Originally published in the New York Times by Jacob Kushner
The first time I saw the famous Fabienne Jean, she was limping toward me, slowly, but with the unmistakable elegance of the dancer that she was. Two years had passed since American donors and American media had turned Fabienne into a symbol of recovery from the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010. Well-wishers had promised her everything from a new house and an American visa to her own dance academy. At the time she was still hopeful; none of it, however, would come to pass.
The last time I saw the famous Fabienne Jean, she was sitting idle in her basement apartment in Port-au-Prince, unable to work, unable to dance, still nostalgic about her brief encounter with American generosity. She took out her phone and flipped through photos. “Did you see this one, Jacob?” she laughed, showing me a photo of her posing on a Florida beach. Eleven months later, she was dead.
Before the disaster, Fabienne, a performer at Haiti’s National Theater, had danced onstage with some of the country’s biggest bands and donned extravagant outfits to march in Carnival parades. But the earthquake sent a wall of concrete crashing down on top of Fabienne, crushing her right leg. To save her life, American doctors, flown in from New York, amputated below the knee. Fabienne thought she would never dance again.
Then, a few weeks later, a man from New Hampshire promised her otherwise. The owner of a prosthetics company, he’d traveled to Haiti to help the earthquake’s amputees. He was taken by Fabienne’s sanguine spirit, and told her he would help.
The world was desperate for good news from Haiti. The earthquake had killed somewhere between 46,000 and 316,000 people, most in a matter of minutes, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in modern history. Fabienne was one of countless survivors who were injured, and one of 1.5 million people — almost 15 percent of the population — displaced from their homes.
Americans were moved by Haiti’s pain. A Pew survey found that half of all Americans donated or planned to donate money to help Haiti recover. For its part, the United States government pledged an incredible $4.4 billion in aid money; by comparison, it pledged just $350 million following the Indian Ocean earthquake that had killed 230,000 and displaced 1.7 million six years earlier.
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