Justice Canada

A Week in Haiti, A Lifetime of Lessons

By Prasanna Ranganathan

OTTAWA – Last summer, I was fortunate to travel to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to join a team of the Sathya Sai World Foundation for an eight-day volunteer mission to help those displaced and devastated by the massive January 2010 earthquake.

It has been six months since that life-changing, soul-stirring experience in Haiti. Even now, when reflecting upon this experience, I am flooded with indelible images and profound life lessons. This is one experience that I will never forget.

The Foundation has a history of service, having established mobile medical clinics to provide health care services after several natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 tsunami in Asia.

Each week (from Saturday to the following Sunday), the Foundation organized a team of volunteers, including health care professionals and non-medical volunteers, who travelled to Port-au-Prince to work in various locations, including two medical camps, a local orphanage and a large-scale food service program. Our team included one doctor, two medical students and two non-medical volunteers.

I arrived at the Port-au-Prince airport on Saturday morning and was struck by the number of volunteer groups that were on the flight. It felt like humanity coming together, mounting a collective response to a collective crisis.

My first recollection of Port-au-Prince was the prominence of rubble and the constant, haunting reminders of the earthquake. Surveying the scenes of collapsed buildings and sprawling tent cities, it felt like the earthquake happened only a few days earlier.

I found the tent cities particularly astonishing, as these makeshift dwellings served as a visceral, visual representation of the earthquake's devastating aftermath and the long road of recovery that lay ahead.

During the week, we provided assistance at two medical camps located in the heart of two tent cities. The first medical camp, for adults and senior citizens, was located at the Franciscan Church Saint Alexandre Chapel (also known as the "big church") where our team worked with approximately 60 patients per day.

The second medical camp, for children and expectant mothers, was housed at the Christian Assembly of Bobin (the "little church"), where approximately 50 patients sought medical assistance each day.

As one of the two non-medical volunteers on our team, I assisted the doctors and medical interns at both camps with patient intake, gathering background information, organizing supplies, serving meals and water and distributing medicines from the pharmacy. Given that I could speak French, I also communicated with the patients and local volunteers who spoke either French or Haitian Creole.

When we arrived at the big church in the mornings, we were greeted by a long line of patients waiting in the pews of the church to see the doctor. We were ably assisted by a group of local translators, many of whom were engineers and computer scientists by training.

The translators shared with us their stories of the struggle to find work after the earthquake and how they had to abandon their chosen profession for any work that would help them support their families. Despite these challenges, they had a thirst for life and spoke proudly about their country and their hopes for a bright future. They wanted an active role in rebuilding Haiti after the earthquake. Their desire to effect positive change was palpable.

A tent city in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
A tent city in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

During lunchtime, we served hot meals to the patients waiting to see the doctor and had a chance to visit with the patients more generally. One young woman who was unable to sleep for months shared her experience of losing a child in the earthquake. Her emotions were so raw and her loss so real that my heart broke for her.

At the little church, we primarily worked with children and expectant mothers who had come to the clinic to seek medical assistance. The clinic was located in a small classroom of an old schoolhouse. Attached to the clinic was a makeshift children's orphanage. The original orphanage building collapsed during the earthquake, killing 12 of the 30 children living there. The remaining children, sleeping in bunk beds under the gaze of the tents, still bore the emotional scars of this traumatic loss.

Prasanna Ranganathan (centre left)with volunteers
Prasanna Ranganathan (centre left) with volunteers

The patients at the little church still linger in my mind – many suffering from starvation or extreme malnutrition, others running high fevers, and one child with chicken pox. To treat one child with an excessively high fever, the doctors wrapped him entirely in cold compresses and I sang songs to calm his loud sobs. His mother was also afflicted with the same high fever and her other children sat by helplessly trying to support their mother and calm their crying brother. Within hours of first arriving at the clinic, the fever of both mother and child abated, allowing them to leave together as a family.

During our days at the little church, we also worked with the children at the orphanage, teaching them songs and leading group dance activities. Along with the children, our group performed rousing renditions of "Rain Song," the "Macarena," and the "Hokey-Pokey." The children's eyes lit up at the sound of the music, though I was almost positive that they were laughing at us trying to demonstrate the flamboyant-yet-archaic dance moves of 1990s pop songs.

Finally, we worked as a part of the weekly food service program on Saturday, helping to prepare and package 800 hot meals to distribute to the various tent cities in Port-au-Prince and surrounding communities.

The food service program provides nearly 5,000 meals each week to impoverished, vulnerable communities affected by the earthquake. We loaded all of the meals packaged in individual containers onto trucks and drove into the heart of several tent cities in Port-au-Prince. I still remember handing out meals from the truck and people clamouring for their first full, proper meal in days.

This experience with the food service program really hit me the day after I returned to Canada. Shopping for the week's groceries, I suddenly froze in the cereal aisle and started weeping, truly experiencing for the first time the flood of emotion which had driven me to action over the past week.

In that moment, I wept with sadness for those who had suffered so much in Haiti, losing loved ones, losing their homes, losing everything.

I wept with confusion about the injustice of abundance which allows us to have access to ample housing, health care, food and water while so many in Haiti continue to want for these things.

I wept with both guilt and gratitude for the blessings in my life.

Ultimately, I wept for the lessons that this experience has taught me: Live your best life. Make each moment count. Love unconditionally. Don't sweat the small stuff. A lifetime of lessons – a veritable panoply of inspirational fridge magnets.

I went to Haiti to feel connected to the world again, to escape the day-to-day challenges of work and to do something meaningful. My contributions that week were insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but the immensity of what I gained from this experience is immeasurable.

I will never forget the tenacity of local volunteers and organizers who worked assiduously and selflessly to help those in need. I will never forget the young translators who taught us about the importance of hard work and the thrill of an impromptu song and dance party after a particularly long day at the clinic.

Ultimately, I will never forget the dichotomies of this experience – the laughter and tears, the rubble and natural beauty, the established and ephemeral, and the devastation and hope.

To the people of Haiti, who, through their lived experience, demonstrate the importance of compassion, the lesson of strength in the face of adversity, the virtue of collective responsibility and a shared commitment to selfless service, you have forever changed my life.

Leading lives of grace and quiet courage, you have taught me that the impossible is possible and that within each and every one of us, there is a well-spring of inner fortitude and love waiting to be shared with the world.

For this and so much more, I will never forget you. For this and so much more, I thank you.

In January 2010, Haiti was rocked by a massive earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale – the strongest earthquake in Haiti's history. The Red Cross estimates that approximately 200,000 were killed in the earthquake and more than 1.3 million people were left homeless, and are now living in sprawling tent cities without access to proper food, water, sanitation or health care. More than half of the buildings in Port-au-Prince were destroyed or damaged, including hospitals and health centres.

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