By Jacqueline Regis
The unprecedented devastation caused by the earthquake in my homeland is gut-wrenching, and it leaves me, as it does many other Haitian immigrants, feeling numb, helpless and confused. The event nonetheless provides me with a stark reminder that all human beings, wherever situated, are part of a single human family.
In difficult times, such as these for the Haitian people, we need to support each other without judgment. Haiti and the victims of this terrible disaster need the world to rally behind them and extend a helping hand to see them through the difficult times ahead and even lift their spirits up to move beyond the tragedy with hope and strength.
A native born and raised in the outskirts of the town of Les Cayes in southern Haiti, I spent the first 17 years of my life in Haiti. Recently, I chronicled my experiences growing up in rural Haiti and the circumstances leading to my immigration to the United States in a memoir, "The Daughter of L'arsenal," published last June.
My family and many others in Haiti have undergone turbulent and difficult times over the years, including hurricane devastation, drought, poverty, political repression, fear, torture and even death. Yet I never anticipated a devastation of the nature and magnitude we are currently witnessing in Port-au-Prince.
Wednesday night, I sat fixated in front of the television set, clutching my cell phone, waiting for some word about the many friends and extended family members whom I believe might be caught in the destruction. I made a list of close friends and extended family I knew would have been in the Port-au-Prince area. When I either made contact or received some news about someone on the list, I crossed the name off with gratitude -- and continued following the news coverage for clues about the fate of those remaining on my list.
In the meantime, I watched in horror the news coverage of covered dead bodies on streets I walked on as a teenager while a student in Port-au-Prince many years ago.
I watched very young children walking in terror past bodies on the streets. I saw the horrific images of dead babies, of faces that were ashen as if watching a horror movie. I listened to the wailing and crying of people buried alive under large pieces of concrete with no adequate means in sight to rescue them. I watched grown men crying, holding onto the lifeless bodies of children.
Terror seemed to have overtaken the people. They were reported running for shelter at the rumored false alarm of a tsunami, or choosing to sleep outdoors in the public park rather than chance being in their homes during another earthquake or aftershock. It felt surreal, frightening as if a forceful, destructive grip is choking Haiti, my beloved country.
Despite the disturbing depiction on television of this disaster unfolding right before my eyes, I was also heartened that the world was finally witnessing an unedited display of the Haitian people's compassion, love and courage in the face of extraordinary challenges. I noticed the heroic efforts of a handful of people using their bare hands and a single shovel to rescue a screaming 15-year-old girl trapped under large pieces of concrete, while one of the men rescuing her plaintively prayed in Creole (one of Haiti's spoken languages), "Lord, please help, the kid is in pain."
I saw mothers rushing past dead bodies on the streets to protect their small, frightened children from the obvious trauma, while countless Haitians, with no other options to mourn and pay their respect, stood by the corpses of their loved ones, waiting indefinitely it seemed.
Recognizing that all they have is each other, neighbors and friends supported each other in any way they could. I marveled at the strength, love and care so characteristic of the Haitian people, the same qualities that have supported me through the most difficult times of my life.
I am still waiting for word on the fate of some extended family members and friends in the capital. Even though I have not been able to make contact via text messages or cell phone with a very close friend, I learned through other means that she and her family are fine. Another close friend and her family lost their home and a member of the family suffered some injuries, but otherwise survived the events. All in all, there is much to be grateful for, even in the face of this horrific tragedy.
The work of doing all that is possible to support relief efforts and collaborate with others to help and support the people of Haiti in the aftermath of this disaster have just began, and will surely continue for some time.
Jacqueline Regis, senior associate general counsel at UnitedHealth Group Inc., is author of "The Daughter of L'arsenal," published in June 2009 by SterlingHouse Publisher, Inc.