Haiti: The broken heart of the Caribbean

A typical scene of devastation after the earthquake

Two years ago today the earth shook so violently beneath Port-au-Prince that hundreds of thousands of Haitians lost their lives. I was volunteering in the Dominican Republic at the time and was called to Haiti by my colleagues there to lend a hand. I spent 6 weeks in the broken city and left grudgingly after suffering from malaria. I recall those weeks as both the most difficult and most inspiring of my life. Below is an excerpt from an email I sent home to friends and family not long after arriving in Haiti:

I am just sitting here with my friend Robin, telling her how I want to give an update about what is going on here in Haiti, but that I don’t even know where to begin. I give info updates all the time, I can spurt facts, but how to I even begin to reveal what is really going on in my head and heart?

“Tell them how much we cry,” she says.

We cry all the time. Even when there are no tears we are crying.

As you know, 3 weeks ago Port-au-Prince, the capital city of Haiti, was rocked by an epic 7.0 earthquake. Hundreds of thousands of souls were displaced from their bodies that day. For millions more, life as they knew it ended.

When the earthquake hit Haiti it shook me to my core. Never had a tragedy been so personal. I ached for the people of Haiti – for my friends, my co-workers, and all those still unknown to me. We felt so useless in the Dominican Republic. We wanted to be here – helping, digging, supporting our friends, whatever was needed. But it was still unclear just what was needed. We started to do what we could – fundraising, communicating, buying supplies for the hospital.

The courage of young children like Diana inspired me

2 weeks ago my friend Robin called and asked me to come to Haiti. After 12 hours on a bus, we finally arrived at St. Damien hospital, NPH‘s free Pediatric hospital in Tabarre, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. The gardens, parking lots, hallways, and internal courtyards were all filled with groaning, bleeding patients with grotesque wounds. Stick fractures. New amputees. An overpowering smell hung low on the whole compound – a heady mix of piss and faeces and gangrene and chlorine and fear.

I put up my emotional defences, unfocused my gaze, tried to breathe through my mouth, and just got on with it.

On my first night we slept on the roof of the 2 story volunteer house and woke up the next day to the building shaking in a 6.0 aftershock. We raced down the stairs and fell into a shaky, crying mess as soon as it ended. Our friends Renand and Joseph (both Haitian) decided then and there that we should not sleep in a building. We have been sleeping under the stars ever since. The earth kept shaking for another week. After every aftershock the tension in the air would rise, headaches and anxiety became the norm.

Last week we drove through downtown Port-au-Prince and the town of Leogane (the epicentre of the quake) to deliver shelter and supplies to a ruined orphanage in the mountains to the south. What I saw will never be able to be understood, except by those who have seen it too. No words can explain, no images can do it justice. Leogane is completely destroyed. 90% of the buildings collapsed. The cemetery is ringed by a mass grave. They just dug a trough, bulldozed in thousands of bodies, and covered them with rubble. What else could they do?

What is the official death toll now? I don’t even know. I have no time to follow the news. A week ago they said 110,000 buried. That is only a fraction of the lives that have been lost. They are only able to count the bodies that they have retrieved. Whole families are trapped in their fallen houses. Half of the city is nothing more than a sea of concrete, the hillsides striped with rubble landslides. How can they even count? It will take years to clean up the rubble. Will they be finding bodies and bones a year from now?

Hundreds of thousands of Haitians still live in tent cities like this

And then there are the survivors… where will they go? Hundreds of thousands of homeless sleeping in the streets, in the plazas, on the doorsteps of shops, in the fast-food outlets. Hundreds of makeshift camps in and around the city – people sleeping on the road under the stars, or in huts made of sticks and bedsheets, in camps with hundreds or thousands of other homeless, without food, water, medical treatment, or sanitation. What will become of them? We are trying to help – distributing food, water, tents, medical care – but there is so much need, so many people who are needy. Everywhere you go in the city you see signs scrawled by some desperate hand – “Please help us, we need water, food, shelter” in as many languages as they can recall.

Survivors like this young girl, who was found alone at the hospital, still need your help

And yet there is hope. And yet there is love. The wards of our hospital are filled with small children with missing limbs and sparkling eyes. The earth has stopped shaking and people are starting to move forward, as best they can. People are hungry, but also humble. I have made so many new friends here. People approach me daily – on the street or in the hospital – to thank me for coming to help them. People laugh and play and share what they have. The Haitians I have met are so strong and so kind and so loving. They are fighters. They will survive this. They are used to surviving. Their lives have been one tragedy after another – hurricanes, dictators, genocide, corruption, starvation, unemployment, and now the earthquake to end all earthquakes. They know no other reality, which is so unfair. But they will survive, and they will teach us. They are teaching me already – about compassion, about love, about my own humanity. They are inspiring me.

Haitians continue to suffer the devastating effects of the recent twin blows of the earthquake and a massive epidemic of cholera. Although it is no longer featured much in the media, the need for support continues to be great. If you would like to make a donation that will make a real difference for Haitians, especially for orphaned and vulnerable children, I can vouch for the integrity of NPH Haiti and the affiliated St. Damien Pediatric hospital in Port-au-Prince where I volunteered. Please visit their website to make a donation today.


About Cassandra

Hi, I'm Cassandra. I work in fundraising, love travelling, and am fascinated by how we can inspire one another to greatness and spread human kindness. Connect with me on twitter @cassandra_nz


  1. Wow! Incredible journey, and incredible story. You are a wonderful person.

    Also, I love that you volunteered in the DR (my Heart Home).

    • Awww, thanks for your kind words. Yeah, I lived in the DR for a year and volunteered in an orphanage near San Pedro de Macoris. It’s a beautiful and difficult country.

  2. Pingback: “But you can’t save the world,” they say « My Life Is My Message

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