I sat on the edge of the rickety metal folding chair that was placed in the middle of dimly lit room, surrounded by a hundred displaced Haitian women, children, and a few very brave men, all dressed in their Sunday best. As I looked at my khaki cargo pants, and the old t-shirt I had worn that day, I felt ashamed that I too hadn't placed the same amount of effort into my appearance. I sat there curiously starring at them, as they starred at me, trying to understand why they had all shown up that sweltering afternoon in August of last year. As far as I was concerned, I was no one worth showing up for. I was simply a 30 something year old woman from a suburb in Connecticut who traveled to Port Au Prince, Haiti on her summer vacation in search of connection. My soul longed to connect with something real to replace the designer decorated and corporate funded exterior I had created. So, there I was, in the middle of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, attempting to heal my own soul, by healing the souls of others.
The silence in the room was suddenly interrupted by the voice of the safe house's Executive Director, Elvire Eugene or Vie Vie as she was affectionately referred to by her staff. Vie Vie began addressing the crowd in her native Creole, while a kind, young woman began to translate her words for my benefit. Unfortunately, I was only able to understand bits and pieces and didn't bother to ask she say them again. That was until Vie Vie's eyes began to swell with tears and I demanded she repeat Vie Vie's words. "She said that you are only the second person to visit us, and she's grateful that you came even though you didn't have to", she repeated. "And that you came despite the risks of cholera and kidnapping." Of course I came, I thought, and then my eyes began to swell with tears by the idea that I wouldn't come, or anyone else for that matter.
My feelings of compassion were suddenly replaced by feelings of terror as I selfishly wondered, "And who will come for me?" Up until that point, I was convinced that no one would ever think twice about coming to my rescue. Up until then, I assumed the value of my life would outweigh the risk and inconvenience associated with saving it. And no, I didn't read that somewhere, again, I just assumed, just like I believe we all assume someone will come. The only other alternative is that no one will come, which therefore infers our lives aren't valuable enough to save, and for our own sanity, we don't ever entertain that idea. We can't, no one can because it would emotional destroy us if we did.
It was then, in the dimly lit room of a Haitian women and girl's safe house, surrounded by a hundred strangers and mountains of rumble and devastation that I realized, for the first time, that there was a very good chance that no one would come, not even for me. I'm confident the 500,000 Haitians still living in tents two years after the quake assumed someone would have come by now. I can't imagine why the 1.8 million Congolese women and girls who have been raped over the past 15 years wouldn't have thought at some point that someone would have eventually shown up. And I'm going to bet that the last person to have moved out of their FEMA trailer this past February, six years post-Katrina, would have never thought it would have taken that long for someone to come to their rescue.
Most likely, if you're reading this, you'll convince yourself you never have to worry about being one of these people, because in our society we tend to reserve suffering and tragedy for "those people." Poverty happens to "those people." Injustice happens to "those people." However, given the recent economic crisis and steady increase of natural disasters, the reality is we can very well become one of "those people" now more than ever. Adversity does not discriminate, not even against a global superpower like the U.S.
The truth is I'll never know if someone will come for me until I'm placed in a position where I'm forced to find out. For the people of Haiti, Congo and New Orleans they got their answer. And In the end, I found the connection I longed for. Both I and the beautiful souls that showed up during that sweltering afternoon in August knew at the very least we would show up for each other and we did.