Gethro Philbert: “I couldn’t find work anywhere until the Red Cross started building shelters”

Published: 13 January 2011 10:00 CET

Gennike Mayers

Gethro Philbert, 26, is one of the dozens of people working at the Red Cross transitional shelter construction site in La Piste, Port-au-Prince. He stands out amongst his co-workers in part because of his broad smile, which is almost a permanent fixture on his young face.

He also stands out because of his crutches and because he only has one leg.

“I lost my leg during the earthquake,” Gethro explains with the aid of a sign language interpreter. He has been mute since birth.

12 January

Before the earthquake, Gethro taught at St Vincent’s – a primary school for the disabled in Port-au-Prince. He was there when the earthquake struck.

“I was in a classroom on the second floor when I felt the building shaking and crumbling. I told my students to get out.”

Some were in wheelchairs and Gethro did what he could to help them.

“Two of my students died. Most of the others were injured and I broke my ankle when I landed.”

Gethro spent that night lying in agony on the spot where he landed. The following day, help arrived and he was taken to hospital where he received pain relief. But without the swift and proper medical attention that he needed, infection quickly set in and began to spread from his ankle to his knee.

His boss was able to take him to a hospital in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic for an operation on 16 January. However, by then, the doctors had no choice but to amputate his leg.

Before the earthquake, Gethro had been an active member of Port-au-Prince’s close-knit deaf and mute community. After he had recovered from his surgery, he decided to join many of his friends who were living together in a small camp on the fringes of La Piste – one of the larger camps in the city. The land and basic provisions such as tents had been secured for the community from NGOs, and some water and food was provided. For its part, the Red Cross had provided some latrines.

However, as the months wore on, the community was increasingly left to its own devices until the Red Cross began to build transitional shelters on a site adjacent to theirs in June. Gethro, who had been unemployed like hundreds of thousands of his compatriots, was soon able to secure work as a carpenter.

“I couldn’t find work anywhere until the Red Cross started building shelters at La Piste,” he says. Gethro now works as part of a team of four, supervised by a team leader. All of them have speech or hearing impediments. “We have a good team. Everybody knows what they have to do and we enjoy what we do.”

He earns about 450 Haitian dollars (about 64 US dollars) per week. “It’s not a lot, but I give it to my mom to help my brothers and sisters. The money helps to send them to school.”

The Red Cross is building 350 transitional shelters at La Piste. The first of these shelters have been set aside for people like Philbert from the deaf and mute community