Alex and I are sitting at the kitchen table, having some eggs before we and the rest of the team head out to one of our health clinics in Jacmel, a coastal town in southern Haiti.
Up to that point I knew very little about Alex. On the way down from Port-au-Prince, he was driving; I was in the back seat mostly talking with our logistics coordinator, Dave.
But sitting at the table on this morning, I offered a typical icebreaker, “How long have you been working for us?” It’s a simple enough question. Still, I have found – whether in Haiti or Lebanon or Congo – that out of that question, a surprising, fascinating yarn always unfurls.
Alex’s yarn was no different.
He told me he started working for International Medical Corps on January 16thof 2010, just days after the earthquake that killed 316,000 people and left millions of others homeless.
When the quake hit, Alex and his wife, Gerda, were inside their home in Port-au-Prince. As their surroundings began to shake violently, they raced outside, only to watch their concrete home collapse seconds later.
Alex also lost his retail soda business in the disaster. With no home and no livelihood, he and Gerda sought temporary shelter in the Delmas district of Port-au-Prince.
Hearing that help was needed at the general hospital downtown, Alex went there to lend a hand, perhaps get some sort of work. “I speak Creole, French and Spanish so I thought I might be able to be a translator.”
He arrived to a chaotic scene; several hundred injured lay on the pavement outside, the hospital’s buildings too damaged for use. “The doctors and nurses were amazing. God bless them.”
Here, I interrupt Alex. “So you were at the hospital right after the earthquake? So was I.”
He stares at me, a sudden recognition crossing his face.
“I remember you! You grabbed me and said, ‘I need a translator, can you help me?’”
The scene rushed back to me. I remembered him too. I remembered the burly guy with a big smile and an eagerness to help. He did help immeasurably. In addition to translating, he moved patients, loaded and unloaded boxes, helped keep watch over pharmaceuticals and supplies in our command post.
I remembered that day he helped us, taking the roll of tape with “International Medical Corps” printed on it and wrapping it around his shirt – the quickest way, in the sea of patients, family members, medical personnel, military, and media, to identify who was working with us.
So many people, so many Haitians, had come to the hospital to help. Alex was one of them, and he stood out. Each morning he returned first thing, asking what he could do.
As our emergency response continued to ramp up to meet the need, we began instituting systems for employing local staff and putting them on the payroll. Our head of logistics saw how valuable Alex was and hired him. He’s been with us ever since.
Today, Alex and Gerda still live in that temporary shelter, hoping soon to get a permanent home. Four months ago, they had a daughter, Chrislex.
Alex admits they are difficult living conditions, but he remains grateful that out of the ashes of the earthquake he is building a future with a job and family that make him happy. And then he flashes that smile.