Haiti earthquake anniversary: In crisis, cleverness is born

While President Donald Trump is dividing people with his comments, in the midst of natural crisis, here is what I, as an 18-year-old Haitian, was doing to help protect an American’s life during the 2010 Haiti’s earthquake, exactly 8 years ago today.

“In crisis, cleverness is born” is a Chinese proverb that has played a significant role in my life. My life has been variable over the past few years, mainly because of natural disasters, economic difficulties, and parental circumstances. Unfortunately, I was in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, when one of the most deadly earthquakes in history occurred.

Haitit 2010 earthquake
A man exits a restaurant after he looked for his belongings. An earthquake rocked Port au Prince on January 12, 2010. Photo: Marco Dormino. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

On January 11, 2010, the benevolent American writer, David Baron, came to my school in Haiti, New American School (NAS), and agreed to tutor me. The following day we were to meet at Villa Manrèse, a religious facility erected by the Canadians. After writing an essay based on the proverb, “In crisis, cleverness is born”, during my tutoring session, David and I were violently thrown on the ground when the earthquake began to shake the building that we were in. I simply thought it was a dream, maybe some kind of horror movie, even more terrifying, the apocalypse. I wanted to say farewell to David as we were embracing each other tightly on the floor of the trembling building. Suddenly, everything was cracking and breaking down. Dust everywhere erupted into a cloud that dispersed throughout Port-au-Prince. From that moment, I knew I had a greater responsibility in life than ever before. At first, I was as weak as a newborn baby – scared, trembling like a poor mouse waiting to be devoured by a cat. Then, miraculously, I received the Herculean strength of the well-known biblical figure, Samson. I became strong-willed enough to watch over my friend, David.

This experience has shown me that in crisis – because of cleverness – devotion, sacrifice, and even some kind of supernatural force are automatically integrated into the human personality. For some reason, the heroic notion cemented into my brain was to get David safely out of the tragedy by whatever means necessary. I was in a situation in which I could not give up; I was terrified for the safety of my family and friends but I knew I simply had to keep on going. I bravely stoop up and helped David get back on his feet. The intensity of the fall left some blood on his chin and the tragic incident left him with some unpleasant aches. I began to worry about his health, and all kinds of thoughts occurred in my mind in a fraction of a second. I realised his glasses had fallen on the ground, so I put them in my pocket and guided him to the open street.

The first floor of the four-story building we were in lay in pieces. As we were located on the terrace of the second floor, it was easier for us to simply jump out. We went in the streets, which were safer for the time being, yet all kinds of human suffering were taking place right before my eyes. Much anguish lay all around me. “What horrible offences could Haitians have committed to deserve such a pernicious punishment?” I thought. Mothers, fathers, sons, infants, youths, adults, seniors – regardless of one’s rank, class, or type, if it was not for luck and destiny, one would have been killed immediately by the earthquake. As we stood watching, almost everyone was covered with dust; many were trying to rescue others in need; some were running up and down the street carrying dead and injured people. People everywhere were bleeding. Others were yelling, crying and praying as they were going insane while looking desperately for their missing relatives.

To prevent more sorrow, I went to the backyard of Villa Manrèse with David. Throughout the entire night, we experienced aftershocks, which were torture for Haitians because they were under the impression that a similar tremor might happen again. I then was uneasy because I did not receive any kind of information regarding my family’s safety. I asked everybody if I could make a phone call, but they kept on saying that the signal could not get through. At about midnight, there was a signal. I called my twin brother, Ally. I fearfully asked him, “Are you okay? Is everybody okay?” It felt so good when he told me, “I’m okay, everybody is okay. It’s just that we were worrying about the family’s safety and yours. Now that we know you are safe, I can say thanks to the Lord.” I told him in Creole, “Brother, call mom and tell her and everybody that cares about me that I am doing fine. I cannot come soon because I have to take care of someone who needs my help very much.”

Early the next morning, I went around the neighbourhood asking for blood pressure pills, which David needed very badly. Fortunately, I found enough pills to last for several days. I then became like a mendicant, asking everybody for food and all kinds of ingredients necessary for our well-being, and then I shared them with David. Ironically, we always obeyed our motto, which was: “It’s simple; eat whatever we have in case we don’t have for tomorrow.” I made sure my new friend was safe and was feeling comfortable all the time; whenever he had some worries I took care of them by assuring him, “there is a solution to every problem.” I went into the streets with hope and determination to find a way to contact David’s relatives who reside in the States to tell them he was alive. Finally, I reached his brother, who was very happy and relieved when I told him that David was safe.

The next day, having no choice, I went into the collapsed building to try to retrieve David’s belongings. I had never been so scared in my entire life. I entered his bedroom, trembling from head to toe. Finally, I could not resist anymore and ran out of the building. I attempted once again, this time with the help of some friends. Secretly, we sent a courageous young man inside the barricaded building to retrieve David’s belongings, and he succeeded. On Sunday, other friends and I accompanied David to the American Embassy. The others had to leave and left me standing in line with him. We waited for hours. David, unsuccessfully, tried to help me go with him to the USA. The Embassy woman said that only Americans could leave. Even though there were a number of prominent instances in which I demonstrated incomparable bravery, when my friend left me in this desperate world on my own, I cried. I cried like a baby for hours on my way home. I felt vulnerable to the chaos surrounding me. When David left, if felt as if my sanity left with him.

Now that I have the privilege and honour of working as a legislative assistant in the United States Congress for a Philadelphia Congressman, I remember the times David and I were conversing each night for hours about history, literature, societies, philosophy, and our unfortunate past experiences while sleeping outside and admiring the stars shining in the sky. That was beautiful. I remember the countless times I said to my friend, “I love everything that has happened to me”. For some mysterious reason, human beings are apparently bound to demonstrate extraordinary courage in times of crisis. The Chinese proverb, “In crisis is cleverness born”, to which I was writing a response when practicing for the SAT essay a few minutes before the earthquake, has once again shown its veracity. Cleverness has guided my conscience into doing the right things. It has led me to realise that in times of crisis one has to be optimistic and perform heroic actions. And I have learned that the Good Lord will reward that person millions of times more. I have already started to be rewarded.

Steeve Simbert is a legislative assistant in the United States Congress in the office of Congressman Dwight Evans. Steeve was born and raised in Haiti, and moved to the United States to continue his education after the earthquake in Haiti. Steeve is the first Haitian-American to receive a Master of Public Policy from the Blavatnik School of Government,University of Oxford (Class of 2015). He earned a bachelor’s degree in Government from Georgetown University. Prior, he was a 2013 Public Policy & International Affairs (PPIA) Fellow at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, and studied at the Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), and the University of Cape Town. He previously interned in the United States Senate (Office of Majority Leader – Senator Harry Reid), the United States House of Representatives (Office of Congressman Alcee L. Hastings), the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Organization of American States.

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