Dordt College News

Sinnema is inspired by Haitians' faith

May 13, 2010

Lawren Sinnema ('06) arrived in Haiti at the beginning of February, working with local World Relief staff to coordinate their relief activities.

He assessed the needs of camps and churches around Port-au-Prince to determine where World Relief should intervene.For Lawren Sinnema, every day brought something different during the days after the earthquake. One day would be spent at the United Nations compound attending meetins with other NGOs, another day he would work in the office on reports for proposals.

He helped plan distributions of food, water, shelter, and other emergency supplies to meet the needs of earthquake victims.

Sinnema was in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, until mid-April. He continues to support Haiti relief efforts from the organization’s headquarters in Baltimore and expects to make return trips in the coming months. Sinnema responded to these interview questions while he was in Haiti.

What was your first thought upon arriving in Haiti?

I felt overwhelmed. This is the first time that I have witnessed a disaster on this scale.  At first sight, the destruction in Port-au-Prince is shocking. I wanted to help immediately, yet I soon learned that the complexity of Haiti made it very difficult to respond quickly.

What has been the most challenging part of your work in Haiti?

I have worked in Haiti for over two months, and one of most challenging parts of the work is trying to avoid burn out. It’s not a forty-hour-per-week job. You have to work long hours, nights, and weekends, and in Port-au-Prince, there are not many places to relax and take a break. 

The pictures and videos I had seen prior to my arrival did not prepare me for the scale of devastation and loss I am seeing here. In Port-au-Prince, there are thousands of collapsed buildings and rubble is everywhere. People are crowded into camps around the city, sleeping under tents, tarps, or whatever materials they have in their possession. The rainy season starts in April, and many people still don’t have adequate shelter to protect them.

I have witnessed five aftershocks during my time here. I’ve woken up to my bed shaking and had to run out of the house. The feeling of uncertainty was the worst, knowing that another tremor could happen at any time. Many of my Haitian colleagues still won’t sleep inside. They sleep in tents (some lost their homes) or, if they own one, their car.

What has been the most inspiring?

I am inspired by the resiliency and faith of the Haitian people. On the one-month anniversary of the quake, there was a national weekend of mourning. For three days, I heard non-stop singing and prayer throughout the city. 

How are Haitians moving forward following the earthquake?

In the midst of this disaster, life goes on. The markets are bustling and kids are going back to school.  Port-au-Prince is relatively calm. There are incidents of protests and looting, but those are isolated. 

Hundreds of thousands of Haitians were made homeless because of the earthquake, and it is likely that they will be living in camps for many months. People still need basic necessities, but in the long term, they need jobs, education, homes, and security.

How does relief work affect a person?

It’s a challenging profession. It can be rewarding, but you have to make sacrifices. You have to travel a lot, which makes having a “normal” life at home somewhat difficult. When you travel abroad, there are cultural and language barriers that can add stress. You have to be flexible and have a sense of humor. It can be difficult to work in a disaster area and witness suffering. It’s not always easy to process your experiences, because when you return home, people often can’t relate to what you experienced.

What should North American Christians know?

I have heard Christians both in Haiti and in the U.S. say that the earthquake is God’s judgment on the Haitian people. I disagree. We live in a broken world, and the Haitians are no more deserving of judgment than any of us. There are no easy answers, but I believe God is mourning, too, when he looks over Haiti. He is a God of mercy and love and, because of that, we can hope for a better future for Haiti.

How long have you been working with World Relief?

I started working with World Relief’s Disaster Response Unit in January of 2008. Since that time, I have worked on our programs in Darfur and Eastern Congo. I have been most impacted by the trips I have made to Eastern Congo. Most people don’t know that the conflict in Eastern Congo has claimed over five million lives since the mid-1990s. The genocide in Rwanda basically spilled over into Congo, and fighting continues to this day. In particular, women face the worst of the violence. It’s an issue that people should be aware of.

What drew you to this organization and this work?

Ever since my time at Dordt, I knew that I wanted to be involved in international work. There are a lot of great organizations doing tremendous work around the world, but I felt called to work with a Christian relief agency. World Relief is very intentional about integrating a Christian mission into the work of reducing poverty and serving the most vulnerable. Poverty is primarily not about a lack of material resources. Poverty is about broken relationships, and World Relief tries to address that in a holistic manner. That appeals to me. It’s important for me to work in a place where Christ is at the center of the work. 

How did your Dordt education help prepare you for what you are doing today?

At Dordt, I was challenged to think about every subject from a Christian perspective. That has carried over into my career. My education gave me a foundation from which I view the world today. In the relief and development field, there are differing views about the best way to help people, and many of the paradigms are based on humanist assumptions. The world is still a very confusing place to me. But if you start with a biblical basis, which was emphasized at Dordt, it allows you to think about the major issues of the world in a different, deeper way. 

I was a political studies and business major at Dordt. The skills I learned in management, economics, politics, and international relations have proven important in my current role, but most importantly, the emphasis on justice and Christian ethics will always stay with me.

What else you have done since Dordt?

After graduating in 2006, I completed a master’s degree in International Relations from Syracuse University. I specialized in non-profit management and global development. As part of that program, I was able to spend two months in South Africa working with entrepreneurs in the townships of Cape Town. After finishing my master’s, I took the job with World Relief.

What have you learned that you’d like others to know?

Even before the earthquake, Haiti was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti has received billions of dollars in foreign aid, yet it is poorer than it was fifty years ago. In Haiti, well-intentioned help by foreigners has often been harmful. The rebuilding effort will need to be done differently, with a focus on addressing the structural problems that have trapped Haiti for so long. In thirty-five seconds, Haiti lost sixty percent of its GDP. It will take years to recover. 

The latest death toll is around 230,000. A statistic like that means nothing until you hear about the individual stories of loss. In talking with our staff, all have stories of losing family and friends. Some lost children. The unexamined part of this tragedy is the trauma, fear, and loss faced by survivors.  Dealing with that may be Haiti’s greatest challenge.

About World Relief

World Relief is a Christian relief and development organization based in Baltimore, Maryland. It runs programs around the world, primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia.  World Relief has been working in Haiti for the past seventeen years. Its office in Port-au-Prince was destroyed during the earthquake, but miraculously, all forty staff survived. 

With a disaster team on the ground two days after the earthquake, the organization has since been meeting the needs of thousands of earthquake victims through support of food, water, shelter, and health care. 

You can learn more about World Relief at the website

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