Sabine St. Lot and Charlotte Golar Richie recently returned from Haiti with their group, Six and Counting for Haiti; members Sandy Cody, Herby Duverne, Dr. Gerald Reid and Darnell Williams contributed to this article.
Why We Went
In less than a minute, on a late Tuesday afternoon in mid-January, Haiti experienced one of the worst natural disasters in modern times. Struck by a very powerful earthquake, with a magnitude of 7.0, nearly a quarter of a million people died (numbers vary), and homes, schools and churches instantly vanished. Port-au-Prince, Leogane, Jacmel and Petit-Goave were severely crippled and will never be the same.
Thankfully, the world responded and thousands of people from far and wide have traveled to Haiti to assist with clean-up and rebuilding efforts. And so did we: three Haitian-Americans and three African-Americans from Massachusetts, who traveled there, three months after the earthquake, from April 19th to the 23rd, to deliver tents and supplies to people in need.
Not there to compete with the large international relief organizations, which have been steadily transporting water, tents, tarps and supplies to the capital and other communities, the members of our group were determined to do what we could to lend a helping hand. In doing so, we experienced a journey that was heart-wrenching, awe-inspiring and motivating. It also was challenging. And our visit is one we will never forget.
The trip was the brainchild of Sabine St. Lot, a Vice President at State Street Corporation in Boston, who left Haiti in 1981 to continue her studies in the U.S. While she did not return home after graduation, she never forgot the country of her birth. At the start of the trip, her feelings about Haiti were mixed, colored by the disappearance of her father in 1972, during the Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier regime. By the end of our stay, Sabine had begun to find solace in her renewed hope and love for Haiti and its people.
Sabine was joined in her efforts by Darnell Williams. Darnell is the CEO of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts here in Boston. Together, they were able to raise funds to purchase quality tents for delivery to homeless Haitians before the arrival of the rainy season in May. The other members of the group were Gerald Reid, a surgical oncologist at Caritas Norwood Hospital; Sandy Cody, an attorney for State Street; Herby Duverne, Deputy Director for Aviation Security with Massport; and Charlotte Golar Richie, a former state and city official (and the trip’s scribe).
Here’s our story. . .
Day One: Monday, April 19th
After two days of travel, with an overnight stay in Florida, we landed at the battered Toussainst Louverture Airport. We were greeted by Augustin LePrince, Director of the Ministry for Haitians Living Abroad (MHAVE), who knew about our group’s visit from his boss, Minister Edwin Paraison, our chief governmental contact, and provided our group with a pick-up truck to carry boxes of basic supplies that we brought with us.
Mr. LePrince gave us a quick in-country briefing and tried to prepare us for what we were about to encounter during our five-day visit. He warned us to brace ourselves for the widespread destruction we were about to see. As a safety precaution, he told us to stick together as a group and avoid getting out of our car during our travels through the country.
“The situation isn’t manageable – not even for police,” he explained, which made us wonder if we’d taken seriously enough the recent travel warning from the federal government, posted on the Internet.
Urging U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Haiti, the State Department noted that, since the earthquake, there have been reports of kidnappings and four American citizens had been murdered. If we still didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation, Mr. LePrince left nothing to the imagination when he said, “3,000 prisoners had escaped with the earthquake; but just 500 were recaptured.”
Once he had our attention, Director LePrince tried to reassure us by touting his track record since the January 12th disaster.
“I have been catering to 2,500 members of the Haitian Diaspora, without incident,” he said.
Before we could enter the minivan that was waiting for us outside of the terminal, we had to make our way through the throng of taxi drivers and unofficial baggage handlers, who were vying for our group’s attention and money. Despite the chaotic and intimidating scene, we pressed our way towards the vehicle, guided by our driver Joubert, and a new friend, Joel Theodat, a former school administrator from Massachusetts, who also was visiting Haiti, and would be our companion for the week.
Once inside the minivan, away from the raucous crowd with our luggage loaded in back, we left the airport and headed to Delmas in Port-au-Prince. Despite Mr. LePrince’s warnings, we were unprepared for what we saw; and while we struggled to make some sense of the massive destruction, there was little in our collective past from which to draw, that could serve as a point of reference and aid us in our effort to cope with the scenes of this colossal tragedy.
We stared through the windows of our vehicle; and as we drove through street after street, we viewed the many blocks lined with rubble and crumbling buildings, the endless sea of campsites with their white and blue tents, and the countless displaced individuals and families struggling to survive. All we could say was “Me Zanmi” and “Oh my God.”
We arrived at the Business Institute of the West Indies (BIWI), on the edge of Petionville, where we were welcomed by Magalie Hyppolite the school’s founder and headmistress, Sabine’s older sister, and our host for the week. We had lunch and toured the school and met teachers and staff, and also a young business student who was coping with memories of a frightening ordeal she endured, being buried under the Caribbean Market for two days.
Shortly after, representatives from the Red Cross arrived. Tracey Reines, Director of the Red Cross International Response Center, and Matt Marek, Country Representative, were among the many people we spoke to during our five-day stay, to gain a better understanding of the situation on the ground in Haiti.
“This earthquake hit the center of the city, destroyed the airport, court and other governmental buildings,” explained Reines of the Red Cross.
Since the earthquake hit, she and others on her team have been distributing household items (tarps, emergency and hygiene kits, bed mats, ropes, wood) to 80,000 to 100,000 families at 40 to 50 camps in Port-au-Prince, Jacmel, Leogane, and Petit-Goave. Over the next six months, they aim to serve another 60,000 families.
While the American Red Cross (not to be confused with the 40 different affiliations working in Haiti, including France and Canada), has the experience, international reputation and certainly the funding (it’s raised over $400 million from private donors and corporations) to lead relief efforts in Haiti, Tracey and Matt shared with us the difficulties they faced.
“This is the most impactful, complex, challenging, heartbreaking situation that we’ve ever seen,” said Reines.
Their biggest short-term challenge is finding a way to provide housing in the midst of very crowded conditions in the capital city. They estimated that 2.5 million (nearly double the population pre-earthquake) were currently living in the Greater Port-au-Prince area – about 15-square-miles (roughly the combined size of Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan). (We learned later that Port-au-Prince was designed and built for a half-million people.)
Despite the clear commitment of the individuals with whom we met, they acknowledged the challenge of getting out a positive message about their efforts on the ground, given recent criticism regarding their lack of visibility.
After our meeting with the Red Cross, Magalie and her husband Bob, took us for a tour of the center of the city, where well-known landmarks were teetering on the edge of demolition or forever gone.
Various government buildings were destroyed, including City Hall. Haiti’s nursing school was destroyed. The offices of the World Bank were gone – and so was the headquarters of the UN’s mission in Haiti. The National Cathedral, another landmark institution, was gone. While we did not drive along the periphery of the city, where we’d find hotels and motels, we learned that many were no longer in operation.
The Presidential mansion at the Champ de Mars, protected by armed guards, was still standing but was damaged beyond repair. The financial district was in ruins.
Near the Palace, the statue of Henri Christophe, revered leader in the Haitian Revolution, survived. Across from the Palace, “the Black Marron” – or “Neg Mawon,” (as its called in Creole), which celebrates the slaves’ revolt against their French colonizers, was completely hidden by hundreds of tents that cover the rotary. This, another statue that graces the Champs de Mars, represents bold defiance, and did not succumb to force of the quake’s destruction.
We saw that the Capitol Movie Theatre on Rue Lamarre was still standing; so was Haiti’s soccer stadium, Sylvio Cator, where heavy-weight champ Muhammed Ali and soccer great, Pele, once gave exhibition matches, though the stadium won’t be a sports locale again for a long time: it was completely filled with tents.
Given all that the people of Haiti have endured, it was striking to witness the spirit and resolve with which they seemed to be facing their days. Planted among the rubble-strewn sections of the city were places that seemed to spring up with life: grocery stores, pharmacies, clothing stores, and even a flower shop, were open for business. People were doing their best to return to their routines; their children, the hope of the country, were returning to school. We were heartened to see youngsters playing soccer, and two girls laughing and jumping rope.
Stunned by the strength and resilience of the Haitian people, we knew at that moment, that our commitment to Haiti would last long after the five days.
Day Two: Tuesday, April 20th
After a restful sleep at the home of our host, we loaded up the minivan and headed to BIWI, our base of activity during the trip.
It was a bright, sunny day – rush hour in Port-au-Prince – and the city was alive with activity. Just like the day before, sidewalks, that were free from tents and rubble, were crowded with people getting on with the business of their day. We saw women selling plantains, breadfruit and roasting cobs of corn and others carrying water and fruits and vegetables on their heads, men toting chickens and selling sodas, shoes, sandals and home supplies. Kids were headed to school in freshly pressed uniforms; a few boys were hustling drivers to wipe the dust off their cars. We saw people bathing themselves and their children in basins outdoors.
People were definitely getting on with their lives. Through their activity we witnessed the fortitude in their faces and the determination in their gait.
Our primary objective on that second day of our visit to Haiti was to retrieve 47 tents with poles and tarps (that we previously had shipped from the U.S. and were being held in customs at the airport). We planned to deliver them, ourselves, to several hard-hit areas, thereby ensuring that they’d reach their destination.
After a morning spent at BIWI to finalize the day’s itinerary, we left for the airport. However, we soon discovered that, despite our best-laid plans, our efforts were almost thwarted by the biggest challenge of our trip: government bureaucracy. What should have been a simple task became a test of will. Fortunately, we maintained our cool; and after a frustrating four-and-a-half-hour process, which involved lots of pleading, reasoning and running around, we secured our tents and headed back to town.
Unfortunately, by then, it was 4:30 p.m. – too late in the day to take the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Jacmel; so, we had to revise our schedule. We spent the next hour unloading the tents from a truck we had rented. Happy to at least have the tents in our possession and safely stowed, we had dinner at Magalie’s home and recounted the day’s adventure.
Day Three: Wednesday, April 21st
We arose early, energized by what we had set out to do. While we were a day behind, we were steadfast in our resolve to accomplish everything we purposed; the tents had to be delivered. One by one, we loaded the large wrapped items and long cardboard boxes containing the poles onto our covered truck, and then our group of six followed in the minivan, headed for Petit-Goave and Leogane, about 40 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince.
It was a rough ride – physically and emotionally – but we were motivated and undeterred because of our strong sense of purpose. The roads were passable for the most part. Along the way, we saw several crews in assembly-line style removing rubble by hand, and thousands of tents were assembled and occupied everywhere we went. There was a sense that people were fighting fiercely to pull through this horrible situation. Just weeks earlier, they were literally pulling love ones from the mountains of thick, heavy cinderblocks that buried many alive.
Once in Petit-Goave, the President of HOAP in Massachusetts, Lesly Renee, a contact made by Dr. Reid, waited on the side of the road to welcome us. Together, we drove to the home of Father Miguel Auguste, a Catholic priest who divides his time between Haiti and Brooklyn, New York. His house in Petit-Goave now serves as an anchor in the community, where government and community officials, as well as residents regularly meet to discuss rebuilding efforts. As we walked through his compound, Father Miguel described his experience on that fateful day.
“The noise was like a big boom,” he said. “The entire building collapsed killing everyone in it, except for the people who were in the basement. It took five-and-a-half hours to get us out. I spent the time praying with the others, trying to calm them down.”
With the help of Father Miguel and others, there was another round of unloading, carrying and storing of tents, poles and tarps; and so, we delivered the tents, as promised, for distribution to Petit-Goave, Leogane and Jacmel. We all felt really good that we had accomplished our goal. A bit dusty but nonetheless delighted, we took a few photos with our friends before heading to Leogane.
In Leogane, the earthquake’s epicenter, we spoke to Haitian and American volunteers along the way, who were working to restore this port city. We were surprised to see a young white woman on the side of the road, talking and laughing with two Haitian children. Mary who was friendly and seemed happy to be in Haiti, told us that she was from Jersey City, New Jersey. She had taken her three weeks vacation from work to come to Haiti to help remove rubble with the U.S.-based nonprofit Hands On Disaster Response.
Further along, off the main road, we met Hilda Alcindor, dean of the local nursing school. We let her know that tents were available for pick up and distribution for needy families in her community.
As we were leaving Leogane, a young Haitian worker wearing a bright yellow shirt, which identified her affiliation with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), made a poignant request we’ll always remember: “Please don’t forget Haiti”.
On the ride back to Port-au-Prince, we passed dry river beds, more tents (many of these were flimsy, made of bed sheets and sticks), gutted houses and flattened roofs; and closed beach clubs obscured our view of the Caribbean Sea. In Carrefour, which sustained heavy damage, the road was horrible: rocky, unpaved and flooded in sections.
“As bad and as devastating as things are in Haiti, street vendors are cooking, and children are returning to school,” observed Dr. Reid, who has visited Haiti regularly and still plans to retire there. “You can’t feel sorry for the people, but you have to help position them for where they want to go,” he said.
Day Four: Thursday, April 22nd
Our group believed that our trip to Haiti would be incomplete without a visit to at least one area hospital; so we arranged a visit to the Hospital de la Communaute Haitienne (HCH), a privately-owned facility in Petion-Ville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince. What we learned from the visit drove home the point that Haiti’s businesses and for-profit organizations are at great risk of failing.
With the influx of NGOs, which have received the lion’s share of funding to provide medical care to serve victims of the earthquake, well-established private institutions like HCH are no longer needed.
HCH volunteer Josiane Hudicourt-Barns, who lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts for 30 years but has now relocated to Haiti, explained that the hospital is struggling to keep afloat. Despite its success in meeting payroll, paying its bills and avoiding layoffs, the hospital had returned to its practice of charging its patients for care, just one week before our group visited.
“April 12th was a very upsetting day because we began charging patients,” Josiane wrote in her newsletter. “The hospital emptied out and the emergency room became quiet.”
Josiane’s mother and hospital founder, Dr. Edith Hudicourt, and hospital director, Jean Adrien, described the challenges this private hospital faced in the aftermath of the earthquake. The flood of volunteers has subsided. Back in January, they were camped out on hospital grounds and even sleeping on the roof; but now no one is around.
According to Josiane, volunteer medical staff are sorely needed, although she asked that prospective volunteers from the States coordinate their activity with the Haitian American Medical Association.
However, even if volunteers were to return, there is the larger issue regarding the absence of patients seeking care because they cannot afford to pay.
“The frantic pace of emergency care has abated and the hospital is quiet after 2 pm every day. In the morning the outpatient clinics are crowded but there are few hospitalized patients, few mothers giving birth. I haven’t seen a baby in the neonatal room for more than 2 weeks. The ICU is empty and the emergency room is often very quiet. People have to pay for care at HCH and people don’t have money,” wrote Josiane.
She told us during our visit that HCH would welcome any friends in Massachusetts who would be interested in “adopting” an entire hospital department and subsidized patient care. She also talked about the need to purchase items directly from businesses in Haiti, as a boost to the local economy.
Regarding the skill set of volunteers, she said HCH needed plastic surgeons and physical therapists, as well as inventory control specialists, who could build a database and help keep track of medicines and their expiration dates.
Back at BIWI, we met with Oxfam America, which benefited from a generous donation of $600,000 made by the State Street Foundation, soon after the earthquake. Kenny Rae, a humanitarian response specialist with Oxfam, told us how his organization had delivered 4,600 tarps to families in Haiti and is in the process of building 1,400 pit latrines. Although he had previously worked in tough locales (Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Gaza), he said of the level of destruction in Haiti, “Nothing prepared me for what I saw here,” he said.
Acknowledging the importance of collaborating with Haitians in Haiti and the Haitian Diaspora, to tackle relief and rebuilding efforts, he agreed to work with our group, going forward.
That afternoon, at the invitation of Minister Edwin Paraison, the six of us, along with other members of the Haitian Diaspora who were visiting Haiti, had lunch at the Museum of the Sugar Cane. Seated in an open, airy historic park, about a 30-minute drive from Downtown, we listened to Paraison’s vision to involve Haitians, who live in North America, the Caribbean, Latin America and the rest of the world, in the redevelopment of the nation.
A former member of the Diaspora, himself, having lived for 26 years in the Dominican Republic, Paraison began his new job at MHAVE last November. Little did he know then that he’d be representing a government in the throes of a catastrophe without a home or office; he lost both in the earthquake.
However, the purpose of the lunch was not to rehash the disaster details; rather, the main focus was the promise of a stronger and better Haiti and how the Diaspora can make a positive contribution.
“We have a Diaspora spread among 20 countries with 4 million people,” he said speaking in French. “We need to help the Diaspora to organize itself.”
Paraison described the obstacles that Haitian-Americans and others have encountered post-earthquake, “There were no hotels, no rental cars, so there were difficulties with their trip. This showed the need for a center to help coordinate these trips in the future,” adding that he’d like the government to set-aside a building that could serve as a guest house for visitors. In addition, he said he wanted to purchase two buses at a cost of $45,000 each to help transport visitors on the island.
The meeting with Paraison was uplifting; and it was great to meet with so many Haitian-Americans from Massachusetts and as far away as California. And so, on our fourth day in Haiti we made new friends and new connections. Our day ended in Fermathe, on an equally high note, at the home of Dr. Serge and Mona Hyacinthe, Dr. Reid’s brother-in-law and sister, who gave us a warm welcome and treated us to a tasty Haitian meal in their lovely backyard, beneath the stars and surrounded by a garden of beautiful flowers.
Day Five: Friday, April 23rd
Our last day had finally arrived – and we didn’t want to go.
Still, we packed our belongings and brought our suitcases down to the car. Breakfast was being prepared in the kitchen, amid lively conversation in Creole and English. We were recalling the events of the week and reviewing our plans for the return trip home.
The reality that we would be leaving Haiti in a matter of hours began to set in. As we sat at the kitchen table with our host family, who generously had opened their home to us, we could see in each other’s eyes what we all felt. It was a strange tension between wanting to return to Massachusetts and a nagging feeling that it was too soon to leave because there was so much more to do.
It had become a practice of ours that prior to eating our meal, we’d give thanks to God; and after being led in prayer, we’d go around the table and each person would share one thing about the prior day that was particularly inspiring or that held some special significance. In keeping with our practice, we prayed and afterwards we looked at each other to see who would begin with the personal reflection.
Bob announced in Creole: “Mwen ta remen di yon bagay” (I’d like to say something). This was remarkable in so many ways, not the least of which was the fact that Bob rarely spoke. He was a gracious and humble host, who carried himself with pride but he didn’t have much to say. Despite the fact that only half of our group spoke fluent Creole, we all understood perfectly that Bob was feeling just like the rest of us.
We had become family and, at that moment, part of the family was leaving. Grown men and women choked back tears. We all felt the love and appreciation. It was an emotional moment; the only thing left to do was to thank God for this gift of friendship and for showing us the purpose of our trip. We had delivered the tents, we had spoken with representatives from the NGO’s, visited schools, churches and hospitals; and we had traveled safely. But it became clear to us all that one very special result of our week in Haiti was the connection we made with each other and the people we met.
Darnell Williams, summarized it best when he said, “We don’t always know what the future holds but with faith and conviction, mighty things can be accomplished.”
And indeed, we can achieve things much greater than we have the ability to imagine. In four days we were able to check off the items on our “to do” list – but more than that, we had become united in a purpose that was bigger than any one individual: we had seen a need and acted in the service of others.
“To the uninitiated it may be easy to dismiss this as a lesson that we learn as children. But the true value of the lesson is not in the learning but the doing,” said Sandy Cody.
We didn’t talk much on the way to the airport.
Since our return to Massachusetts on April 23rd, we’ve vowed to stay together as a group, committed to continue what we began in Haiti. We’ve even found a name for ourselves – Six and Counting for Haiti – and several of us have begun making plans for a return trip in September.
We’ve reported back to our friends, Wheelock College President Jackie Jenkins-Scott and Massachusetts Bay Community College President Carole Berotte-Joseph, who has invited us to serve on a panel at her college next month to share our experiences and collection of photos. We also intend to follow-up with the Boston offices for those NGOs we met with in Haiti. We’ll share our observations and recommendations, in an effort to provoke further discussion and motivate others to help.
Finally, It would have been nearly impossible to do what we did without the generous support of several individuals and organizations: Wal*Mart, Hank Miller, and Arlington Church in coordination with the Haitian Coalition of Somerville provided us with close to $30,000, most of it from Wal*Mart. The donations paid for the purchase and shipment of the tents to Haiti, and helped support the group’s travel and in-country logistics.
In addition, we received donations of supplies from State Street employees, Joseph Lorusso of Walpole and Lionel Lucien, who coordinated contributions from the Department of Transportation and MassPort.
Our group of six delivered 47 tents, as promised, but much hard work remains. As that young Haitian volunteer we met in Leogane implored, we must never forget Haiti!