A father who will stop at nothing
So much has happened since Ernst Leo and his nine-year-old daughter, Therissa, arrived in the United States in October 2010. Victims of the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January of that year, they could not have imagined how their world would change—twice.
Immediately after the earthquake, Therissa had been trapped in the rubble of Port-au-Prince for two days. Rescuers were forced to amputate her right arm in order to save her life. Worse than the physical hardship she endured was the ache in her heart. Therissa lost her mother, Naomie, and her older sister, Faitza, in the disaster.
As Ernst helped his daughter heal, telling her every day that everything would be fine, he also had to convince himself that hope was not just a meaningless word but a genuine belief. Left homeless by the earthquake, Ernst and Therissa lived for months in a tent pitched amid the rubble of their old neighborhood. They showered in a derelict house nearby. Food was scarce, every meal dependent upon the kindness of friends. Despite their hardships, Ernst was determined that Therissa would learn to write with her left hand, calling upon his inner strength and determination to help both of them survive their losses.
Then a reporter from USA Today interviewed Ernst and Therissa and featured them in a story about country’s struggles to recover from the earthquake. Louie Giglio, pastor of the Passion City Church in Atlanta, read the story and vowed to help.
"It pierced my heart," Giglio later told USA Today. "I don't know how to solve Haiti's problems. I don't know how to even think about solving Haiti's problems. But I knew we could help Ernst Leo." He and church staff flew to Haiti to look for Leo and Therissa—and miraculously found them amid the destruction of Port-au-Prince.
The church arranged for them to fly to Miami, where Ernst’s parents lived in a one-bedroom apartment. Giglio then contacted the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and explained Ernst and Therissa’s plight. An IRC Haiti program specialist visited the family to conduct an evaluation, immediately realizing that by sheltering their son and granddaughter, Ernst’s parents were in violation of Section 8 housing laws that required residents of their complex to report long-term guests to the building management. Suddenly, Ernst had only a few days to find a place to live or become homeless.
The IRC helped Ernst find a studio apartment and furniture. We arranged for food, community orientation, cash assistance and clothing. Ernst registered for ESL classes to improve his English. He was able to find employment assembling medical equipment for the firm Boston Scientific. He obtained a driver license. And with the collaboration of Passion Church, Calvary Chapel Kendall and América TeVé, the IRC helped the family receive a variety of donations, including a car for Ernst, and a prosthetic arm for Therissa. She also received toys and a computer for school.
“I feel that God has heard my prayers,” says Ernst. “It is still difficult for me to deal with the nightmares, and sometimes seeing Therissa missing her mother and sister, but we’ve come a long way. All we had in Haiti was a small mattress inside of a tent and a cell phone we used as a flashlight.”
Even though all seems to be going well for Ernst and Therissa, they face serious challenges. Ernst has been informed by his company that it had outsourced manufacturing overseas and workers would be laid off in July. In spite of this news, Ernst remains grateful and hopes to begin paying his own electricity bills soon. As he wrote in a letter to the IRC staff in Miami, “Thank you, especially for the rent, but today I would like to pay the FPL bill myself. It will be a good opportunity for me to make a step [to self-sufficiency]. May God bless you, [everyone] working in this organization.”
How to Help
Today, you can help a father like Ernst when you honor a special father in your life.
Dedicate a first aid kit to Dad. Your donation of $24 can help a father in a crisis zone obtain lifesaving medical care for his child from an IRC-trained community health worker.
We’ll send your dad a personalized e-card to show him your gratitude.