The following piece by PIH co-founder Paul Farmer was presented on January 14, 2011, as part of the event Remember, Reflect, Respond: Haiti One Year Later.

Remember. The day before yesterday, Port-au-Prince looked as if it had just been leveled by an earthquake. But all of those gathered there on January 12th, 2011, knew how different it was from a year previously.

All five of our senses told us why, because each of them feeds into memory.

The assaultive images and sounds and smells and textures of those first few days after the 12th have faded, which is good and bad and surely necessary: none of us wishes to dwell on the great disaster of our times. Some memories are well worth summoning, as they remind us of the best that humans can offer one another in times of great distress. But much of what is recalled includes things we wished we’d never encountered, images and smells and even sounds that conjure themselves violently. The images you can see here tonight. The sounds you can imagine: the slow creaking of a roof starting to fall, then its rapid collapse upon the living and pinned, the cries of pain coming from underneath an innocent-looking puff of powder that itself settled over the persistent groans of the injured and the dying.

The sense of touch ran the gamut from the brutal punch of bone-breaking cement to the urgent tug of hands seeking to save those trapped to the gentle or sometimes sharply-honed touch of medical care. Some can still taste January 12th as a previously unknown flavor of relief or gratitude, spared in spite of long odds; some still taste the more bitter dregs of sorrow. This foisting of memory—the “remember” part of the equation—has sparked sentiments ranging from pity to mercy to grief.

For most gathered here tonight in Boston, we contemplate the pain of others. But some here lost limbs, many lost family, and perhaps everyone lost a bit of innocence about the possible dimensions of a collision between bad luck and longstanding unfairness. For still others, much like those I left yesterday in Haiti, all five senses transport us once again to a house of pain, pinned under the fallen beams of oppressive memory.

How might we lift these beams? We gather here to reflect on this loss and to pay proper tribute to the fallen. It is when memory, however brutal, is yoked to reflection and to meaningful action that we lift those beams to free ourselves and others, that we may make common cause to protect and heal and rebuild anew.

Respond. Not everyone will agree when I say that our immediate response to the quake was effective and humane. But even critics of the acute-relief phase allow that the pragmatic solidarity of the world was marshaled quickly. This city, certainly, has fueled our own response and I know I speak for many doctors and nurses and first responders when I thank those here, and many others, for allowing us to serve as best we could.

We could have done better, perhaps, and can do better in the future. It is harder now, as memory fades, to sustain our response. To make it better and stronger and more effective, to draw on every noble sentiment and every bit of technical skill, we acknowledge the link between memory and passion.

Whether we think of one lost friend or, to use the figure reported yesterday, 316,000 lost souls, we come together to pay respects to those lost and recommit ourselves to firm and informed actions. Just as we’ve lost too many friends to name them all, so too do we have too many aspirations to list them all. But I would like mention one, the new teaching hospital in Mirebalais, because it, better than any other project in more than 25 years of work, is emblematic of both our aspiration to build back better and our respect for the Haitian people and their story. It will be a temple, we hope, in which we can reflect our love of the fallen, from Drs. Josue and Mario to Mamito to Tom White, and our desire to draw on the science and art of healing. It will be a place drawing on the expertise of builders, represented by Jim Ansara and David Walton (one here tonight and one in Mirebalais), and by healers like Natasha Archer and Michelle Morse, and by those who procure and teach and train and manage, and by all the rest of you, who make this redemptive work possible.

Our response thus draws on memory. A temblor of pragmatic solidarity that will register on the Richter or on any other scale, a tsunami of goodness: that will be our response.


Watch a video recording of the January 14, 2011, event Remember Reflect Respond: Haiti One Year Later on the player below.

Read PIH's One Year Report, an update on work accomplished since the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and plans to continue helping the people of Haiti rebuild their country.