Port-au-Prince residents look at a building that collapsed during the Jan. 12, 2010, 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti. Regine Jean-Francois, a Mason student, was visiting family in Haiti at the time of the natural disaster. Photo By Regine Jean-Francois

It was almost 4 p.m. and Regine Jean-Francois was still in her mother’s office, nagging her to leave. Jean-Francois was eager to meet her friends for her last night in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, but she still had to stop to get groceries and gas.

Suddenly, Jean-Francois heard a loud growling. She looked over at her mother, butbefore she had a chance to ask about the noise, it grew louder and the building began to violently shake.

“I could see the library that my mom had in her office,” Jean-Francois said. “All the books were falling down, and pictures were flying off the wall.”

It was Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2010. A magnitude 7.0 earthquake had just struck Haiti. Jean-Francois, a public health graduate student at George Mason University, was visiting her family in

Haiti and ended up in the middle of the chaos.

Following a short struggle, Jean-Francois and her mother managed to escape the building. A blur of events followed: the mother and daughter tried to contact family members and comforted and calmed the panicked people around them. About two hours later, they headed home.

On their way up the traffic-jammed Delmas, a major Port-au-Prince road, they passed the grocery store, which had collapsed with hundreds of people inside. They tried to help those in nearby cars, including a woman who had lost four fingers on one of her hands.

“We could still feel everything shaking,” Jean-Francois said. “Mind you, we were still on empty. So not only do we have the stress of what building’s going to fall on the car … [but also] whether we are going to make it home.”

Darkness had fallen by the time the two women made it home. Their house had survived the quake and Jean-Francois’ father was safe.

In a matter of a few hours, the city Jean-Francois loved had changed completely. That night was the longest of her life, as she thought about the devastation and what would come next.

“The whole night you could feel the ground shaking … and you were just waiting for something to fall,” she said.

Jean-Francois recalls roaming around Port-au-Prince the next morning in search of a coffin or morgue for her uncle, who had passed away during the quake.
“There were just piles and piles of people on the ground,” said Jean-Francois. “Like a pile of trash that you’re throwing away. There was no space in the cemetery to put them. That was the most awful thing that I saw and remember.”

For the next few days, Jean-Francois helped her mother, director of the Catholic Medical Mission Board in Haiti, supply medicine to nearby hospitals. Jean-Francois wanted to remain in Haiti to help her country, but her parents urged her to return to the United States.

“A lot of our parents believe that we are the future of Haiti,” Jean-Francois said. “So they wanted us to finish our education. The faster we went, the faster we would come back and help rebuild the country.”

When Jean-Francois left for the United States six days later, Haiti was still in turmoil. Communication was difficult, there was still no electricity and people had “literally moved their bedrooms to the street.” Jean-Francois was pained to see everyone living out on the streets.

“I was lucky to have a solid house and be able to travel to come back here,” she said. “But when I think about others, who already don’t have anything and lost the little things that they did have, it makes me even more sad.

“Yeah, I probably couldn’t rebuild their houses, but just showing them that we’re all going through this together … that’s a little helpful and I would have been happy to do that.”

Lending a hand

On Monday, Jan. 19, 2010, Jean-Francois was back at Mason for the start of the spring semester. She was still traumatized from the quake; the mere mention of Haiti brought tears to her eyes, and even slight shaking or noise bothered her.

However, Jean-Francois did her best to hold herself together.

“There was no time for wasting or for failing a class or anything,” she said. “I had to focus … and that’s what I did.”

Alongside her studies, Jean-Francois worked to collect donations for Haiti. By the end of the semester, she had received approval to run a summer camp for children in Haiti. The purpose of the camp was to teach kids, some of whom were victims of the earthquake, about emergency preparedness and safety.

“We had some practice drills to teach them what to do in [case of a natural disaster],” Jean-Francois said. “We don’t have that in Haiti. In my case, I learned it at school, on TV or here at Mason.”

In the fall, Jean-Francois was approached by Mason’s Global Health Students Beyond Borders, a group that provides global health services to under-served people. President Valerie Bampoe and Vice President Shaneka Thurman were looking to do a project abroad this spring break.

“Haiti naturally came to mind because it was nearing the point of the one year anniversary of the quake … and because of its proximity and large need,” Bampoe said.

Jean-Francois talked to her mother about project needs in Haiti and decided that GHSBB could evaluate the Community Health and AIDS Mitigation Program.
“The purpose of [CHAMP] is to improve the health and quality of life of vulnerable families and [people living with HIV/AIDS] in the community,” Jean-Francois said.

During the trip, 10 students from GHSBB, including Jean-Francois, will be surveying clinics in the Thiotte and Jacmel communities of Haiti. They will talk with patients and conduct an in-depth analysis so they can provide recommendations on improving the program.

Moving forward

A year after the quake, Haiti continues to recover from the destruction. Some rubble remains and many people are still living in tents, said Jean-Francois, who last visited the country during winter break.

“I am still happy to be Haitian, grateful to be able to visit again and impatient to move back,” she said.

Jean-Francois will be graduating in May, but plans on remaining in the U.S. for a few years to gain work experience.

Though her experience with the earthquake was traumatizing, she said it also helped her grow as a person.

“It motivated me a lot more to finish school and be more interested in public health to see how I can go back and help my people,” Jean-Francois said.