Elon University senior John McGreevy flew to Haiti over Winter Term as part of a research project. Within days he found himself helping the wounded, the widowed and the children made orphans following the impoverished nation’s largest natural disaster in generations. The environmental studies and biology double major from the Philadelphia region recently spoke with E-net about his experience.
ENET: Can you share with readers why you traveled to Haiti over Winter Term?
JM: I have been trying to return to Haiti ever since I first visited the country four years ago and fell in love with the Haitian people. The purpose of my trip was two-fold. First, I was performing research on the implementation of simple solar ovens in rural villages. The many aspects I explored included cultural issues, the willingness of Haitian women to use the device, and the effects of this on women’s health and workweeks.
The other aspect of my time in Haiti was service to the community in which I stayed, working on their water purification systems, and acting as a liaison for the Parish Twining program that has fostered sustainable development in the rural village of Layaye.
ENET: Tell readers about the moment the quake hit. Did you know what was happening?
JM: Confusion and denial followed my initial instincts, but this what I wrote about the thoughts that passed through my head in my personal journal:
“I sat down on my bed. Almost immediately there was chaos. What it a bomber?… it sounded like it. Was that the roof bending? Whatever it was, it was an entirely unique feeling. I had never felt ground, which I am so dependent on and used to staying still, begin to move. And not just that, but convulse, fold, sway. The doorway morphed, the bed slid on its wheels, the distances between objects changed for a few moments, not drastically but definitely. Earthquake, I knew.”
ENET: When did you first realize the magnitude of the disaster in Port-au-Prince?
JM: It was not until later that evening that I was informed through text messages from the U.S. that the quake was not a small, isolated incident as I previously thought. The people of the village had no idea that their capital city and many of their family members were in peril. No phone calls could be made domestically. For days, the only news gathered came in through phone calls from the U.S.
ENET: Describe your response to the quake. When did you first get to the capital, and what did you do there?
JM: My first trip back to the capital came two or three days later. Men were going to look for loved ones they had not yet got in contact with and I decided to join. I really did not do much in terms of assistance on my first visit. It was far too chaotic and fresh to have significant impact given the lack of resources we possessed. Minimal aid, if any, had reached the country, and I saw only a handful of Americans in the city.
ENET: You returned to Port-au-Prince shortly after your first visit, and in various newspaper accounts, you recalled witnessing terrible conditions. What sticks out the most to you?
JM: Because I can’t explain it better than I could the day of, here is what I wrote about that night, which I sent out to friends and family the following day:
“I was handed a mask as we pulled into the city. ‘Oh yes, for the dust probably,’ I thought in my naivety. When I asked, the answer was not as easy to swallow. ‘The bodies… it has been three days.’ And so it had been, the smells began to seep in through the windows.
“It is Armageddon here. Everything you could imagine in a Hollywood production, but worse. Televisions only attack your sight and hearing. News cannot portray the screams, the death. It is a death that fills your lungs and seeps into your skin. Before today, I had never seen a dead body. Of course, I have been to a few wakes. But the same is always said, ‘Oh, how they look so peaceful.’ … We drove past pickup trucks leaving the city, men throwing families into pickup trucks, motionless. We passed buildings, rubble, wounded. I took some pictures. Some things were too horrific to, I did not want to capture.
“And then we reached where the hospital once stood. The sidewalks (or at least where sidewalks should be) supported lifeless figures, naked, blank. People walked by without a turn of the head. This was not a spectacle, and in the last three days they had seen much worse. The medians of only four feet in width transformed into campgrounds for families, both wounded and healthy. Parks harbor tens of thousands. There is no water.
“And still the American response here is not as glorious as I hear from domestic news in the States. America is deceived. Yes, supplies have arrived, and the support is amazing from the American people, but little has been distributed. It waits at PAP airport, sitting there until the movie stars can arrive in their private jets to take pictures and get their publicity. I doubt they walk out of the parking lot.
“Despite this news, my view of the human race is improving drastically. As an American, this is so foreign to me. I have been here for weeks and I still am floored by the faith of the Haitian people. You hear that? Amidst the cries and gunfire of the night? That is praise. That is thousands of wounded singing to God hymns of worship, drenching the concrete with their own blood.
“I have awoken to a shining sun in the rural village of Layaye. It is almost as if the world has decided to stretch, yawn, and awake after three days of slumber. And yet, the rays bring no peace. The increased visibility only shines light on the amount of destruction of the days passed. Some of the phone lines are opened, finally. For some, sighs of relief are audible as they hear that everything is fine with their families. For others, the ineffable mourning has begun.
“Father Illric’s sister is alive. His cousin, cousin’s wife, and two small children have left the world. Franz’s house, which he has been saving for his whole life, is destroyed. His wedding will have to wait more years. Many, many lives are lost. Many children, many mothers, many people with souls, blood, flesh.
“Dear God, may this not be just another tragedy in the history of Haiti. It is a dark history, where hints of light are snuffed out before they may ignite into flames.
“As the sun rises today, may the world turn its eyes to the western third of this island, rays illuminating mountains and valleys slowly with the rotation of our planet. May the cries be answered and may the existence of this land be acknowledged. May the food, clean water, health care, and shelter these people have needed for their entire lives finally be met by Christian brothers and sisters around the world. Today, with sun showing all, exposing the scars and new gashes in her body, may America and the world not turn their eyes away. Today, for the first time, the world sees her sister Haiti.
“I love you and am thinking of you all,
ENET: How did the Haitians themselves react to the quake? You’ve noted that they are spiritual people. How does that help them?
JM: While there were indeed isolated incidences of violence, as there would be with any country, the response of the Haitian people appeared to me to be far different than would be expected from people in such a position. What was so strangely beautiful to me was that the default response of the people I encountered was praise. Had I had my house collapse, my nation’s capital destroyed, my family and friends injured and dead around me, my first cowardly thought would be “Why me? How could you God?”
The Haitian men, women, and children I came to know sang out “How Great is Our God” in their darkest hour, rejoicing for what little they have left in material possessions, and how blessed they were in other aspects of life, not focused on in American society.
ENET: How did your faith assist you in Haiti?
JM: Countless ways. The sole reason I was there was because I have tried to make myself happy through self-centeredness, and that lifestyle was pointless, misleading, and empty. I believe that we humans are created in brilliant ways: That we are broken when we try to live for ourselves, that in order to be truly joyful we must provide love-driven service to others, and that we can learn far more from the children and impoverished of the world than we do from the rich, powerful and intellectually gifted individuals that claim to hold the purpose to life.
ENET: What do you recommend readers do if they have interest in helping the nation?
JM: In terms of practical ways to help, the only worthwhile and beneficial form of aid is sustainable. The best ways I have seen this done are through organizations dedicated to specific communities and participatory development, such the Periclean Scholars program.
In Haiti, the best work is being done by organizations like Parish Twinning through the Catholic Church, similar programs in other faiths, and school-to-school connections, not just in Port-au-Prince but also in the surrounding countryside where refugees now reside. In my ideal world, every church and school in the United States would create lifelong partnerships with churches and schools in Haiti, with each gaining and learning more than they could have ever imagined.
Action is not worthwhile unless it is filled with love. By understanding this, we will be able to open our minds and hearts to the people of Haiti, making sure that our actions are not for personal gain, recognition, or anything more than the improvement of the lives of those less fortunate than ourselves.