When Rackham Public Policy student Sara Bonner received a call asking her to go to Haiti to aid victims of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that ravaged the country two weeks ago, she said her initial reaction was one of shock and confusion.
The call came from Tearfund, a British relief agency. Bonner has worked for Tearfund in the past, volunteering in southern Sudan. Though she has experience working for the organization, her gut reaction to the request was to tell them she wouldn’t be able to help.
“When you initially come back from an under-developed country you never want to go back,” she said. “You really appreciate where you are and start thinking ‘never again.’ Initially I was thinking ‘here I am trying to get my master’s I don’t want to keep getting roped in.’ ”
Ultimately Bonner decided to take the semester off and help with the relief efforts. She will leave for the country this Friday and stay through April.
“It’s a hard job and the fact that they sought me out was a boost of confidence,” she said.
David Canter, director of health care research at the non-profit William Davidson Institute at the University, has been working closely with Bonner and described her as “terrific,” adding that he was impressed, but not surprised that she decided to help the country.
“I think she’s a great example of someone who didn’t seek this out and recognized that there are times and places when you’re called to service not through your own choice but through other people and realize that the right answer is yes.”
Bonner said though it was a hard decision to make, her family and friends support her going to Haiti.
“I think my friends that know me well have a slight rolling of their eyes thinking ‘oh gosh here she goes again’ but they’re overall really supportive,” she said.
Canter and Bonner have been studying developing countries and their relative dependence on foreign aid and what that means for their quest for independence. Canter said that while this academic background will be helpful for Bonner, it is her field experience that will matter the most when she gets to Haiti.
“I think her past experience in Sudan will be most helpful working in developing countries,” he said. “You can read about it but until you’ve been there and experience the multiple frustrations you don’t know.”
Bonner agreed, saying what she witnessed in Sudan will help her to aid the victims in Haiti. According to The Associated Press up to 1 million people are in need of shelter as a result of the Jan. 12 quake. In addition the country is in dire need of food and other supplies.
“Usually what happens when aid organizations go in it’s so chaotic and things are set up very quickly,” she said. “Being in Sudan so many years after the program was already off and running I had so many complaints and frustrations. Because I understand the frustration I can kind of think forward if this program is going to work two to five years from now and how to make it successful.”
Bonner said she feels viewing the devastation in Haiti will be “really difficult to handle” but that through her past experience she has learned the proper mentality to tackle the situation.
“I will never be able to reconcile why some of us live with the advantages we have in developed countries while others don’t,” she said “If you start thinking ‘this isn’t fair’ you get stuck in a bad place. Thankfully I have the coping mechanism that allows me to get on and do what I need to do without breaking down.”
“It’s going to be really sad and upsetting,” she added. “But I can’t not do anything because of that.”
Canter said he feels that Bonner will most likely end up staying longer than her intended two to three months, adding that she’ll probably be there through the summer.
“When she gets down there, the need will be tremendous and I feel it’ll be longer term than everyone expects because the sheer devastation is just humongous,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”
Bonner said she doesn’t know whether or not this will be the case but she is open to the possibility if there is still a need for her once it comes time for her to leave.
While in Haiti, Bonner said she will most likely be living in a three-person tent while probably focusing on water, sanitation, shelter and hygiene issues as well as her personal goal of raising awareness to the rest of the world.
“When I went to Sudan most of my friends could barely point out Sudan on a map and by the time I was leaving they were all reading news articles and learning about Sudan,” she said.
Bonner said she hopes that her experience in Haiti will help to make her an advocate for the country.
“In six months people aren’t really going to care,” she said. “Me being there and then coming back will hopefully raise awareness to people and help them realize that there will still be a lot of work to do.”