Alison Thompson is without a doubt a heroine of mine, and I am so fortunate to have connected with her. She is a visionary and an extraordinary talent driven by love, and I bring you her words with great pride. This interview is truly one of the most powerful things I will ever read. If I can request one thing of the people who read this blog, it’s this: aspire to be like Alison Thompson.
Alison Thompson is a preacher’s daughter who went on to become a nurse’s aide, humanitarian, high school math teacher, investment banker and an award-winning filmmaker. She is now the medical coordinator for JP HRO, Sean Penn’s non-profit organization dedicated to bringing humanitarian relief and life-saving medical attention to the victims of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. She began her path as a humanitarian in the aftermath of 9/11, when she spent a year volunteering at Ground Zero, running a First Aid station. Ms. Thompson met Mr. Penn shortly before the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, when he came on board as Executive Producer of her 2004 documentary The Third Wave, a film documenting her experience and that of three others working as volunteers in Sri Lanka for a year following the tsunami. At Cannes, the film was presented in the very first Presidential jury special screening. Ms. Thompson spent five years working in Sri Lanka, where she founded a tsunami early-warning center, a medical center, and a school, and has helped to rebuild villages and businesses. A native Australian (though an official resident of New York City for twenty years), Alison Thompson was awarded the Medal (OAM) of the Order of Australia in the General Division in 2010, “for service to humanitarian aid, particularly the people of the Peraliya region of Sri Lanka following the Boxing Day 2004 Tsunami.” However, she was unable to receive it in person. After the earthquake ravaged Haiti, Ms. Thompson received a one-word text message from Sean Penn: “Haiti?” She replied in the affirmative and has been there since—with only one five-day break back to the Big Apple, during which she generously answered these questions—doing yeoman’s work, saving lives and bringing hope to thousands.
JP HRO is located at the 82nd Airborne field hospital army base in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Alison Thompson, Sean Penn, Dr. Raul Ruiz, and Oscar Gubernati were each awarded the U.S. Army’s Commander’s Award for Service by Lieutenant Colonel Mike Foster of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne.
1. You have such a fascinating back story, turning from nurse’s aide to filmmaker and back again! Can you give us a bit more information about your background and how you came to be so involved in the non-profit sector?
I grew up a preacher’s daughter and from an early age, we went off into Third Worlds helping people. I guess it’s in my blood, sort of, and I also worked at my mum’s hospital as a nurse’s aide/medic for 8 years and then went onto becoming a high school math teacher. In New York I became an investment banker, and then later in life went to film school at NYU. I don’t think you have to be one thing all your life. If you have a decent brain in your head, then you can do and be many things and also combine them. On September 11th, the course of my life was changed for the better and I raced down there on roller blades with a medical kit to help. This is where I first learned about volunteering by myself and that I could really make a difference, and I didn’t need to belong to a government agency or an organization. I worked down there in the streets for 6 days straight, cleaning out fireman’s eyes and collecting the dead bodies on the streets, and set up a little First Aid station at Firehouse Ten. After that, I stayed and worked as a volunteer there for the next year. I was just doing common sense things, and I had lost 23 friends in the WTC attacks. So the September 11th attacks were really my first voyage into the non-profit world on my own (without my parents’ missions).
2. You have mentioned that despite your extensive experience as a humanitarian relief worker, that you have never seen anything like Haiti. If you can possibly verbalize it, what has been unique about this experience? What is it like in the day-to-day, and how does it compare to your experiences following 9/11 and the tsunami?
Haiti is like no other disaster I have witnessed first-hand, and I’ve spoken to many journalists and army personnel who were in Iraq and Afghanistan and all over the world, and they all seem to agree. It is the deep wounds that we have never seen before in such a massive amount of people. Millions were hurt and over 300,000 were killed. There are still thousands of bodies lying under the rubble, so they say that the number will rise to over half a million people. That is a lot of people to die in one quick, ugly moment. It could be the largest disaster in the history of Earth, possibly? About those deep wounds: yes, things were tough in Haiti way before the earthquake, but now there are deep, infected wounds from the earthquake, and in the early days hospitals all over the country were amputating young children’s legs and arms every few minutes, and in the early days there were no painkillers. My most dramatic moment was helping to hold down a young boy as they sawed off his leg. Don’t get me wrong, a death is a death, and is tragic whether it was one, two or more who were killed…and the painful cries from the tsunami, September 11th and Haiti were all equally heart-wrenching…but during the other two disasters there seemed to be more hope. In Haiti, it seems too big. Some days, I see tragic things and I say to myself, “That is so bad; I don’t think I have seen anything worse in all my life.” But then the next day I come across 80 orphans living in the dirt and eating dirt with maggots coming out of their ears and worms in their bodies, and I say, “No, that is the worst thing that I have seen in my life.” But every day I see something worse than the day before. Each day, I go out on mobile clinics to other IDP camps; it frustrates me as it all seems too big. No one is helping in many of the other camps, and I say to myself, “Where is everyone? This is too big for our small group to handle.”
3. Easter Sunday–arguably the most important Catholic holiday–happened just under a month ago, and one thing that the media coverage has taught us about the Haitian people is that their faith is an unshakable cornerstone of their culture. What was Easter like in Port-au-Prince?
We could learn so much from the Haitian people and their faith. Their faith is an unshakable cornerstone of their culture, and I am enlightened daily by it and share in the church services held in our IDP camp nightly. In their deepest paths of despair, the Haitians are at peace and they teach me to be a more humble, faithful human being. Easter services were beautiful in Haiti and as they praised God all day long it was as if the rubble had been cleared away and we were all allowed to go back home.
4. Obviously one of the major focuses of JP HRO and others working in Haiti right now is the upcoming rainy season. Have the rains started in full force, and what impact do you expect the rain will have on the conditions where you are and your ability to work?
The rains have started in Haiti and they come down hard and fast. When it rains, the Haitians living in tents have to stand up all night as the water rushes inside, under them. At the JP HRO IDP camp (which is over 50,000 people strong), we have been preparing for the rains for over a month now and have been working against the clock to ensure the safety of our villagers. We have also had the help of the U.S. Navy SEEBEA engineers who have been building trenches and safety bridges, sandbagging, and securing the land. Our camp is situated on a hill and there are dangerous flooding zones, so for the past three weeks we have been busy relocating 5000 of our people to a new safer land. The mission was led by Sean Penn and was successful and we nearly collapsed in exhaustion doing it. We really believe in constantly moving forward and not being stuck in bureaucracy.
5. You had a remarkable experience in which a Haitian couple named their child after you. Talk us through that. Why do you think you made such a profound impact on that couple? How is Baby Alison?
There are many babies born in our field hospital daily. I have been involved in birthing over 85 of them. It is common for the mother to call her baby after one of the medical team who helped her birth the child. There are many “Baby Alisons” around now and I just smile…it is a beautiful connection to the child and one to put in my memory bank of love forever. Baby Alisons are alive and kicking!!!! There are many Seans around too!
6. You recently tweeted that one of your nurses, whom you described as your “rock,” attempted suicide with a scalpel. If you’re comfortable doing it, will you talk us through what happened to her on that day and how she is doing now? Do you feel there are adequate mental health resources for the relief workers, soldiers and journalists where you are?
Life here is hard for not only the victims of the earthquake but for the visiting volunteers as well. The emotional and physical strain is hard. We have many Haitian nurses and translators working for us in our hospital who went through the same earthquake ordeals as everyone else, but have been thrown into a busy work life. As they are busy healing others, we seem to forget they still have deep pain that they hold onto themselves. One morning, we found a young distraught Haitian nurse on the bathroom floor attempting to finish her life with a scalpel. It’s hard to talk about because it was such a private moment. She has no family left, and had been in nursing school when all the colleges were destroyed, so she has no future to finish her education. That is a big puzzle facing many bright students in Haiti today; their life and future have stopped with no way of moving forward. She is doing great now and lives with us in our main tent camp and we keep a close eye on her. There are not enough mental health workers here in Haiti; we may get one visit from a therapist once a month but for a camp of over 50,000 people that means they can only really see a small number per day. There is much work to do here, and trauma is just setting in with a noted rise in stabbings and wife-beatings.
7. How are you doing? Physically, emotionally, mentally?
Physically, mentally and emotionally I’m exhausted. When you start analyzing the person’s pee in the toilet before you, you know you have been away from home way too long! I hit a wall two weeks ago and needed some time off. It’s important to go back to your country and sleep and regroup and then come back in, fresh. I never seem to learn that lesson, as things on the ground are always too dire to leave, and I had been here for four months straight without a day off. I left Haiti a week ago to rest in NY and it has been a major culture shock. As I type this, I sit at Miami International Airport waiting to head back into Haiti, to that big mess I now call home.
8. In an interview you gave to Celebrity Wire at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, you were asked to discuss why your group of four independent volunteers in Sri Lanka was often able to achieve results faster than some of the big government-run initiatives and even private sector NGOs that have millions in funding, but are often dealing with slow-moving bureaucratic decisions. Now that you’re working with one of those big NGOs, do you find that progress is slower than it was when you were working independently?
I’m not working with a big NGO (a big NGO is Red Cross, World Vision, US AID, etc). Our organization is very similar to the Sri Lankan volunteer group; we set off as a small group together and are still a small bunch of volunteers. We do, however, have a 501c3, which allows us to accept donations and have money behind us so we can do so many more things than during the tsunami. It’s all about the heart of the volunteer and that is as strong as an ox. Our core group is only 8 people, which helps us maneuver around more easily, and we are moving ahead without bureaucracy and that is why I love working with this group.
9. Are you at all involved with other NGOs working in Haiti? How do you feel about the work that is being done by Doctors without Borders, charity: water, The Clinton Foundation, UNICEF, the Red Cross, CARE, Save the Children, Yéle Haiti and others?
I don’t want to comment on how I like working with other NGOs or how bad they are as I still have to live here in this small town and see them daily. It’s a hard question; let’s just say some are working well and moving forward (I say only some), but many more, especially the ones at the top, are stuck in a giant mess of bureaucracy and accountability and need to learn how to play with each other in the sand pit!!!!!! During our relocation process, Sean [Penn] led the way in bringing together all the NGOs working in our village and we worked together really well. I was shocked at how Sean pulled us all together, as many NGOs don’t collaborate with each other across the board. CRS (Catholic Relief Services) were a good example of an NGO working with others and doing great things for Haiti. The Clinton Foundation are also very good.
10. Musician and blogger Richard Morse has been writing captivating articles for The Huffington Post these past few months, most notably his column “Stealth Zone,” where he details his experiences—both before and after the earthquake—involving attempts to silence him and to prevent certain businesses from profiting by placing them into “Red Zones,” alleged high-crime areas that don’t necessarily have higher incidences of violence than “Green Zones.” Where do you think these forces are coming from, and have you dealt with them?
I haven’t read his blog on Huffington Post and am not sure what you are talking about in that question…if you explain it again I can maybe answer it…I do know I have been silenced by people for reporting the truth here. People don’t like to hear the truth, especially when it hurts.
[Ed. Note: I think I have made an error in asking this question as if it would be something with which most people in Port-au-Prince and Petionville would be familiar. That seems not to be the case. I have since sent the column in its entirety to Ms. Thompson.]
11. In promoting your film The Third Wave, you stated that “you don’t have to have any skills to hand out water or to give someone a hug.” Is this also true in Haiti? How can the average person get involved, and should people without medical, disaster relief or journalistic training be making the trip to Haiti right now?
I still believe in the volunteer message that “everyone is needed,” and you don’t need any skills. There are so many organizations here that need volunteers to come and hand out water and do too many things to list here. Or come along with a small group of friends and you’ll soon find so much work to do. There will be so much work to do, even if you do it a year from now.
12. As you well know, 80% of the Haitian population were below the poverty line before the earthquake. Haiti needs long-term solutions, though due to the extent of the immediate need, the Red Cross has been under fire recently for their comment that they want to hold onto the majority of donations for long-term solutions. Where do you feel the long-term solutions lie? Can these solutions be created merely through private sector non-profits and UN attention? How do you feel about the Red Cross’s decision to hold onto approximately $300 million of donations earmarked for Haiti?
I’m not going to comment on the NGO as I haven’t seen them do much here yet, but long term sustainable projects and business are the key to any future here. We can’t just keep handing them food. For example, we shouldn’t be importing timber to build homes; bamboo can be grown here and it can create business and work–but the problem with that is that it takes time to grow it. We have to think long-term here, and it’s been a mess here for so long, and we aren’t just trying to fix earthquake damage, but at the same time things are so bad here we need to save lives so there is a future. It’s tricky, heh?
13. What didn’t I ask you that I should have asked you?
What didn’t you ask me? Hmmm…”What’s it like living in a tent?” It’s pretty okay: I lie here and think, there isn’t much more in life I really need than this tent. It is orange and white, and sometimes I feel like I am living in “Finding Nemo’s” belly.
Please, if you would like to donate to JP HRO, I would urge you to do so here. You can follow Alison Thompson on Twitter @lightxxx. Pray she may come home soon, and that the people of Haiti see the light and triumph they deserve.
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