World Vision president: Haiti is 'world's largest refugee camp'



Posted on January 23, 2010 at 5:49 PM

Updated Saturday, Jan 23 at 7:19 PM

The atmosphere in Haiti is stifling with human misery. Some are fortunate enough to receive comfort. Thousands of others are alone; many simply in survival mode.

World Vision President Rich Stearns has responded to many disaster zones, but none like this.

"There were times when it was overwhelming, to be there, look around you and see how widespread it was, smell the smells, see corpses in the street, people walking by them like it's a normal thing, because it is now in Haiti," he said.

"I thought I was prepared but when I got there on Tuesday, I was just overwhelmed," he said. "It's one of those things, unless you see it with your own eyes, you just can't comprehend it."

There's no context for possibly up to 200,000 people dead and millions homeless. There is no quick fix.

"I've been calling it the world's largest refugee camp," said Stearns. "Imagine a refugee camp with somewhere between 1-2 million people in it, then having to feed, shelter, water and sanitation for that many people, that's how daunting it is."

Stearns said World Vision in the United States has raised just over $20 million to date and globally has raised over $40 million total.

"But to put that in perspective, the Asian tsunami five years ago, globally we raised $360 million, so we're a long way from the Asian tsunami and this disaster is at least as big and maybe even more costly because of the infrastructure," he said.

Stearns predicts disease epidemics, human despair breeding violence. 

"On one hand, you just want to leave, get away from the awful, awful terrible tragedy that you see.  On the other hand, you want to stay, want to help, so you're torn between those two emotions," he said.

Back in Seattle now, Stearns' experience will help him prioritize World Vision's response: how to bring safety and stability, supplies and organization to refugee camps, how to stretch resources for this disaster recovery that could last years.

"I think people have to make room in their hearts for this, almost consciously decide, if that were my family, I hope someone would help," he said.

Even before the quake, World Vision was the largest non-profit in Haiti with more than 800 staff members there.