as many people as I could. Even looking back now, it still brings tears to my eyes, and I still feel a tug in my heart for all the people I had passed, for all of the people that I wanted to help, but couldn't.
I began my journey at OREA Orphanage. I connected with every single child there, and I can honestly say that I love them as if they are my own. My heart is still in Haiti with them. Not a single day passes where I do not think of my babies and long to be with them. They are all so strong and mature beyond their years. They have all endured pain and loss, yet they still smile, laugh, play, and love. All of the children have remarkable stories, however, there are a couple that really stick out in my mind and amaze me.
Soraya is six years old. Both of her parents were killed in the earthquake. Soraya was found under ruble and beneath her dead mother's body eighteen hours after the earthquake struck. She went that entire time without food or water, and without anyone to hold and console her. She is now an orphan. She has her days where she won't talk. She will just go into deep stares. It killed me to see her that way, I was always wondering what was going through her mind. But I think I had a pretty good idea. She also had her good days, where she would just sit and laugh and make funny noises and faces. I taught her to go cross eyed, how to say her ABC's in English, and also how to dance like a white girl ;) (She is an amazing little dancer, she made fun of the way I danced and I often caught her imitating me and laughing as she did).
Yvenson is now three years old. His mother was killed in the earthquake. After his mother died, his father found a new wife and decided that he no longer wanted to care for Yvenson. Yvenson was left on the streets of Port Au Prince to fend for himself. When he was finally rescued he was literally skin and bones. Not only was he malnourished but he also had Cholera, a deadly disease. He is known as the miracle child. No one thought he was going to live. But he did. He has has battled with Cholera twice now. He cries often, and loves to be held. He called me "mama". He was my little follower. He always snuck kisses when I wasn't looking. And quite often urinated on me as well :p Due to the trauma that the children experienced, it is really hard to potty train them.
I spent a great deal of time working with Rigan Louis at Hospital Espoir and traveling to his hometown of Leogane to visit his family and begin the repairs on his house which was damaged in the earthquake. Walking through that town was breath taking. I saw all of the beautiful buildings that were now fallen. Rigan took me on a tour and pointed out where everything used to be... I couldn't believe it. EVERYTHING was gone. Rigan Louis showed me where his high school used to be, whic had a soccer stadium. It is now being used as a tent city. Rigan's family is still living in tents. They are terrified to enter the house in case another earthquake strikes. Rigan is currently working on rebuilding his home so his family can move back in. I remember playing soccer with the boys in Leogane. They created a soccer net with two tree branches and a piece of rope as the top of the net. They are so creative. A lot of people gathered in the area to watch the match. I had the time of my life and loved hanging out with the kids and getting to know them. After the soccer match we all gathered in a little tin hut where they had put a television in so the children could watch the soccer games. They charged people to come and watch. It was like a little movie theater, but nothing like you could ever imagine. The devastation was mind blowing, something I cannot put in words, but I also saw hands lifted, greatful hearts, and smiling faces. My friends in Haiti are the strongest and hardest working people I know.
I could go on and on about my experiences in Haiti and all of the things, and people, that have impacted and changed my life. Right now I would like to take the time to show my appreciation to one particular individual who deserves a lot of recognition. My friend, Rigan Louis. This is his story:
Rigan was born and raised in Leogane, Haiti. Early in life, he had a goal of becoming an engineer. He excelled in math, physics and also chemistry. However, for some reason he was asked to attend a nursing school. After spending a year on trying to decide what to do, he finally agreed to go. He did well in nursing school but often found himself questioning why he was there. He often become upset with himself, thinking he chose the wrong path. Especially since many of his friends were becoming engineers or doctors. “I was fighting against God's desires, because sometimes it's really hard to know what God wants you to do and you stay where you want but not where God wants or where you supposed to be, that was my struggle for a long time”.
On January 12, 2010 (a day that Rigan refers to as the "darkness day") he was at the nursing school from 1pm-4pm. He was working in the library on something that he wanted to prepare for Hilda (the Dean of the shcool) that he wanted to share with the senior nursing school on Monday. Before leaving the library he also spoke with Angela- a graduate nurse from the nursing school that Rigan attended. After spending a long day researching in the library, Rigan was exhausted. However, like most days when Rigan was tired after a long day of work or school, he went to play soccer. He left the nursing school (FSIL) and stopped by his house to grab his soccer stuff. He decided to ride his bike to the soccer field. Normally it would take Rigan ten minutes to get to the soccer field on his motorcycle, it was unusual that he decided to ride his bike that day since it would be a really long ride. "But that day I wanted to ride my funny bike without knowing why." It was about 4:45 PM when Rigan found himself riding his bike down a road the he normally does not take. "I could see a lot of “voodoo” temples (places where voodoo priest's makes their rituals) And all of a sudden, one of the priest's called me and asked me to let him try my bicycle. With no fear, no question, I give him the bike and I was watching him ride my bike, after he came and asked my name". He then asked Rigan about his faith in God and Rigan began to tell him about the bible. Rigan asked him about the significance of the pictures that he saw on the walls of his temple. It took Rigan about ten minutes to continue his way to the soccer field. He began riding faster because he noticed he was going to be late, and he really wanted to play. “It’s strange, why I left FSIL at 4:00 with the destination to go to play soccer at the soccer field. And why I took my bike but not a motorcycle,( take more time). And why this voodoo’s priest wanted to stop me in my way to try my bike.” Approximately four minutes later Rigan could see the soccer field. "I was close, I was talking with a friend in front of his house, where I always go to change before playing". Rigan was about to enter his friends house when an old woman said in Creole "kouran mezanmi kouri!!!” that’s mean in English: “everybody get out of here, the electricity!!”. "I do the best to run to leave my position, but it was very difficult cause it was like something wanted to push me away and another to hold me. Two seconds later I could see the house collapsed and the heart was opening, I could feel the earth shaking intensely and I heard people crying loudly from fear or from injuries". Rigan was on the road next to the soccer field. He lived in this nightmare for 45 seconds, although, it seemed a lot longer. "I couldn’t understand what was happening. First I thought about the end of the days...It's true, I didn't have any fear". Two minutes after the 7.3 magnitude earthquake, Rigan was at the soccer field. "I was the first there; the after shocks came immediately after the first minute. A few minutes later I saw some people coming at the soccer field; crying, dirty, some safe and some with big injuries. I was the only one that was clean between them. One of them, a Christian, was talking about the revelation from the Bible, the apocalypse." Rigan began to have a little fear when he noticed the water emerging from the wells and also from the earth. It made him think of the movie 2012 and he figured that the earthquake was occurring all over the world. "I took my phone trying to call home and I found no signal from my network, I was very afraid for them, my family. I remember I left my cousins, my brother’s wife, my brothers and some friend watching TV inside the house." Within five minutes there were over 100 people at the field. "It was serious". Some were standing with little cuts, and some were lying with real injuries. Some experienced no trauma but were covered in dirt. Rigan had asked everyone to sit in the middle of the field to avoid the trees at the corner of the soccer field. The first patient he helped was a 17 year old girl who was bleeding from her head and other "members". He put pressure on the wounds to stop the bleeding. He began to clean her wounds as good as he could since he was limited with supplies. He tried to explain to her what had happened. Everyone needed help, children, adults, and seniors. Rigan could not believe his eyes. As the time passed the situation worsened. "My first prayer was: Dear God, I know that if I am alive it’s not because I am lucky, but because you want me to lead, like you wanted me to become a nurse, because these people need me as a nurse and as a Christian. Thank you for protecting me and using me to save some of my brothers and sisters. Forgive me for my sins, Give me faith and strength." After he said this prayer he felt that his fear once again vanished. He wanted to go see his family. After he stabilized as many patients as he could in that village, he decided to depart to his home. He crossed paths with a married couple along the way. "The mom was crying at the ground and the dad took his 18 month daughter out from under a big brick from his house, which collapsed into the kid who was sleeping inside. I could see that she was dead. I check the jugular pulse and the respiration…nothing… she died. It was sad, it was my first death." Rigan preformed CPR on her anyways. Rigan and the father jumped on a motorcycle and headed towards a hospital. On the way to the hospital, Rigan finally noticed all of the collapsed houses and all of the people sitting on the sides of the roads asking for care. "I didn’t have any supplies with me; no gloves, no bandage…nothing. It was terrifying. I wanted to cry". Rigan sat behind the father, carrying his dead daughter. "When we arrived to the hospital, the building was also collapsed with all the medical team inside, that was unimaginable." Everything was gone; the schools, churches, public offices, houses, police stations. " I was very strong that day because I was not alone. Suddenly I remember my family. I put the baby on the ground; I remove my shirt and cover the body. And ask the father to be strong. And then I walked to my house. Sometimes, in the road, I close my eyes because I couldn’t watch what I saw. I was walking in the city and I couldn’t recognize any area because everything disappeared." Some collapsed buildings that Rigan passed still had people that were alive inside them. Everyone was trying to get the bodies out. Rigan couldn't stop to help, he was too concerned about his family and his house. "I was asking myself how I will live the next 5 mns when I will be at home. The streets were closed because of the fragments of the collapsed buildings. And it took me a while to get behind my house. And from where I was, I could see the top of my house, which means that it ‘still stands. I was smiling a little bit. Then I arrived to my house, I saw one of my brothers that was watching TV, he was safe. I embrace him and we cried together. After I asked him how everybody is. And he said that they are well. I asked him if anyone has a any injuries. He said that everything was fine." After being assured that his family was okay, Rigan departed to the nursing school to check on his colleagues. The first person that he encountered was Hilda (the Dean of the school). They hugged and cried together. Angela, one of Rigan's close friends, and one of the last people he had talked to before the earthquake hit, was killed. She was smart, beautiful, and had dreams similar to Rigan. Everyone inside the school, 40 nursing students, were killed. If Rigan hadn't left the school when he did, he would have been one of them. "Immediately after, I was watching the campus. Hundreds of people were coming from the entire city asking for care with all kind of injuries. It was sad, because before the earthquake we didn’t have any real hospital, then it makes the situation worst. We are a nursing school, it is true that we might help but we need supplies."
After some time, they were able to gather some supplies to began assisting the injured patients. Rigan and Hilda took care of patients from 6:30 pm until 2am. "It was a long night. We put some sheets on the ground of the school and tried to fall asleep, but it was impossible because the aftershocks made us scared…"
Rigan continued to see patients the next day. All of the sick/injured patients were laying on the ground with their families. This was the hardest day yet. "Many people cried because some patients died after they slept."
Some people died from head trauma, internal bleeding or other problems."
"What are the most important things I need to have in my life? If I asked one population of people that question, I would have a lot of answers. Some people would say that they like their life, that they don’t want to die or they don’t want to lose the nice car they just bought. It’s why a lot of people died; after the earthquake they went inside the house to get stuff and the big aftershocks finished the house and killed them, so sad. Some others tried to open some offices to steal money or supplies and they disappeared with the building. A lot of people died because they wanted to get Rich that day or to save their fortune"
"Haiti needs Love, especially at this time. Thousands of people need food, safe water, health, electricity, jobs, education, infrastructures…this list is long, and it means a lot of time and money. But they are the basic things that a country needs. Our politicians do not have a good mechanism of action to enhance these systems. They tried but don’t succeed. We need education for the young, and a good condition of life that will give them the opportunity to stay in Haiti and rebuild the country. There is a lot to do. The task is hard, but if we want and believe, we can"
"Many things have been changed since the earthquake of January 12, 2010. Many people have heard for a long time about Haiti, but never had a chance to visit. Once they have this desire to go and help after the quake hit in Haiti, they fall in love with Haiti, and also they have a new vision about life. They think more about helping, giving, loving, caring…and less about money, power. Race...
Many people left their families behind them to go to Haiti and help. What they saw in Haiti. Makes a change in their lives. By sharing that with other people, they give more hope for Haiti" - Rigan Louis.
During my time in Haiti, it was not hard to see that there is a great imbalance, and that things aren't right. I know that. But for me, I suppose it really hits home when I stop and think about this moment. Right now. Wondering if the kids I have fallen so deeply in love with are getting enough to eat, if they are healthy, and sometimes I wonder if they are all still alive. I worry about their safety. I worry about the thousands of people I passed/met during my time in Haiti. I think about the families still living in the tent cities and what battles they are currently enduring. In this same moment, while my friends and fellow Haitians are still struggling to survive, we have a generation sitting around entertaining themselves watching reality television. Which is to be honest, anything but real. While we have a child that is being prostituted behind closed doors and raped and robbed of their innocence. It is not fair that we can go about consuming every material object that comes, when the widow and the orphan are striped of life's basic dignities because they are victims of a conflict that simply isn't theirs. It's not fair that there is a generation choking on their obesity, while 30,000 children will die today due to lack of food. It is not fair that when we have no problem going out and buying what is basically chlorinated tap water in a bottle with a fancy label, while you have entire communities suffering at the hand of disease because the only water that they have access to if foul and polluted. It is not fair that we can sing and dance and jump around in our freedom and our liberty, while at the same time, the slave remains captive, out of sight, and out of mind. It is not fair that we can sit and watch the evening news in the comfort of our living rooms and pitty those who live were the ground shook or where the storm hit or where the water rose and simply feel sorry for them and then change the channel and get on with our suppers. Is it fair to walk passed the homeless man and give him nothing, with the assumption that he would spend it on cigarettes or alcohol, or to suggest that he should go out and find a job? I mean, who are we to judge the alcoholic, or the prostitute, or the addict, or the criminal, as if we are any better? Who are we to forget the depressed and the marginalized, while we go about chasing the dream ? We see this imbalance, and we amend that it is not right, and it's not fair, but all too often, that's all we do. Because for us to do anymore, it is actually going to cost us something. And if that's where it ends, perhaps that it is fair to say that when we ignore the prostituted child, we are actually lending our hand to their abuse. And that when we ignore the widow and the orphan and their distress, that we actually add to their pain. When we ignore the slaves who remain captive, it is us who's entrapping them. That when we forget the refuge, then it is us who's displacing them. When we chose not to help the poor and the needy, we actually rob them. Perhaps, the only fair thing to say is, that when we forsake the lives of others, we are actually forsaking our own.
Since I have returned home, I no longer get chased down by dozens of kids who want hugs and kisses. I no longer wake up in the morning to the roosters or my little friends knocking on (or peeking under) my door. I miss the food, the vibrant colours, the noise, riding on the back of Moto's, attempting to speak Creole and making a fool out of myself (such as saying Ou Manaje -you boyfriend -instead of saying Ou manje -you eat). I often find myself in a daze, staring into space, reminiscing about my time spent in Haiti and thinking about the kids who have taken up such a huge part of my heart. I miss it.. I miss them.
Today, I am thinking about, and mourning with, all of my friends in Haiti who lost loved one's or who were affected by the earthquake that struck two years ago today. I wish I could be there with you.
I am never too far, maybe in distance, but never in heart <3 Mwen renmen ou (I love you)