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Haiti earthquake: a year ago, and today

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Yolette Etienne speaks with young survivors days after the earthquake destroyed much of Port-au-Prince. Photo by Liz Lucas/Oxfam America
Yolette Etienne speaks with young survivors days after the earthquake destroyed much of Port-au-Prince. Photo by Liz Lucas/Oxfam America

I met Yolette Etienne about a year ago in the midst of chaos and sorrow. It was less than two weeks after the earthquake had turned Haiti’s capital into a sea of dust and ruin, killing more than 220,000 people—Yolette’s mother among them. Still, Yolette came to work each day at Oxfam through the snarl of traffic backed up behind the rubble, reminders of all that was lost at every turn, a heartbreaking beginning to days that seemed to have no end.

How did she manage? I don’t know. But she did, with a warmth I felt instantly, even though I was a stranger and had arrived at a terrible time. And when I asked about going to church, it was Yolette who said, yes! Let’s go. It was a Sunday and strangely still, the air heavy with people longing for normalcy. I thought they might find it in church, with prayer, with song.

Yolette borrowed a truck and we set out through the moonscape of Port-au-Prince in search of a service. She knew the roads by heart, and the shortcuts, too—even without the landmarks that had once defined the neighborhoods. We stopped at Eglise de la Communauté Evangelique D’Haiti: its doors were open wide and parishioners packed just about every seat.

Yolette let me out—and with a flash of a smile, she was gone.

A few weeks ago, I met Yolette again, this time as a colleague with whom I’ll be working even more closely: She is now the director of Oxfam America’s new program in Haiti. I was back in the country to report on the work Oxfam had undertaken since the quake—the more than 500,000 survivors it has helped with water and sanitation, shelter and jobs, and the 700,000 others it is reaching with a massive program to stem the spread of cholera that has now swept into every province.

Her smile?  It was still same, but this time she embraced me—and a deep conversation followed about the hardships Haitians have endured these many months since the quake, and the patience and hard work all must summon for the long road ahead.

I won’t forget what she said: “…Working in Haiti to change things is working to change things in the world.”

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