Immediately arriving to the airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti I had a feeling that stuck with me during my five weeks abroad: I was completely overwhelmed. To attempt to truly describe this feeling is like having all of your senses working at full capacity at the same time.
A simple car ride epitomizes this sensory overload: seeing Haitians driving on dirt roads going what seemed to be 80 miles an hour in brightly decorated cars, hearing non-stop horns of public transportation (commonly referred to as “tap taps”), smelling burning trash, and feeling the sweat of the person sitting next to you in the car because it’s a cramped ride and of course there is no air conditioning. This scenario, amongst others, served as constant reminders of my new surroundings.
Feeling overwhelmed will eat you alive if you let it. As a privileged, American woman being introduced into a developing country I was hyper aware of the differences in my own life and the new, temporary reality in which I lived. Even stepping outside the doors of Haitian Christian Mission, I saw children and pregnant women walking barefoot with heavy loads of food and supplies balanced on their heads. I found myself questioning their ability to live in an environment like this. My immediate goal – and arguably the goal of many relief workers – was how I could best provide aid to everyone. I quickly realized, however, that this goal is overwhelming, lofty, and unattainable without starting small. I was humbled by the realization that as long as I allowed myself to be overwhelmed by the situation at hand, I wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything worthwhile. Changing the entire landscape of Haiti is impossible for a single individual, but I became passionate about identifying smaller tasks that would still yield positive results. Some days these tasks were larger, such as installing a water filtration system into the labor room, and other days it was as simple as making a very beat down, broken woman laugh because I did something so ridiculously American and silly that she, in spite of her situation, would cackle like a child.
I was starting to feel less anxious and overwhelmed knowing that I was helping in the smallest way, that is, until the Dominican Republic decided they wanted to try and deport 500,000 undocumented Haitians back to Haiti. I was less than ten miles from the Haiti-Dominican Republic Border. Cue all of the feelings and all of the anxiety. And suddenly, I had the opportunity to carry out a rapid health assessment. I thought to myself, “so you’re telling me that if I mess this assessment up, it could potentially result in zero aid being brought to the camp?” Cue additional feelings and now actual sweat. Just like before, I had to remind myself to identify the smaller, attainable tasks and to tackle them. As long as I try my hardest with what lies before me and help in any way I can, small or large, I will succeed. And that success came. The 50-woman health assessment ran smoothly and caught the attention of an aid distribution organization that plans on sending much needed supplies to these refugees. This time, cue the feeling of overwhelming happiness, which, I’ll have you know is just as hard on the body as overwhelming stress. My poor nervous system had taken all that it could in those five weeks.
The moral of this story and the advice I will give to anyone working in a developing country originating from a first world country is this: Get over yourself. You can’t and won’t save everyone and the world simultaneously. Start small and don’t overwhelm yourself. Also, don’t judge every day’s successes and expectations on days before. Some days, the best you can do is hold a young pregnant woman’s hand when she is all by herself giving birth and then other days it’s as big as getting aid distribution delivered to the refugee camp. What is unacceptable to do is to go to a place like Haiti and not try to do anything. Oh, and also to eat as many mangoes as humanly possible, this will get you through anything… I assure you.