April 2, 2010

An Awakening- A Journey to Port-au-Prince, Haiti

My name is Sam Gilbert and I just graduated high school and am on my way to college. I am told often, that I belong to the generation with the power to change the world. Since grade school, I have been exposed to many of the world’s hardships; whether it be the 9/11 terrorist attacks, hurricane Katrina, the Tsunami in Asia or the most recent earthquake in Haiti. I am not sure I ever really saw it, or understood it for that matter until I traveled to Haiti on March 22, 2010.

My first ever visit to the Haitian capital city, Port-au-Prince began even before I stepped foot outside the plane and onto the tarmac. On March 18th I found out at around 10am that my aunt Joey would be making yet another trip to Haiti on Monday. This being her eighth trip, my aunt was going on the trip in order to make sure a cargo load full of supplies made its way over safely. By roughly 8pm that same Thursday night I was told that I would be joining my aunt along with Mr. Frank McKenna and eleven other dedicated philanthropists, all of different professions, on this journey to the earthquake ravaged Haiti.

Seeing as how my aunt had been back and forth from Haiti on numerous occasions, I had seen countless photographs and heard many stories all over the world news as well about the devastation that had taken place in the poorest country of the Americas; however, nothing came close to what I was about to see live in person.

Our day began at 4:30am before the sun had even risen with the piercing sound of a blackberry alarm; time to get ready and head for the airport. Joey and I boarded a 6am flight from Montreal to Toronto where we met up with: Mr. Frank McKenna, Vice Chair of the TD Financial Group and chair of the ONEXONE Foundation, Ms. Judith Irving, Mr. James Dodds, Mr. Jude Welch, Dr. Maingi, Amgad Shehata, Vikram Khurana and Ajay Virmani; Ajay and Vikram both part of the incredible South Asian community who share so much heartfelt compassion with the people of Haiti. These very special individuals, all of who are tremendously accomplished and successful in the business world, all came together on this day to travel to Haiti under the umbrella of the ONEXONE Foundation, willing to donate whatever resources he or she had to the arduous relief effort at hand.

As we approached our destination, I stared out the window, being told to watch for the clear distinction between the Dominican Republic and Haiti who share the island called Hispaniola. From a bird’s eye view it was easy to see the devastation of deforestation; that being the main reason why flooding is that much more disastrous in Haiti. We stepped off the plane and walked down the tarmac towards the cargo jet loaded with supplies that had just arrived minutes before us. As we watched the goods being loaded off the plane in bundles, we were greeted by our friends from Partners in Health. Partners in Health, who are lead by Doctor Paul Farmer, are ONEXONE’s main partners in Haiti. I was told Partners in Health operates ten health centres of their own throughout Haiti along with helping run three government hospitals since the earthquake.


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After about twenty minutes at the airport, making certain all was ok with Haitian customs, with all the goods being unloaded, our group headed for the cars parked out front that were waiting to take us to the Canadian Embassy. Never in my life had I envisaged such destruction, the first bit of road was somewhat deceiving as the terrain seemed to be in pretty good condition and the few buildings along that strip were still intact. It was once we began to enter the city, however, where the aftermath of the earthquake became all too apparent. It was shocking to come to the full realization that there were so few buildings or structures that still remained standing. For those few houses that still remained standing, the inhabitants could often be found living in small tents just beside the structure for fear of the house’s eventual collapse. Nothing was more shocking than the beacon of the country of Haiti, the Presidential Palace, what they refer to as “The Whitehouse”, in complete ruin. Throughout our route to the embassy, it was amazing to see how every square inch of what had been empty land, or parkland, was now covered with tents and tarps. Still driving through these streets, I came to realize what I had been told earlier, that being there, no matter how helpful, was also very difficult on the dignity of the Haitian people having them exposed in their most vulnerable state.

At the embassy Canadian Ambassador Mr. Richard Lacroix graciously greeted us as soon as we exited the vehicles and proceeded to take us on a tour of the entire facility. A modest structure built on somewhat of a hill, sitting in the midst of all the worn down buildings, tents and piles of rubble, the embassy seemed as if it was Buckingham Palace. Although at first it did not seem as though there had been any real damage to embassy’s structure whatsoever, the Ambassador brought us to a section of the building where the entire roof had shifted and where construction was being performed in order to prevent its collapsing. Mr. Lacroix then brought us into a conference room on the upper floor of the building where we were briefed about the true extent of the damage and what was needed at this point in time. One particular scene described by the Ambassador that continues to resonate in my mind is that of 50,000 people living on top of each other in small tents on a golf course, being forced to live knee high in the mud after a rain shower. On a tight schedule we did not stay much more than an hour at the embassy, thanking Mr. Lacroix for hosting us and continuing on to perhaps the most difficult point of our journey.

After leaving the embassy we returned to the vehicles and headed for one of the Government Hospitals, which Partners in Health is helping out in. In North America, a trip to the hospital is never a pleasant one as we constantly find ourselves dreading the trip to that immense building, usually housing upwards of seven floors, for whatever the purpose may be. When we arrived at the “hospital” or health care station in Port-au-Prince, my eyes could never have enough time to adjust to what I saw. Filthy sewer like streets, surrounded by old buildings with bars on the windows were encompassed by tent after tent, resembling what one would see on an old army base. The smell of urine and human excrement stung my nostrils as we walked through both the maternity and pediatric wards. Peering into the tents one could see young children whose bellies swelled as if they were carrying a child due to their lack of proper nourishment, babies who could not have weighed more than half a pound, who normally would be inside an incubator, just lying there on tiny beds in the open.

While my mind was still trying to process everything I was witnessing before me, a young boy, maybe four or five years old, with his head rapped in bandages, ran out from under the tent to greet us, wearing a pajama top, dark pants and sneakers. This boy was not shy in the least bit, following our group while jumping around laughing with a giant smile on his face. While he ran around with not a care in the world, I couldn’t help but notice him tugging at one side of his shirt sleeves constantly and it seemed as if one arm was shorter than the other but it was too difficult to truly tell; that was when one of the volunteers from the facility lifted his bothersome sleeve exposing a stub where the boy’s hand had been amputated. As the little boy continued to jump around, giving everyone of us hugs and attempting to take pictures with our cameras, it was right there and then when the whole experience began to take affect on me. Like the spirit of this underdeveloped nation, despite all the pain and suffering this little boy had endured at such a young age, he still continued show his amazing spirit through his smile and inspiring attitude.

My voyage to Port-au-Prince truly puts our privileged world into perspective. While most of my daily occupations include schoolwork, hockey and spending time with my friends and family either out at a restaurant or within the confines of a cozy house, a young man of the same age living in Haiti now wakes up everyday underneath a sieve like tent, leaving with shovel in hand attempting to move rubble maybe in search of a loved one or just trying to return their home to normalcy. These images which we often see on the television or photos in the news may be tough to stomach but there is nothing like being there first hand and getting a real glimpse of the suffering and destruction caused by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake which struck Haiti January 12th, 2010. Even after being there, at the end of the day we all still returned home to our over-privileged world without truly being able to understand what it is like to endure the daily suffering like the people of Haiti do now. This now has motivated me more than ever to do my part and help make a difference.

Sam Gilbert


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