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Nous Vivons

Oxfam America's Coco McCabe is one of several Boston-based Oxfam America staff in Haiti to help with the relief effort, where they join 200 Oxfam staff already on the ground. Here's her latest update, dated January 23.

Nous vivons -- those are the first words scribbled in one of my notebooks -- overheard as we lurched onto a main road in Port-au-Prince to begin another day of logging people's needs and scrambling to meet them in the wake of the second deadliest earthquake the world has seen in the last 30 years.

I don't know much French, but I know enough to hear gratitude and the thrill of being alive. A man dashing across the street had spied our driver -- a friend -- and a smile of wild joy shot across his face.

"Nous vivons!" he shouted. We live!

But how?

The UN estimates that those left homeless by the earthquake number 609,000 in and around Port-au-Prince. In this city of collapsed concrete, shelter is at a premium, and the good will of people like Ulrich Bien-Aime assumes even greater significance than it once did. . He lives in his sister's house -- still standing -- at 62 Delmas, and a sea of tarps and bed-sheet huts that sleep nearly 1,000 people at night now fill the yard.

The clatter of families living in the open has nudged aside the peace and privacy he once enjoyed inside his compound walls. But Bien-Aime doesn't mind.

"After the earthquake, they knew no one was here. They all invaded," he said. "I say welcome, welcome."

An elderly man in glasses and gray slacks, he looks every bit the retired Chicago school teacher he is -- slightly formal, but thoughtful and still anxious to impart a lesson. About 12 years ago, Bien-Aime began spending at least half the year in his native Haiti. It was a place that had educated him well, and for free -- and he was distressed to see how so much had changed. So together with four friends, they are pooling their resources to pay private school tuitions for 13 kids.

"I realized how bad the situation was," said Bien-Aime. "We talked together and said how can we help a few?"

It's a question the earthquake has left him asking -- and answering -- again.

Touring the yard-turned-camp this morning, he scouted for a place that Oxfam could build a bank of latrines and agreed that a sliver of land behind a building would be ideal.

"I don't mind at all," said Bien-Aime. "If you don't help humanity, you are not human."

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