Born in the U.S. but raised in Haiti, Stephen Faustin has always considered both countries his home. Since moving back to New York in 2006 to pursue his education—he just graduated from BMCC with a degree in engineering science—he has returned to Haiti every year to kick back and reconnect with family and old friends.
When his sister, likewise a New Yorker, told him she was planning a vacation in Haiti with her roommate in early January, Faustin decided to tag along.
“She hadn’t been back since she was very young,” he says, “so I thought I’d be the best person to show them around.”
For two weeks, Faustin played tour guide for the two young women, also introducing his sister to family members she’d never met before. On the afternoon of Tuesday, January 12, Faustin was waiting to be picked up by a friend who’d invited him to go swimming.
A friend’s unlikely delay
“After two hours, he hadn’t shown up,” he recalls. “I didn’t think much of it. I figured something had come up that had kept him from meeting me. So I spent the time hanging out with friends, visiting my aunt and getting a bite to eat.” Later, he and his sister, her roommate, a cousin and a friend piled into his car and drove to his friend’s house.
“As we approached his neighborhood, we could see the streets swaying and buckling,” Faustin says. “Buildings had collapsed all around us and there was so much dust in the air it was hard to see.” People were walking in the streets, bleeding and dazed. Some were praying. Faustin knew at once what had occurred. “Wow—it’s an earthquake,” he said.
Faustin turned his car around and headed back to his home in the Bourdon section of Port-au-Prince, a few kilometers from the quake’s epicenter, fearing the worst. He found the structure largely intact, but there was something wrong with the picture. A large building that had always stood next door was gone.
“When I got home, I found out that my two sisters who lived in Haiti, along with my cousins and god-daughters, had all gotten out and were safe,” he says. But two people were missing and unaccounted for—his father, and Mamí, the woman who had cared for him as a child. “I’d known her all my life,” Faustin. “She was like a mother to me.”
Faustin knew that the woman was at the local school. “It’s where she went every afternoon,” he says. He formed a rescue party and led the way to the school, which had been reduced to rubble. They looked for Mamí until dark, frantically calling her name, but getting no response. Meanwhile, they pulled out another woman, who had been buried in the ruins for hours. She died the next day.
Carrying on the search
Lacking flashlights, Faustin and his friends went back to his house, where he spent a sleepless night, returning to the school at five the following morning to resume their search.
“We could hear people who were trapped crying for help, but I was totally focused on finding Mamí,” he says. Finally, they heard her calling “Stephen, Stephen” in a weak voice. “We started digging, but even before we reached her, she was asking about each of my family members by name,” Faustin says. “She wanted to know if they were safe.”
After rescuing Mamí, Faustin and his friends continued digging and extricated more people. He returned to site the next day, and the day after that. All told, he spent 10 days at the school, searching, digging for and extricating survivors.
After nearly two weeks in Haiti, an exhausted Faustin and his aunt were able to board a Delta Airlines flight out of Port-au-Prince, which flew to New York via Orlando and Chicago. He arrived back in New York on January 23. (A sad postscript to his journey: His aunt died just a few days later.)
Making donations count
“The hardships faced by the Haitians in the wake of the earthquake are beyond imagining,” Faustin says. “After what I saw and went through, I feel it’s important that Americans continue to help the country through donations—but it’s important to make sure that your donations are being used in the way you intend. When I was there, it was clear that a lot of aid never got to the people.”
Back in New York, Faustin is taking courses at BMCC to be counted toward his Bachelors degree and trying to resume normal life. “I still jump when I hear a subway rumble, and sometimes wake up in the middle of the night,” he says. The sounds and images from his 2010 visit will be with him always, he says. “But so will the memories of a happy childhood in a beautiful country.”