Heroes of Haiti

By James Addis

Haiti earthquake

James reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

There is an image of Haiti that I will never forget, and I hope I will never see the like of it again. I’d arrived in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 14, just two days after the earthquake. My first job was to travel with a consignment of medical supplies World Vision was delivering to the general hospital downtown.

We negotiated the rubble-strewn streets and arrived to find most of the hospital buildings in ruins and those still standing unsafe to use. Dozens of patients were lying on beds and stretchers on the hospital grounds; some were bandaged up and some were awaiting attention—many of them for amputations. Periodically, a truck would rumble past,  carrying away the dead to the city morgue.

I walked up the road to see the morgue, the appalling smell of death getting stronger with every step. Still, I was ill-prepared for the scene as I rounded the corner.

It was impossible to get within 50 yards of the morgue. The way was blocked by human corpses stacked three deep, stretching across the width of the street. Three masked men laboriously lifted them up one by one and tipped them into the bucket of a bulldozer—a big front-end loader. When the bucket was full, the loader would back up, swivel, and drop the dead into a waiting truck to be taken to mass graves. Nearby, grieving relatives watched, fearing that somewhere in this sea of death they might see the face of a missing loved one.

The scene reminded me of footage from liberated Nazi concentration camps after World War II and of a comment made by German philosopher Theodor Arno shortly after those times: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” So disturbed by the evil of the death camps, he felt that such art was dead.

But in the following days, I began to see that precisely the opposite applied in Haiti. I often saw the best of people. I saw gentleness and humility; people with nothing would quietly turn to God and seek strength and comfort. I saw generosity, often from those suffering deeply themselves. And I saw great courage and resilience. These are the stories of people who inspired me—the heroes of Haiti.

“Up to God Now”

Haiti earthquake

Magdalena hid under the kitchen table to survive the quake.

Rochelin Dolis returned home after the earthquake to find his house collapsed. His wife, Immacula, was pinned under a girder and bleeding profusely. His son, Rodolphe, was desperately trying to get help for his mother from neighbors emerging from their own wrecked homes. There was no sign of his 6-year-old daughter, Magdalena.

Immacula cried that their daughter was surely dead. But then Magdalena could be heard crying under the wreckage. “I dug with my bare hands around the rubble,” recalled Rochelin. Magdalena had hidden under the kitchen table, which had broken but had prevented debris from falling on her head. “She is a bright girl. She did the right thing,” said Rochelin.

But extracting his wife and daughter was only the first obstacle. Once free, the family was forced to live on a bare-earth soccer field with nothing but a mattress salvaged from their home. Help came when World Vision delivered a tarpaulin, cooking utensils, and a hygiene kit containing basics such as soap and toothpaste.

Rochelin was philosophical about the days ahead. “It’s up to God now,” he said. “He has given me courage and strength to bear this. He will take care of my children.”

Restaurant Relief

Haiti earthquake

Thousands lined up for food outside Muncheez restaurant each day.

Restaurant owner Gilbert Bailly found a novel way of keeping his business going in quake-devastated Port-au-Prince: giving away meals for free.

Gilbert did not have fuel or power to keep his three Muncheez pizzerias open. So through one restaurant he served free meals, using donated food and fuel. His nephew, a student in the Dominican Republic, organized the first truckload of donated food. When that dwindled, World Vision provided more food to keep the operation running.

Each day of those first desperate weeks, Gilbert’s staff distributed 1,000 plastic bracelets in a needy part of the city. Later in the day, those wearing a bracelet were allowed into his restaurant. Muncheez also gave departing customers 5-pound bags of lentils, beans, flour, and bottles of cooking oil supplied by World Vision—Gilbert’s way to reach family members who couldn’t come to the restaurant themselves.

“Money-wise, this has been disastrous for us, but I was trying to build a bridge to those suffering in the community,” he said. “We have a country to rebuild.”

Love in Translation

Haiti earthquake

Leonel, a former World Vision sponsored child.

Sponsored child Leonel Novas, 17, was thrilled to play a role in World Vision’s Haiti relief efforts. Leonel lives in Jimaní, in the Dominican Republic near the border with Haiti. Thousands of injured Haitians took public transport there seeking treatment in hospitals.

But not many Dominican doctors could speak the Creole language of their patients. Leonel, the son of a Haitian mother and Dominican father, joined a team of World Vision translators to help. When he arrived at the Good Samaritan Hospital, doctors and patients were trying to communicate by hand signals.

He found the translation work satisfying but emotionally challenging. “I remember a little girl who had to have both her feet amputated. She cried and cried throughout the night,” he said.

Leonel says he can identify with many of the suffering. In 2004, his home was destroyed when flooding swept through Jimaní, killing several members of his family. World Vision provided him with food and clothing in the aftermath.

“I feel deeply touched by their pain,” he said of quake victims. “I feel I need to help, just as I was helped back in 2004.”

Giving Her All

Haiti earthquake

Nicole returned to the country of her birth to assist with relief efforts.

“When the disaster happened, I knew I had to come,” said nurse Nicole Muse, 56. “And the next thing I knew, I was here.”

Nicole, a World Vision child sponsor, arrived in Port-au-Prince just weeks after the quake and went directly to a field hospital in Fond Parisien, near the Dominican Republic border. There she helped treat scores of children, including a small boy named Jeffrey, just 3 or 4 years old. Jeffrey’s head was wrapped in bandages. He whimpered softly as she held him.

Nicole lives in Chicago, but Haiti, the country of her birth, is never far from her thoughts. She sponsors several Haitian children, and every December she returns to Haiti to work for a charitable foundation she started.

Nicole’s first day was a blur, working nonstop at the hospital that had received medical supplies from World Vision. “I’ve been holding off my tears all day,” she said quietly. “This just breaks my heart.”

When Duty Calls

Haiti earthquake

Jhonny Celicourt, a World Vision communications officer in Haiti.

Among those rendered homeless by the Haiti quake were more than 80 World Vision staff based in Port-au-Prince, including communications officer Jhonny Celicourt. He was at his desk when the quake struck. Immediately, he started to pray. “It was so violent. I thought I was going to die,” he said.

It took Jhonny five hours of driving through the chaotic streets before he could reach his home. There, to his great relief, he found his 4-year-old daughter, Kemisha, and his wife, Florence. The house was badly damaged. The family was able to slip in and cook some food, but they dared not risk sleeping there. Instead, they set up camp in a nearby tennis court along with neighbors.

First thing the next morning, Jhonny headed back to the office. He and other World Vision workers filled three vehicles with medications and delivered them to Port-au-Prince hospitals. “My God, you can’t believe what we saw,” he said. “I saw at least 200 corpses. I know I’m a professional, but I cried and cried. I could not stop.”

It was the first of many long days for Jhonny and other staff. His wife and daughter relocated to Florida, but Jhonny stayed on the job, helping other homeless families in his ruined city.

One response to “Heroes of Haiti

  1. Pingback: Lest we forget « World Vision Magazine

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