Ramsey Ben-Achour working with youth in Haiti, seen here losing at musical chairs 

Working for an NGO in Haiti

By Sean Casey and Ramsey Ben-Achour / Created 2010-10-15

Destruction after the January earthquake

Sean’s Story

I learned of the January 12, 2010 earthquake that struck Haiti while sitting at my desk in Chicago.  In my role as Director of International Programs for Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights, I typically spend about 75% of my time travelling internationally, but I happened to be between trips and in front of my computer when I learned of the disaster that had struck Port au Prince. After spending much of 2006 living in Port-au-Prince I knew many people in Haiti.  Luckily, I managed to connect with a friend and former colleague who also attended AUP, Robert Poccia (‘02), who reported that most of my friends and former co-workers were fine.

The day after the earthquake, I informed my boss who is the President of Heartland Alliance, that I wanted to lead an emergency assessment team to Haiti.  I would travel there with a medical doctor and a psychologist to explore how Heartland Alliance could assist in the immediate response and longer-term recovery.  Within two days we had identified a French-speaking psychologist with significant international experience and a Creole-speaking American doctor who had lived and worked in Haiti since her childhood.  The three of us landed in the neighboring Dominican Republic one week after the earthquake (it was practically impossible to get flights into Haiti at that point), equipped with nothing more than tents, backpacks with a few sets of clothes, hundreds of cliff bars and bottles of bug spray.  We linked up with another medical team and organized a van to drive us to Port-au-Prince the next morning.  On our way, we stopped to buy some additional supplies, including three 10-gallon water jugs full of gas, which we would use to fuel a vehicle that we would rent on arrival in Port-au-Prince.  We spent the next seven hours driving from Santo Domingo to the border with Haiti.  On arriving, we found a chaotic scene – the border was wide open and there were no controls in place.  This situation may have facilitated the transport of relief supplies, but it also created a situation that could facilitate child trafficking and other forms of smuggling.  We made it to Port-au-Prince just as the sun was setting on January 20.

Sean Casey working with team members in Haiti

Our first stop was the UN compound where thematic “cluster” meetings were being organized.  As a team, we were focused on health, mental health and child protection, so we made thematic meetings on those topics our first priority.  We quickly learned that nearly all of Port-au-Prince’s hospitals had been destroyed, that there was acute need for tertiary and secondary care facilities, that thousands of children had lost or been separated from their parents or guardians, and that there were no mental health services in place to deal with the immense trauma caused by the destruction of Port-au-Prince and the death of more than 200,000 of the city’s inhabitants. 

My HQ colleagues quickly assembled a team of volunteer emergency room physicians, nurses and social workers to support the first two weeks of our emergency medical response efforts.  They also worked the phones and reached out to donors and supporters to raise funds for our efforts.  I contacted Ramsey Ben-Achour (’07), an AUP alum whom I had met in Sri Lanka in 2009.  Ramsey quickly agreed to serve as Heartland Alliance’s Haiti Country Director, leading our efforts in Haiti for the foreseeable future.

With the support of hundreds of donors – including students, faculty and staff from AUP – Heartland Alliance raised over $200,000 in the weeks immediately after the earthquake.  These funds allowed us to open a level-two field hospital (primary/secondary care) in Haiti’s national stadium (which was also serving as settlement site for thousands of displaced locals), rent an office, hire vehicles and establish a presence in Haiti that would allow us to develop longer term programming. 

Ramsey’s Story

It came as a bit of a surprise when Sean contacted me to see if I was willing to relocate to Haiti to coordinate Heartland Alliance’s emergency response.  I had just returned from Sri Lanka where I was managing a project with Transparency International.  I was planning on taking a bit of a vacation and relaxing in Europe for a while.  Indeed, when I got Sean’s communiqué I was on a train from Paris (my little sister is now at AUP and I wanted to help her settle in) to Germany.  The question was blunt and to the point: “Ramsey, can you come to Haiti to coordinate Heartland Alliance’s emergency response?”  The answer was of course yes, thinking I could fly down in a month.  “When do you need me?” I asked.  “Yesterday” was his response.  Four days later I touched down in the Dominican Republic charged with the safe transport of six medical personnel, thousands of dollars worth of medicine and $10,000 (strapped to my body) to earthquake stricken Port-Au-Prince.  The adventure had just begun.

With UN and US military helicopters swarming overheard, military aircraft landing every few minutes at the destroyed Port-au-Prince airport, and hundreds of thousands of displaced Haitians living in the streets all around me, I greeted Sean with a handshake and a hug.  There was an endless amount of work to be done.  Everywhere I looked there was a problem.  The borders were open and thousands of people were flooding through, the city's infrastructure was decimated, roads were clogged with rubble, people were sick, injured, dead and displaced.  Water was scarce, food supply chains were cut, and the disaster that arrived on the 12th was looking like it could get a whole lot worse.

“Stay calm, keep focused, and figure out what it is that you can do best to help.”  I had to remind myself of that phrase over and over throughout the days and months that were to come.  If you let yourself become overwhelmed by the devastation unfolding around you, you are of no use to anyone.

Telling myself to stay calm and focused, however, proved significantly easier than actually staying calm and focused.  Indeed, waking up to gunshots, aftershocks, and screaming became a difficult reality with which to come to terms.  Night after night 6.6 and 6.7 scale aftershocks shook the house we were staying in sending everyone running outside for their lives.  Funnily enough, I distinctly remember running outside for the first time and thinking “Seriously? Am I really the only one who sleeps in his underwear?” 

The days were long and we had much to do.  If we were to provide maximum support to the Haitian people, we would need to find project funding and fast.  Sean and I must have written 15 proposals in the first few weeks alone, all while coordinating our medical response.  It was a scramble by all means—motivated by the awful reality we lay witness to everyday. The smell of bodies permeated the city, children walked alone aimlessly through the streets, people lived in tents made of sticks and bed sheets, and there was not much time before the hurricane season would arrive.  There was a long way to go.

Making Progress

Within the first two months, Heartland Alliance supported 23 medical volunteers who served nearly 7,000 patients at our field hospital in the National Stadium. Meanwhile, we developed several other projects, including a U.S. government-funded program to prevent child trafficking at Haiti’s land borders, and a UNICEF-funded program to identify, register and reunite separated or unaccompanied children with their parents or guardians. These programs are ongoing, and since February, Heartland Alliance has successfully reunited over 100 families, screened 8,000 children crossing the border, and prevented 80 children from being trafficked or illegally smuggled out of Haiti.

With funding from the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, UNICEF, CHF International, the Arcus Foundation, the Gill Foundation, USAID, and hundreds of individual donors, Heartland Alliance is now implementing five programs in Haiti – focusing on family tracing and reunification, child trafficking prevention, community-based psychosocial support, child recreation and sports, sexual minority protections, and women’s empowerment.

We would both like to thank the AUP community, both for helping to prepare us for this work and for raising 2,200 Euros for Heartland Alliance’s relief efforts in Haiti. We both feel strongly that AUP had an enormous impact on who we are and the work that we do. It was at AUP that we first learned about human rights, about community-based development programming, and about how to achieve significant impact in relief and development work. AUP set us – and several other AUP alumni working in Haiti – on our paths.

To learn more about Heartland Alliance’s work in Haiti, please visit www.heartlandalliance.org/haiti

Nine months after the earthquake, Ramsey Ben-Achour is still in Haiti working with and supervising a team of seven expatriates and over 100 Haitian national staff to implement Heartland Alliance’s programs in Port-au-Prince and around the country.  Sean Casey is still jet setting around the world implementing projects in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. He frequently returns to Haiti to oversee Heartland Alliance’s programs there.