Jean Berlin knows that his life was spared during the Haiti earthquake in 2010 for a reason. And that reason is to serve others. In honor of World Humanitarian Day, we wanted to share his amazing story of a life dedicated to serving people.
A math and physics teacher, Jean Berlin was teaching in a 5th floor university classroom in Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010. Just before the earthquake hit, he got what he describes as “a bad feeling inside.”
“I felt something would happen,” he recalled.
He left the building, excusing himself from his students and explaining that he wasn’t feeling well.
Moments later, when the shaking started, Berlin was confused. He’d never experienced an earthquake before. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them, the school was gone. The building had collapsed and everyone inside was dead.
“I said, ‘Oh my God what happened?’” Berlin ran home to check on his two sisters. Thankfully, both had survived the earthquake.
He’ll never forget that day when his city went dark. “It was a very, very bad time in Haiti,” he said. “After I wondered, ‘God why didn’t you give me the chance to ask my friends to come out too?’”
Berlin still has no answer as to why so many died that day, but he survived. All he knows is that he is here for a reason.
“Jesus saved me to serve people,” he says with confidence.
Although Berlin loved teaching, he now dedicates his life to helping protect vulnerable families and communities in Haiti from future disasters, like hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. As a project manager for World Concern’s Disaster Risk Reduction program in Port-de-Paix, Berlin teaches people safe building practices, disaster preparedness, and how to keep their families safe in a disaster. He says he never wants to see such massive, preventable loss of life again.
“If something happens in Port-de-Paix one day, now we won’t have as many victims,” he explains. “This is one way I can serve people.”
Berlin’s humanitarian service is his life mission, and the mission of World Concern.
“I can say that it is very, very important to serve people because, as Christians, we have to do what Jesus has done. Because Jesus himself, he served people too. As a Christian organization, it is our very special mission to serve people.”
We at World Concern humbly salute Jean Berlin as a dedicated humanitarian who is fulfilling his calling by serving others and protecting human life.
Listen to Jean Berlin say, in his own words, why he believes his life was spared so that he could help protect others.
When we met 12-year-old Tong, she had not been to school for two years and was working on her parents’ rice farm in rural Laos, near the Thai border. Her family of 9 is often hungry. As the 3rd oldest child, she feels it is her responsibility to help her siblings survive. So, Tong was considering going to Thailand to find work.
“I heard from friends that it is easy to earn income (in Thailand). I would like to try. Even just a little pay for any work, I will accept,” she said eagerly.
Telling a child like Tong that this would be dangerous is the first step in keeping her safe. She also needs opportunities at home to earn income safely and to get back in school.
So before she left, World Concern offered her the chance to learn sewing skills. Although she was the youngest of 14 girls in her class, she quickly learned to sew a beautiful traditional Lao skirt. Tong also learned she can sell her skirts for about $5 each. By making two or three skirts a week, she can greatly increase her income. And, since she’ll no longer have to work in the rice fields, she can go back to school.
Now, when asked if she plans to go to Thailand, she responds confidently, “For what? I can earn income here and be with my family. There is no need to go there.”
Tong’s story illustrates how teaching children and young girls about the risk of trafficking and offering them alternative ways to earn income keeps them safe.
Another girl in her village, Duangmany, wishes she had this opportunity at Tong’s age. When Duangmany was 15, she took a risk many girls her age are willing to take. She left home and travelled 12 hours to a small town outside Bangkok in search of work.
Far from home, Duangmany ended up working in a small restaurant, preparing food and serving beers to male customers.
“The work was very tiring. I had to get up early to prepare the meat,” she recalled of her experience. “I woke up early in the morning and worked late in the evening to clean and close the shop. I worked long hours and felt physically exhausted. When I requested a chance to rest, it wasn’t allowed. What I was earning was not enough for the work I did.”
Although Duangmany says she was abused by the restaurant owners, she was attracted to the freedom to buy shoes and clothes with her money. But eventually, her body gave out and she wasn’t able to go on. She returned home with $6 in her pocket.
When asked about the abuse she suffered in Thailand, Duangmany grew quiet. She refused to talk about the experience of serving beers to men, and when asked if she would ever consider going back to Thailand, she shook her head and said, “No.”
After joining the World Concern vocational skills class and learning to sew, she has hope for the first time to earn enough income and to help support her family—in a safe way. And when other young girls talk about going to Thailand for work, she can tell them about the reality of what’s waiting for them across the border.
Thoeum Thaiy came across World Concern’s Free Them 5k while looking for his next race. A friend had encouraged him to start running, and he’d completed his first 5k in March of 2012. He knew that registering for another event would keep him hitting the pavement. That’s when he heard about the Free Them 5k.
“The cause really resonated with me,” he said.
Thoeum was born in Cambodia, and his family immigrated to Thailand in 1979. They lived in refugee camps for several years when Thoeum was very young. He has little recollection of that period in his life, but his older siblings often talk about the experience.
“It struck a chord with me—the mission—with my background (as a refugee). It seemed like a perfect fit,” he said.
Thoeum set what he thought was a pretty aggressive fundraising goal: $1,000. He wrote his own story on his fundraising page, then encouraged friends and family to help him protect vulnerable kids and families in places like Cambodia and Thailand who are at risk of human trafficking.
He posted the link to his fundraising page on Facebook and sent several emails to coworkers and other contacts. Right away he raised about $700.
“It was surprising and amazing how many people gave,” he said. Thoeum was most surprised by generous coworkers—some he hadn’t had much contact with recently—who gave about $200.
Although his initial goal seemed high, “as it inched closer, it was exciting to see the number tick up,” he said.
An employee of Merrill Lynch, Thoeum took advantage of his company’s matching gift program, which added another $700, and enabled him to surpass his goal.
Thoeum ended up raising $1,900 for the 2012 Free Them 5k, making him the top fundraiser last year.
“It doesn’t take a lot of effort or time to do a Facebook post,” he said. “Folks are willing and want to help. All it takes is that initial step of asking.”
Whether you sign up today, or you’ve already registered, be encouraged by the success of Theoum and others and give your fundraising page a push. Your goal may be closer than you think!
As I visited our work in villages in Laos with my wife, I was reminded more clearly than ever that basic hygiene and sanitation just doesn’t exist in some places in the world.
In the village of Dak Euy, we saw children barely old enough to walk relieving themselves right in the middle of the village.
Human beings should not have to live like this. It’s not just a matter of dignity. For these villagers, this lack of hygiene and sanitation is killing them.
You and I know how to prevent disease, but people who live in poor and marginalized villages have not yet heard. They don’t know to use toilets – or to at least isolate where they go to the bathroom or wash their hands.
What they are very familiar with, however, is disease, illness and death.
It is common for kids to die before they reach their fifth birthday in Dak Euy and the surrounding villages. Conservatively, through our interviews, I estimate at least 10% of children don’t reach the age of five. This is 17 times higher than the child mortality rate in the U.S.
By another estimate, half of the children are, dying before age five. It is no wonder that in these tribal communities, children are not immediately named, and that repeatedly throughout our trip, we met mothers who have lost children. As the father of a healthy, silly, 4-year-old girl, it hurts to even begin to imagine their pain.
Malaria, typhoid, dysentery – these preventable diseases all plague villagers – and especially hit the most vulnerable people the worst: children born into unclean environments, with little food, no clean water, and fragile immune systems.
Poor sanitation and accompanying water-borne disease is one of the worst health problems in the world. It is undoubtedly one of the primary killers of these kids.
With no sanitation, the cycle of sickness repeats itself over and over again.
As a hardy world traveler, I pride myself on never getting sick. But on this trip, I ended my stint in SE Asia with a flat-on-my-back, gotta-be-near-the bathroom, upset stomach yuck fest. I did not want to do anything but read a book, go to sleep, and stay near the bathroom. And I was clutching my stomach in a hotel room in Bangkok, not on the dirty, hard floor of a hut with no bathroom at all.
I cannot imagine dealing with that kind of discomfort, and far worse, for much of my life. I shudder to think about what that would do to me both physically and mentally, to have this occur over and over again. But this is daily life for so many villagers in Dak Euy, and many other struggling communities.
I am glad to say that our supporters (that’s you!) are helping villagers get beyond this cycle of disease.
While I was visiting our villages, our contracted drilling truck arrived and we hit water for a new well in Dak Din. It was incredible, one of the most exciting moments of my life! Just imagine the transformative power of clean, convenient water. We are also teaching villagers about hygiene (thank God!), and doing it in a way that it will stick.
We will be constructing latrines in these communities, with the help of the villagers. And because they are learning why and how, they can build more latrines once we leave. The idea with all of our work is for it to be transformational, not temporary. Our desire in these villages is for children to use a latrine, wash their hands – and stay healthy.
When I look at the ground in these villages, I am repelled that people and animals relieve themselves wherever they please. And yet I know by visiting developing communities, that life does get better. Disease subsides. And that’s what we’re shooting for in these villages in Laos.
Changing lives is working with people over time, revealing a better path – not just directing people to “our way.” In doing so, in loving people with sincerity, we show them a clearer look at the life God would want for any of us.
A microloan made a macro difference in Damas Louis’s life. The 34-year-old lives in Les Cayes, a town on Haiti’s southern coast. Life is tough here, and most people struggle to survive in a city plagued by poverty, unemployment and lack of infrastructure. Before receiving a loan, Damas scraped together a living by selling snacks and drinks in a tiny shop on an unpaved street.
“I wasn’t able to afford the things my customers wanted to buy, so they would go elsewhere,” he said.
With credit and support from a World Concern microloan, Damas was able to buy a refrigerator and additional inventory to sell, including cosmetic products. His business has nearly quadrupled, from about $24 in sales per day to $93 a day.
Things are definitely improving for Damas, who recently got married and is expecting his first child. He has ambitions to increase his income, eventually renting a larger space closer to a market and expanding his business even further.
My mouth dropped open when I read the words of ABC News reporter Amy Bingham in an article about the potential effect Tropical Storm Isaac could have on the city of Tampa as the Republican National Convention kicks off there on Monday. Most of the commenters on news stories like this made fun of the fact a storm was bearing down on a group of Republicans.
But my shock was over the complete lack of regard for the people of Haiti who are in real danger.
“Under the best case scenario, the storm could smash into the mountains of Haiti … then the weakened storm could sweep over the Bahamas and swirl off the east coast of Florida … missing Tampa…” wrote Bingham.
Seriously? A storm smashing into the mountains of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere is the “best case scenario”?
I was just in those mountains of Southern Haiti in June. There are families and communities in those mountains who are extremely vulnerable to storms like this. They all talked of the terrible flooding that overtook their homes and villages in 2008 when four hurricanes hit Haiti. They are terrified of disasters, and because of their remote rural location in these mountains, most of them probably don’t even know another storm is coming their way.
I was glad today to see NBC News and a few others focusing on the danger to Haiti. If Isaac continues on its current path and strengthens into a hurricane, it will likely cause much damage to the homes and lives of the millions of people who live in Haiti.
World Concern is preparing staff members in Haiti and gathering emergency supplies to respond.
We’ve also been working to reduce the risk to communities in this region, like Côtes-de-Fer, a village near Bainet, along the southern coast of Haiti. We worked with community members to build a canal in 2010 that is designed to direct large amounts of rainwater away from homes and into the ocean.
“The water used to flood my house,” said Dieudonné Felix, who lives in Côtes-de-Fer. “The last time it rained, the rainwater went straight to the sea. This is a big improvement.”
But even communities with canals are at risk because Isaac is expected to dump more than 12 inches of rain—possibly up to 20 inches—on Haiti today and tomorrow.
Please join me in praying for the people of Haiti, World Concern staff and others who work in this area, and all who will be affected by this storm.
This is a guest blog post by singer Jenny Simmons, who recently traveled to South Sudan with World Concern to see the great need in this country and witness the transformation taking place with the help of her supporters.
It is a simple memory—but one that haunts my mind.
The sound of rain coming for me.
Last week in Lietnhom, South Sudan, I slept under a tin roof (one of the only tin roofs in the village; everything else is thatched) during one of the biggest thunderstorms I have ever heard in my life. The rain sounded like an army. Constant, steady, violent, encroaching. Angry. All night long it pounded away at the roof like artillery fire.
It is odd to sit in my living room today and watch the soundless rain roll off my shingled roof.
Like most of South Sudan, there is no electricity in the village of Lietnhom. So when it is dark, it is very dark. And when bolts of lightning strike, they pierce the sky with an unbelievably cruel, taunting brightness.
It must be scary as a small child to live in a hut with a thatched roof and no electricity during a thunderstorm.
It is utter darkness. No sound of cars in the distance. No highways. No stadium lights or street lights or sirens. Can you even imagine that kind of darkness? That kind of silence?
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared.
In fact, the truth is,I was scared during much of my trip to South Sudan.
The people were kind beyond measure. They offered us the very best of every single thing they had. Their food. Their beds. Their friendship. Still, I found myself lying in bed each night praying several different prayers of desperation.
“Lord, please send a UN helicopter to come get me.”
“God, if you’re gonna end the world somehow, someway—tonight would be a perfect night for you to go ahead and do that.”
“God I will do anything—I will serve you anywhere—if you will please, please just deliver me from this place.”
It is with great shame that I confess: My solution, as I interacted with people living in extreme poverty, was to beg God to put an end to the world. Or at the very least, send in a special UN convoy to rescue me from latrines, mosquito nets, cold showers, no electricity and the really scary thunderstorm in the black of night that rattled the tin roof above my head like an army, coming to pillage.
Just because I spent a few days in the bush of South Sudan doesn’t make me a saint or a hero or even a humanitarian. I’m not. I straight up spent most of my time praying for the apocalypse just so I would not have to pee in another bush on the side of a dirt road. Is that really end-of-the-world worthy? I think not.
If you make any conclusion about me based on my trip to South Sudan, conclude this: I am scared and selfish.
Scared to eat food that comes out of a tin shack with mud floors and barefoot women. Scared to eat the chicken on my plate (because I swear he was just roaming around my bedroom window a few minutes ago). Scared to use the latrines, convinced that the horrific smell has created some sort of critter that will come out and eat me. Scared to sleep in pitch black darkness. Scared to hold a baby that may not live to be a little girl. Scared to hug a momma who has to bury that little girl. Scared to look at both of them in the eyes and imagine it being me and my little girl. Scared to love them and see them as people … because what if I go home and forget about their stories? Forget their cries for help?
“No milk. No milk,” the momma shows me her breasts, drooping and empty, “You take her.” And she tries to hand me her four-month-old baby.
Scared to look her in the eyes—scared that seeing her as human means I must act.
Scared that the problem is too big to be solved.
Scared that the only solution is death.
At the end of the day, I was just scared.
Though the country was beautiful and the people I met were amazing… the truth is, I couldn’t get home fast enough. When I got to Washington, D.C. my dad picked me up from the airport. I asked if we could go straight to a restaurant for breakfast. I scarfed down croissants and muffins. A latte. In a pastry shop that serves the up and up of Washington, D.C. elites. From there I went straight to the store and bought a new outfit. A razor. Body scrub. Face wash. I showered for nearly an hour. An entire hour of wasted water and gas. And then, we went out to eat again for Mexican food. I ordered $10 table-side guacamole. By the time I caught my flight back to Nashville I had spent more money in half a day than the families I had just been with, spend in a year.
And the spending and eating and gluttony on all levels was cathartic. A sort of cleansing of the poverty via a frenzy of money spending. It was like something in me needed to spend money. Needed to consume. Needed to re-ground myself in wealth and comfort as quickly as possible.
And that speaks to my own selfishness. My own poverty.
An unhealthy dependence on the things of this world to make me feel comfortable and happy.
So now you know the truth. I am just a girl. Mostly scared. Mostly selfish. Entirely out of her element in the small village of Lietnhom, South Sudan. Praying, begging for some end-of-the-world moment, simply so I could be delivered from my own discomfort.
Poverty does that to us. It makes us uncomfortable. And if we can just get to the center lane, so we don’t have to pull up right next to the homeless person on the corner and look them in the eyes, we have saved ourselves the discomfort of having to know and having to act.
The truth is, my trip to South Sudan with World Concern was one of the hardest trips of my entire life. And I feel like a baby saying that because my teammates joyously snapped pictures, conducted interviews, pooped in latrines without complaint and ate the poor little pet chickens without hesitation. But for me, it was hard. It was hard on my body and soul. It was an affront to every single way of life I have ever known.
South Sudan was hard for me.
We are all a little scared to stare poverty in the face. And we should be.
Poverty displays the very essence of our brokenness as people. Those living in it and the rest of us … avoiding it. We both operate out of poverty.
Jesus came to alleviate poverty. He didn’t avoid it. In fact, in the New Testament, many times Jesus went out of his way—literally, through different villages and cities in order to stare the broken, hurting, poor, widowed, ostracized people in the eyes. He looked poverty in the face, in order to give hope. Other times, he went out of his way to teach those with wealth what it truly looked like to follow him. To give away possessions, and more importantly, to be willing to follow His lead even when it meant personal comfort would be diminished. He knew that people were either impoverished in their spirit or in their possessions. A lack of faith or a lack of bread were the same in His eyes—and he sought to shine new life into both kinds of people.
We go where God sends us. To the least of these. And the truth is: we’re mostly too scared and too selfish to do this on our own. But God walks us through our greatest fears.
So at the end of the day, I do not stand here a proud girl, telling you of all the amazing things I did to serve the poor.
I stand here as a girl who prayed for a UN helicopter to come rescue me. And instead, found a Savior who gave me strength, comfort and overflowing power and love to stare poverty in the face and at the end of the day—to sleep through the storm.
You’ll notice that World Concern has a new logo – and tagline. We’re pretty excited about this, as it helps you – and us – tell the story about what we’re doing together.
Here’s a little background on how we reached this point.
I’ve traveled around the world and have seen nearly all of the work we do, in some of the toughest places on Earth. Over time, something has stood out in my mind.
I saw it in the life of a businesswoman in Chad. She escaped a war, with nothing but her wits, and built a new business – when given a chance. I saw it in a family in Bangladesh that went from poverty to prosperity, with education, job training, and a fish farm.
A theme that I see, over and over, is the transformation of lives. People who were hopeless, now have reasons to live.
In some ways, World Concern is not unique. There are many humanitarian organizations that seek to do good. And of those, quite a few have Christian backgrounds. In fact, there are several good ones that have either the word “World” or “Concern” in their name.
But what we see that is unique about World Concern is the one-on-one relationships that we build with people and communities, relationships that sometimes span years. We see that we make the biggest difference in people’s lives when we know them, work with them individually, and equip them with the tools they need to thrive.
We don’t just do good. We do good that lasts. In turn, those we help see themselves, and their lives, in new ways.
They know that God loves them. They have value. They can indeed succeed in life.
So – we’re inviting you, along with those we serve, and anyone else with eyes to see, to “witness the transformation.” Our work does make a difference.
We wanted to bring this idea to an icon as well. The icon we chose hints at transformation and new life: an emerging butterfly, motion, and several parts coming together into one unit. Here’s more about our new look.
We truly cannot do it without you.
In the coming months we will also unveil a new website, with features to make us more transparent, and equip you to act.
Thank you for your compassion for the world’s poor!
Maria Evans said she and her friends felt compelled to do something to help people suffering in the Horn of Africa after hearing about the famine at church last month.
“It touched my heart when I saw those slides,” recalled Maria, who attends Community Bible Fellowship in Lynnwood, Wash. “Here we are enjoying this luxury, and we complain so much. At least we have water. It’s been a wake-up call for everybody.”
The church members decided to hold a yard sale to raise funds for World Concern’s famine response. Knowing that every dollar would help bring food, water and emergency supplies to families affected by the drought, they got right to work gathering donations of household items for the sale.
After promoting their event on Craigslist and Facebook, more than 100 shoppers showed up for the event, which was held Aug. 26-28 on the church lawn.
“Friends and people from other churches came and bought stuff. Some gave an extra $20 cash donation,” said Maria.
The church raised more than $1,400 from the sale. “We feel good, knowing it will help a lot,” she said.
Maria said the church members had so much fun organizing donations, tagging items the night before, and hosting the event, because they knew it would ultimately help desperate families in the drought. “We didn’t even get tired!” she said. “We enjoyed every minute of it.”
Don’t take anything for granted. It’s something that was evident to me while witnessing an amazing life-passage for 34 people.
I attended the first graduation of Lietnhom Vocational Training Center in South Sudan. Thirty-two men and two women, for the first-time ever, now have skills to earn a living.
These men and women never finished school. Only one made it to high school, and dropped out after one year because the school fees were too expensive. Others had some elementary school; others had no education at all.
Most of them never really had a chance. War here in Sudan forced many of them to move as refugees in their own country. Finishing school hardly an option, considering they faced generations of poverty – and no history of education.
One man I met is named Joseph, and he traveled here to this rural area from Wau. He’s apart from his family, but considers the year here as a great investment in his family’s future. He celebrated today, reminded of South Sudan’s independence one month ago from Sudan. The independence brings hope of peace at last.
“I give thanks to God,” Joseph said. “The life of Southern Sudan and my own life are synonymous. It is a new beginning.”
Joseph showed me one of his new skills: repairing engines. With confidence, he scoured the engine of an old World Concern truck to try and identify an electrical problem. He’s smart – and has a great chance to find work close to his family.
“None of my forefathers have had these skills,” he smiled, as he proudly waved his certificate for completing the program.
World Concern began this job-training program last year, and since then, other non-profits have joined us in the mission. The work is difficult, and certainly not a hand-out.
The leader of the program, Mechanics Trainer Moses Khamadi, says the students grow more committed over time.
One graduate now plans to complete secondary school, which gives him a shot a college. Moses says there are many opportunities for these new graduates.
“The mechanics are already fixing motorbikes locally and making money,” Moses said. “Initially when we began, some thought they were wasting their time. But they began to realize that if they work, they’ll get money. They can buy food and something to improve their livelihoods.”
Although the context differs, I see this spark of life time and again when visiting World Concern development projects across the world. When we work in a meaningful way with people, they realize that life is not hopeless. They realize they have value. In spite of their poverty, they find reason after reason to continue on.