As I sat in the crypt of St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, with over a thousand Haitians filling the rows, I first felt as if I were at a funeral, a communal grieving for all of those who didn’t have funerals, the ones who filled the mass graves. I realized that every single person there had a story, whether it was of family members who perished or friends who were spared. The thought that each person around me had a story brought mine into perspective.
A Haitian author, Dany Laferrière, who happened to be staying at the same hotel as I was on the day of the earthquake, wrote in his book Tout Bouge Autour de Moi (Everything Around Me Is Moving), “That day, Haitian time split in half. Now, there is only before and after January 12th.” My story and my relationship with Haiti started long before January 12, 2010, but the events of that day deepened everything.
My grandmother emigrated from Haiti to Montreal when my mother was thirteen years old. Although I was born in Canada and raised primarily in the United States, I spent most of my summers and holidays in Haiti, visiting my grandmother and extended family. Those annual trips established Haiti as one of the few constants in my life and more of a home than anywhere else.
My early exposure to Haiti’s needs fueled my desire to become a doctor and build medical clinics in Haiti, but a year after beginning study at Columbia University, I dropped my premedical concentration. After spending part of my summer in 2006 volunteering with a medical mission in Haiti, I’d realized that the systemic issues that caused the lack of a health care system interested me much more than biology and chemistry.
I spent the rest of my college career testing how many papers I could write about Haiti while continuing to do volunteer work there, and I started a nonprofit to increase educational opportunities in rural communities. I concluded my time at Columbia by completing a fifth year that allowed me to attain a master’s degree in international affairs.
During the last year of the program, when I was accepted into a research group that focused on Haiti, I was elated. My group chose to grapple with how private-sector investment could impact state-building and development in Haiti. I could not wait for our week-long field research trip, which began on January 7, 2010.
Our first few days were a round of briefings and meetings in which, in contrast to the negative reports in the U.S. press, we heard from government officials, UN leaders, and private sector members about the “window of opportunity” in Haiti, due to its relative stability and international investment interest.
On Tuesday afternoon, we finished a meeting with one of the Haitian president’s advisers at the Hotel Christophe and had just arrived at the location of our next meeting with the head of the UN Development Programme mission when the earthquake hit.
Most of my teammates had just exited the van and were thrown to the ground, but I was still inside. When the shaking began, I thought it was a bomb; I kept thinking to myself, “Haiti doesn’t have earthquakes.” Once the shaking stopped, we heard screaming. The road that we had been on one minute ago, as well as the cars and buildings on it, were completely demolished by rocks that had fallen from the hill above. I saw a woman’s arm flailing between rocks, and I burst into tears.
Our parking lot quickly became a makeshift infirmary. We had one doctor from Partners in Health and a couple of us who tried to help in any way we could. But all we had were first aid kits to treat gaping wounds and broken limbs. The supplies from the first aid kits quickly ran out, and I could only attempt to comfort children who were alone. I sang and prayed to calm them and myself.
The next morning, all of us who were in the parking lot were driven to the UN logistics base. Soon the doctor from Partners in Health requested help in the infirmary. The only suitable way to describe the infirmary is “hell on earth.” Those first few hours are a blur, but I remember doing my first splint on a woman whose bone was sticking out of her leg, and then having to redo it because I messed up. We now had more medical supplies but not enough of the right things; people would ask me for pills to take away the pain and I had nothing to give them. We spent that day and the following morning cleaning wounds, making splints, and holding hands.
THAT NIGHT in the infirmary, I met two little girls who transformed my Christian faith. I first encountered Emmanuella, who was fourteen years old, still in her gray school uniform. She had the sweetest demeanor, but couldn’t lift herself from the cot because she was in so much pain. After talking to her for a while, I asked if she would like to pray with me.
She volunteered to pray first and shocked me because she started by praying for me. She thanked God for my being there and prayed that God would use me however He wanted. She then prayed that she would be able to draw closer to Him and that He would use her as well. She said only one sentence about the pain she was suffering. I had never heard such strength and selflessness in a prayer. After praying, she said matter-of-factly, “God sent you here to be with me.”
And then there was Marie-Yolene. A seven-year-old with a broken wrist, she was alone. I sat on the edge of her cot, trying to distract her from the pain by making her laugh with silly faces and funny stories. The funniest moment was when she interrupted me to touch my shoulder-length twists and ask if they were real. Looking into her big brown eyes, I tried to encourage her by telling her how strong she was. Later that night, a man across from her died. The doctor desperately and unsuccessfully tried to revive him. Marie-Yolene asked me why he had a sheet over his head, and if he was dead. I couldn’t tell her yes. I just said I didn’t know.
As I walked away from Marie-Yolene, the implications of Jesus’ crucifixion hit me harder than ever before. It was solely through his sacrifice that Christianity made sense to me at that point. If Jesus had not risked all of his privilege, entered into our suffering, and experienced what the people in front of me were feeling, I could not have continued to believe in a loving and omnipotent God.
Our research team had been alerted that we would probably be evacuated that day to the Dominican Republic by helicopter, but when they told us we had to leave immediately, I was heartbroken. Right before I left, one of the newly arrived doctors told me that Marie-Yolene’s hand would have to be amputated because it was so infected. I walked away quickly, afraid to look back because I would break down in front of the patients.
Leaving Haiti tore my heart, but I also knew that there was very little we could do in the state we were in: no change of clothes, no money, nowhere to sleep. We couldn’t retrieve anything from our hotel at that time, as our rooms were filled with rubble.
Since leaving Haiti, I’ve been through the various stages of grief. Continuing to help the people of Haiti, through various fundraising and awareness-raising activities, has been the most healing and effective way to cope with what has happened. While it seems as if much of the aid committed has not benefited the majority of the Haitian people, it is crucial to continue supporting the organizations that really are making a difference.
The needs in the aftermath of the earthquake were clearly physical and psychosocial; on the ground, however, the people’s spiritual needs were just as apparent. I first saw it in Emmanuella’s eagerness to pray; I later saw it in the parents of a suffering child in the infirmary who stopped at every cot to pray with each injured person who was willing. I heard it every time there was an aftershock, and rounds of praying and singing would restart. The world caught glimpses of Haitians’ spiritual fervor in the thousands of Haitians who gathered in or near the remnants of churches to fast and pray on the one-month anniversary.
When I returned to Haiti in July 2010 to volunteer with a campus ministry and saw the country in practically the same state as when I’d left, the churches were still overflowing. As I exchanged stories with Haitian college students and residents of tent cities, there was a distinct conversational shift when they found out that I was in Haiti at the time of the earthquake. It was as if the door opened and the thoughts and words about the friends and family that they had lost were invited to the table. I expected them to share their frustration and anger about the conditions in which they were living; I did not expect their consistent gratitude to God that they were alive.
WHAT AMAZES me is that so many in Haiti have experienced something so deep that even an earthquake could not shake their faith from them. In Aftershock, Kent Annan highlights what I’ve witnessed so many Haitians live out: “You don’t have to have all the answers to climb over the rubble to look for and follow after Jesus.” That thought traveled back with me to the United States when I interned with the UN Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti from September to December 2010. After a day at the UN, where I had learned of a dramatic spike in cholera-related deaths, I went to Columbia’s Intervarsity Christian Fellowship weekly gathering. As people started singing, I refused to join in. I was too angry and brokenhearted over yet another disaster wreaking havoc in Haiti. I could not accept the idea that so much suffering should be inflicted on the people of one small island. Worse still, this time, I wasn’t even in Haiti to offer a hand.
I stood silently in the chapel, defiant. But the lyrics to the next song were simply, “Hallelujah,” and I remembered that in the midst of so much pain and death, thousands of Haitians were still singing, “Alleluia.” That thought drove me to my knees and I began to cry. If Haitians could maintain their faith in the midst of their reality, who was I not to?
Gabrielle Apollon was born in Montreal, Canada in 1988. She received a B.A. in political science at Columbia University in 2009 and an M.A in International Affairs in 2010 at Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs. She is currently seeking the best opportunity to join in the reconstruction efforts in Haiti.