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On 14 August 2021, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, leaving 2,200 dead and over 650,000 people in need of humanitarian aid. We spoke to Victoria Jean-Louis, Concern’s Programme Director in Haiti, about the devastating day the earthquake hit and the work her team is doing to help families recover and cope with future disasters.
Hi Victoria, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hello! So, I’m Haitian American and I was born in New York. When I was nine years old, my parents moved the family back to Haiti. It was a hard transition but ended up being the best gift they’ve ever given me. It transformed my life path, my worldview and me as a person. Moving to Haiti showed me how big the world is, and how many different contexts and ways of life there are. I think that is such a valuable lesson for the work we do at Concern.
What’s your role at Concern?
I have worked as the Programme Director for one year now, but it feels like 10 - so much has happened! It's really hard work and can feel overwhelming sometimes, because we are dealing with some very big, complex issues. But I've learned to hold on to the things that are within our control and trust that the cumulative impact of all the work we do has the capacity to transform people’s lives.
What do you enjoy most about your job, and what is the biggest challenge?
I'm a people person, so what I enjoy the most about the role is my team here in Haiti. They are dedicated, lovely people who are committed to working in a very difficult area. I learn so much from them - they embrace the challenges and hardly ever get disheartened.
I also have the amazing opportunity to interact with young people in the communities we work with. Here in Haiti, over 60% of the population are under the age of 35, and I love to talk to the youth -they have such big dreams to make a change in their country and some brilliantly creative ideas.
The biggest challenge we face in Haiti is the complexity of the problems. We deal with natural disasters, like the earthquake last August, along with political, social and economic issues. So, while we have some really great programmes in place and are making changes to grow resilience in certain communities, there are other, growing pockets of people who are in need. To graduate people out of poverty requires a multidimensional, multilateral approach and it is a long-term investment - so it can feel really challenging.
How did Concern respond when the earthquake struck last August? What was it like for you and your team?
The first thing we do when a disaster like this happens is to check in with the team. A lot of my team are local, so often they or their families have been personally affected. Tragically, in 2021, we had staff members living in the areas that were badly hit and one of our staff members suffered a great personal tragedy. It's important for us to acknowledge that we have a job to take care of the population, but we must also care for each other as a team.
Concern’s role in responding to the aftermath of the earthquake was very wide. We supported the coordination of the emergency response, worked collaboratively to gather data and analyse people’s needs and provided technical support. We also implemented our own interventions in four communities that were hit particularly hard, distributing essential supplies such as shelter kits for those who sadly lost their homes.
At Concern, we also prioritise child protection and psychosocial support. That’s why we did a protection risk analysis and worked with communities to make sure support was provided to people who had been through this traumatic experience. We’ve seen how much this helps them get through difficult moments – to talk about their pain and how they were affected.
Haiti is a country particularly vulnerable to natural disasters. What is it like to live and work in such an unpredictable environment?
The keyword here is unpredictable - but it has taught us to focus and invest in what we can predict. We know when the hurricane season is, we know where the fault lines are. We prioritise preparedness, so we make sure we have supplies and systems in place, which enable us to react immediately if something happens.
We also learnt so much from the 2010 earthquake, like the need to raise better awareness in the community about appropriate, safe behaviour in the case of an earthquake. We’re actually running a risk mitigation project right now, which is working with communities and local government structures to ensure they have evacuation plans in place, the right equipment and are carrying out regular drills in schools so children know how to stay safe.
What do you think would surprise Concern supporters in the UK about life in Haiti?
That Haiti is such a wonderful place to live. I have never, ever seen more beautiful beaches than I've seen in Haiti. There's an image of Haiti that it’s an impoverished state of violence and natural disasters - and I can't deny that those are very real issues. That is certainly a part of our narrative, one that should be acknowledged.
But it is not the whole story. Haiti is such a beautiful island and there's so much goodness in the people here. These people have so little and yet are willing to share whatever they have. Among all the madness and the challenges, there is this beautiful place, filled with wonderful, resilient people. I am very proud to call Haiti my home.
Help Victoria and her team continue to respond to the aftermath of the earthquake by donating to Concern's Haiti earthquake emergency appeal.