Haiti: Officers from Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal join efforts

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“When I see people lying on the ground, I feel grateful and thankful to be here helping those people. Many Haitians often think I am from Haiti and never guess I am Senegalese.”

Seeing how more than 30 countries and 100 nonprofit groups are working together on the emergency humanitarian relief effort in Haiti is amazing, says U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Tim Labenz. The main goal is helping people in urgent need, Labenz, an operations officer with the amphibious dock-landing ship USS Gunston Hall, said.

The USS Gunston Hall was set to deploy to West Africa with an international staff January 15 when it received orders dispatching it immediately to Haiti. It had been scheduled for an Africa Partnership Station West deployment; APS is an international initiative that aims to improve maritime safety and security in West and Central Africa.

The ship, which arrived in Haiti January 18, has the ability to produce 72,000 gallons of fresh drinking water a day and has helped bring emergency care and feeding — and drinking water — to thousands of needy Haitians.

U.S. Navy Captain Cindy Thebaud, APS West commander, said the USS Gunston Hall has been working with the Haitian Coast Guard and Sri Lankan United Nations forces in two main areas: supporting medical treatment and the evacuation of the critically injured, and working with the United Nations on food distribution around the Haitian Coast Guard base in Carrefour where the ship is located.

Labenz said each member of the international crew aboard the USS Gunston Hall — which includes military officers from the United States, Africa and Europe — brings a particular and much-needed skill set. But, he said, “One skill the international officers do not have is the ability to brag.”

Labenz praised the selflessness and work ethic of the international crew.

Referring to Lieutenant Assane Seye, APS West staff from Senegal, Labenz said, “The trust that he has built with the Haitian people would take a long time for any of us here to do.”

Seye has been particularly helpful in organizing Haitian volunteers who have helped in the relief effort, Labenz said. “Haitians are helping Haitians. … Haitians are cooking lunch for the volunteers and going out with the Haitian Coast Guard to deliver aid. The main point of contact with our staff to make that work is Lieutenant Seye. He is the right-hand man … working in support of the medical facility and doing amazing things.”

Seye said, “When I see people lying on the ground, I feel grateful and thankful to be here helping those people. Many Haitians often think I am from Haiti and never guess I am Senegalese.”

“I feel a cultural and ethnic link with the Haitian people. I get to know them, what they want, what they need, and right now I know the Haitian people need help,” he said.

Lieutenant Commander Samuel Ayelazono, APS West staff from Ghana, has been the key to fostering a relationship between the patients and staff, Labenz said, and he has also worked hard in helping to gather patient information.

“As you can imagine, when you have a flow of people coming into the Haitian Coast Guard base where we are located — children who might not be with their parents, people just coming to the base alone — keeping track of that and bringing a compassionate side to the story and helping people at the same time is quite a task,” Labenz said.

“Whenever you look out there, there is Sam [Ayelazono] crouching over a patient or taking down information and establishing a relationship” so as to assess the person’s condition and determine his or her needs, Labenz said.

Ayelazono said he was excited to be able to help in Haiti.

“When we found out our orders had changed and we were going to be sent to help people of Haiti,” he said, “we were filled with excitement that we would be able to help.” It has been “quite fulfilling” being able to help, he said.

Captain Jimi Osinonwo of Nigeria, APS West deputy commander, also said the USS Gunston Hall’s participation in the Haiti relief effort has been “critical,” and the experience he has gained has been “quite valuable.”

The Nigerian officer said he has spent much time coordinating the activities of many aid agencies, coordinating the medical evacuation of critically injured patients, and distributing emergency food rations.

“We have each brought our own cultural and professional skills in order to provide the best operational and medical care possible. This seems to be working very, very well. … We are working to stabilize the population and hopefully start rebuilding the country on a path towards development,” said Lieutenant Commander Marco Campasso, APS West staff from Italy.

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