By Katie Wilkes, Communications Delegate, Bahamas
What shapes the work we do? Surely, it’s what we learn from past disasters, the needs on the ground, and the impact of people affected.
But perhaps more than anything, it’s the individual human touch brought by Red Cross responders that becomes the most essential.
We all have a story behind why we do what we do. Two American Red Cross workers who spent months in the Bahamas in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian carried their history with them across borders.
Emmanuel Saint Juste and Johnny César Etienne remember the day both of their lives changed when an earthquake hit Haiti in 2010. They not only experienced extreme hardship, but eventually transformed heartache into action on the ground—deploying to another Caribbean nation almost a decade later.
“Feels like it happened yesterday”
Recalling the day the quake struck Haiti in January 2010, Johnny tells the story of a relative trapped in the rubble, unsure if she would make it out alive. “I have never seen or heard anything like it in my life. And I just had this unexplained motivation to keep going, keep helping.” And he did.
“In the aftermath, I witnessed the deep desperation of hundreds of victims in Tapis Rouge (Carrefour-Feuilles, Port-au-Prince), where there was one of the biggest Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in Haiti,” Johnny says. “At that time, I told myself that it would take years for those families to recover from their situation.”
Emmanuel describes, “I was in Haiti visiting my father at that time of the earthquake, and from what I saw that day, I just wanted to help as many people as I could. But it didn’t feel like enough. Then, I heard about the Red Cross, so I volunteered with them and quit my job in Florida so I could be there to support many of my fellow citizens.” Now, he adds, “It has been more than nine years since that time, and I always feels like it happened yesterday.”
Read more about the American Red Cross’s work—over the past 10 years—in Haiti here >>
Compassion in Action
Fast forward ten years, and more than 9,000 families have received help from the global Red Cross network in the Bahamas, many of whom have been assisted by Johnny and Emmanuel directly.
While English is the official language in the Bahamas, many people impacted by Hurricane Dorian hail from Haiti and speak Creole as their first language.
In the weeks following Hurricane Dorian’s landfall, it quickly became clear that the Red Cross network could scale up relief efforts quickly by speaking the language of the families in need—a key factor in any relief operation. So the American Red Cross offered to deploy Johnny and Emmanuel to the disaster zone to use their Creole skills.
To date, the men have spent hundreds of hours speaking directly with families who need help.
Oscar, an Abaco resident who had been separated from family and lost nearly everything in the storm, is one of them. Movement between islands and challenges in communication lines from the storm made it difficult for him to reach a Red Cross aid distribution site. Emmanuel made a special trip to Oscar’s home to deliver financial aid on a day that Oscar will always remember - his birthday.
“This makes it a pretty hard day to forget,” says Oscar, grateful for the aid.
From answering hotline calls in the middle of the night to meeting with people at a makeshift relief center, no task to bring comfort has become too difficult to handle.
Motivation to Respond
For many humanitarian relief workers, it can be hard to verbalize the reason we choose this vocation. Instead, it’s a feeling that compels us to answer the call for help again and again.
“I felt so great because not only was I helping, but I was part of a movement that was bigger than me where we shared the same views and goals,” Emmanuel says. “I choose to work with the Red Cross because of our fundamental beliefs, and ultimately to help people in need while they're going through a difficult time in their lives.”
Johnny’s journey is also fueled by the people whose lives he has touched. “In 2015, the Haiti delegation of the American Red Cross recruited me to join their team. And for me, that was the beginning of a beautiful and amazing journey with the Red Cross.”
He adds, “I was already aware of the hope and life that the organization had brought back in the communities. It is when I got back to my Haitian community to see how people recovered and built back from the tragedy did I understand the value of generosity, solidarity and humanity. This journey has shaped my understanding of life and gives me a real precious reason to be able to serve.”
The level of trust brought by people like Johnny and Emmanuel is important when the Red Cross delivers humanitarian aid anywhere in the world. When we feel comfort, familiarity, and someone is able to look us in the eye, we feel understood. And that itself can propel us to move forward, one step at a time.
The American Red Cross has deployed more than 40 relief workers like Johnny and Emmanuel to help survivors of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas. Thanks to generous donors, the American Red Cross has been able to get millions of dollars in aid to people in need and the work is ongoing. Find out more at the Red Cross’s 3-month Hurricane Dorian report.