What Really Matters

Submitted by Joyce Hollyday on March 12, 2012 - 12:29pm
Life and death in a Haitian refugee camp

My friend Stephanie just returned from three weeks in Haiti, where she has visited several times since an earthquake devastated that country in January 2010. On her first visit, soon after the quake, a million people were packed into a refugee camp and disaster relief was flooding in from many corners. But the NGOs have mostly pulled out of Haiti and the humanitarian support has lessened to a trickle, as the world’s attention moved on the tsunami in Japan, and then to preparations for whatever will be the next major catastrophe.

In two years, over half of the people in the Haitian refugee camp have been resettled, but more than 400,000 remain. They are the poorest, the most vulnerable, the ones lacking a path to a restored life. Stephanie had to carefully make her way down a rutted, caved-in road flowing with human sewage, to a tent overwhelmed by heat and stench, where she counseled residents of the camp.

All of them were elderly, and all of them had been directed to Stephanie because they had answered "yes" during a previous interview to the question: “Have you thought about ending your life?” Given the circumstances under which they suffer, it is not difficult to understand their response and why the counselors felt a need to screen the residents for those with the potential to commit suicide.

Stephanie’s first client was a frail man with a huge goiter on his neck. She gently asked him about his thoughts about ending his life. “Oh, no!” he said. “I would never end my life. I have my friends here and all the love in this camp. Why would I end my life?”

He had misunderstood the question during the first interview. He has frequent thoughts of his life ending, because he can no longer swallow solid food and knows he can’t live long in his condition. But, for now, his friends and his faith keep him going. And, fortunately, Stephanie and her colleagues have figured out a way to get him the surgery he needs to save his life.

It turns out that all the other people Stephanie talked with that day offered similar explanations. They know how precarious their situation is, think about the probabilities of their dying from exposure or hunger or disease, but have never entertained a thought about ending their own lives. Their friends, it seems, give them too much to live for. The overwhelming feeling they expressed was gratitude.

With the possible exception of living in an active war zone, I think it could be argued that being old in a refugee camp in the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere two years after a devastating earthquake qualifies as the most difficult existence on the planet. Yet these people have the one ingredient they feel makes life worth living: their community of friends. With nothing else in life to cling to, they have discovered what really matters.