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We spoke the international language of people building something together

Hope in the Aftermath of Haiti’s Earthquake

By Kevin Fussell

World Water Relief Board President 

 Pulmonary/Critical Care Physician, Southeast Georgia Health System


In January 2010, World Water Relief made the quick decision to participate in the relief effort after the Haiti earthquake.  We are not a relief organization, instead one that focuses on long term, sustainable projects, but the news and images coming from Haiti created a call that could not be ignored.  The “real” relief organizations, such as the Red Cross, Oxfam, UNICEF, these are all large organizations and their response takes time.  We felt in this regard that our small size was our best asset.  We couldn’t help everyone, but those we could serve, we could do so within days, not weeks.

Ben Seidl, our program director at the time, and I were on the ground within three days constructing our plan of how we could help.  There was no manual, no coordination of efforts, just chaos and the desire to do something.   It was my first trip to Haiti, and I will never forget driving the streets of Port au Prince that first day, seeing, smelling and feeling all the death and destruction around you.  The feeling of loss was palpable.  These were people who struggled before the earthquake, and I remember thinking, “where is the hope now?”.

After days of logistical struggles, hours of back and forth travel, and very little sleep, we had safe water flowing in a number of nascent refugee camps.  Our contribution was small overall, as we were probably serving 10,000 of the over 1,000,000 displaced by the earthquake, but we provided safe water to these camps for three weeks before the Red Cross and Oxfam showed up with more permanent, large scale solutions.

What I remember the most, however, was not the water we provided but the people we met in those camps.  Our group spent time in the camps, teaching the children some English, learning some Creole (more so Ben than me!), and I actually found myself helping two guys build what would be their home for the indefinite future.  They spoke no English, and I no Creole, but we spoke the international language of people building something together.  We had a pile of scrap lumber and some rudimentary tools, and as I have no talent myself, I measured, sawed and hammered what I was told, and somehow we constructed a 5×5 hut in the middle of a concrete park that was now wall to wall shanties. The three of us were very proud of our accomplishment.  For me it is still the only thing I have ever really built.

That day is one of the most meaningful in my life, and one I will never forget.  I was with people I love, trying to give something, but getting more in return, which is frequently how these things end up.  And so there I was, dehydrated, sunburnt and with blisters on my hands, but I had found the answer to my earlier question.  The hope for Haiti is in its people and their indomitable spirit.  Most everyone we encountered those weeks in Port au Prince had a hope for Haiti that seemed to have no basis in fact, the past or the present.  Based on history and what I was seeing around me, things looked hopeless, but after spending more time in Haiti over the years, I now see hope everywhere.  I see hope in the eyes of the schoolchildren to whom we provide water in Mirebalais.  I see hope in the smile of our Haitian program director, Solo.  I see hope in Samuel and our other hygiene education students, whom we educate on the importance of sanitation and safe water on weekends.  I see hope in the small changes I see every time I go back to Haiti.  I recognize change will not happen overnight, but I now believe, like the Haitians I work with, that change will come…. and it all started when things were at their lowest in January 2010.