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‘We are excited to go back and rebuild our country’

By COREY CONNELLY Sunday, January 30 2011

click on pic to zoom in
RESILIENT SPIRITS: Haitian students in Trinidad, from left, Osnel Saint Jacques, Suzie Pascal, Jefferson Bien-Aime, Vanessa Jean Francois and Adler Fl...
RESILIENT SPIRITS: Haitian students in Trinidad, from left, Osnel Saint Jacques, Suzie Pascal, Jefferson Bien-Aime, Vanessa Jean Francois and Adler Fl...

United by tragedy, they were conscientious, yet playful; hurt, but eager to return to their troubled homeland to assist in the much-needed restoration process.

“It is an opportunity to go back and rebuild after what I learned in Trinidad, especially on management systems. They need a lot of workers to rebuild the country and people who have experience in what they do. I’m a bit excited to go back and rebuild Haiti,” said Jefferson Bien- Aime, 24, of the prospect of returning to Haiti next month.

A focussed young man, Bien-Aime was one of 54 Haitian students, who, since last September, were allowed to complete their tertiary education in Trinidad and Tobago, courtesy the University of the West Indies (UWI), in the aftermath of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake which had flattened the perpetually-struggling country eights months before.

Apart from the Presidential Palace and other major State buildings, Haiti’s learning institutions were also reduced to rubble during the 35-second ordeal, further burdening the country’s already strained economy and stymieing the dreams of many young people who had hoped to play an integral role in the country’s development.

Bien-Aime and the others were fortunate to have been the beneficiaries of such an overwhelming show of goodwill and generosity. And they were humbled and grateful.

“I had heard from school that there was this special programme exchange from UWI and the State University of Haiti and after a long process we came here on September 16, 2010,” he said.

The gesture covered tuition and housing expenses, but several companies — Republic Bank; Damus Mufflers; RBTT; Caribbean Airlines; United Way; and Medianet – also chipped in to assist with the students’ living requirements.

On January 10, two days shy of the one-year anniversary of the disaster, principal of UWI’s St Augustine campus Professor Clement Sankat hosted a reception at his residence in which the students got the opportunity to meet those who had assisted them since September.

“The best way we could have helped the Haitians was through what we specialise in, which is tertiary education,” Sharan Chandradath Singh, Director of the St Augustine campus’ international office, said.

Now, infused with a sense of empowerment, having completed their respective degrees, the students say they are ready to embark on a mission of change in Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.

Bien-Aime, an electronics engineering student, and four of his countrymen spoke candidly to Sunday Newsday on Tuesday during an interview at the Air Arthur Lewis Hall of Residence on St Johns Road in St Augustine, the place where they have called home for the past six months.

Alluding to discussions with their relatives and friends back home, they contend that life in Haiti has improved little since the earthquake.

A slow and frustrating rebuilding process, a tumultuous political climate and a cholera epidemic have combined to make everyday living for citizens almost unbearable, the students said.

They said the clearing of rubble and debris – what many may construe as a relatively simple exercise – remains a challenge.

“They have done some things but you can barely see it. It is like you have a footstep of one or two centimetres,” said Bien-Aime, who hails from the capital city, Port-au-Prince.

Osnel Saint Jacques, 25, who says he has spoken to his relatives in Haiti every other day since arriving in Trinidad, said: “The country is almost the same thing. Nothing has changed and nowadays, it is all about cholera outbreaks and political issues.”

Saddened by the lack of progress, he said: “People are still looking for things to eat and for somewhere to live. I feel very sad, particularly on January 12, the anniversary. I feel powerless.”

Observing that some of the country’s major institutions were still in ruins, Adler Fleurant, 26, another electronics engineering student, said he could not accept the fact that Haiti’s reconstruction was so slow in coming.

“After an earthquake there is an urgent need for food and other emergency help. But there is another phase where we need to rebuild and I haven’t seen this reconstruction effort yet,” he said, adding that there appeared to be too much emphasis on short term issues as opposed to the long term development of the country.

Fleurant said he had heard that only five percent of the rubble in Port-au-Prince had been removed and that people were still living in makeshift shelters.

“Try to do a simple calculation. It means that in 20 years, then everything might be removed,” he said. Suzie Pascal, one of two female Haitian students who spoke to Sunday Newsday, blamed the slow recovery on bad vision and planning.

“We have a lot of people who want to contribute to give our country help and you are supposed to use the help to make it better,” she said. “It is not about money and organising skilled people. You can find that. I think it is about bad planning and bad vision.”

The students, who are now completing various projects, lead respectable lives in Haiti, underpinned by a strong sense of family and patriotism. Most of their activities centred around church and school, in the hope of bettering the lot of their countrymen.

They evaded questions about the prevailing political atmosphere in Haiti – the unexpected return of ousted dictator Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier and the controversial upcoming election.

“He (Duvalier) is a politician like any other politician,” a soft-spoken Saint Jacques said, with a shrug of the shoulders.

Pascal admitted she did not follow the politics in her country.

“If everything is based on love, it will be very good for the politics,” was all she would say.

That they were able to complete their education in Trinidad was perhaps their second wave of luck.

It was reported that more than 200,000 Haitians died in the earthquake, but the students said they were fortunate that members of their immediate families and close relatives survived the disaster. Some of their friends and classmates at university, though, died. Fleurant was in school, at the Faculty of Sciences, about to “crack a joke” when an initial tremor shook the facility.

“We started to smile after the first one and then the big one struck and that’s when I ran out of the school. People told me it was about 35 seconds, but I thought it was an eternity,” he recounted.

Total confusion ensued.

“I thought it might be the end, but it wasn’t.”

Locating his sister, on another floor of the university, was Fleurant’s first priority. She survived. The students’ father, who worked nearby, was equally concerned about their well-being.

“I think it was the first time I saw my father cry,” he said. On the streets, he recalled, the scenes were heart-rending.

“There was nowhere to run. People were crying in pain while others were trying to save those caught in rubble. The bad thing was that I was looking around and I did not know what to do and how to help.”

Some people also scampered to the hills, believing a tsunami was imminent, Fleurant recalled.

He said Haitians trying to make contact with loved ones also encountered difficulty.

“The cellphone company was jammed because everybody was calling everybody else,” the young man recalled. “People were coming into the school and asking if you saw someone and you don’t know what to say because you didn’t see them.”

Fleurant said the damage caused by the earthquake was painfully evident the following day.

“There was a sense of disbelief when you saw the dead bodies in the street.”

For Bien-Aime, the bloodied bodies were perhaps the most telling symbol of the destruction.

Like Fleurant, he was also at school when the earthquake rocked Port-au-Prince.

“People were saying it was the apocalypse and they prepared themselves,” he said.

Bien-Aime recalled feeling helpless.

“It was very difficult. Everything was closed and people had to go to the countryside to find food,” he said.

Vanessa Jean-Francois, who studied electrical engineering, remembered socialising with a friend at a restaurant in Port-au-Prince at the time of the tremor. Having learnt how one should respond in an earthquake, Jean-Francois said she remembered trying to sit still during the ordeal.

“But there were people running around, dirty and crying. There was a lot of noise. You could read in the eyes of people that they were afraid and could not understand what was happening,” she said as tears welled in her eyes.

Many people, she said, had never experienced an earthquake and immediately linked the occurrence to the “hand of God.” But after one week of turmoil, Jean-Francois said the resilience of the Haitian people shone through. “I felt really bad because I love my country and I was angry at the Government because they are moving too slowly and people had to be fighting for a bottle of water. And then step by step you see people just rebuild and you see that Haiti never died. We will survive,” she said.

And they intend to.

Fleurant said he was willing to do whatever it took to assist in Haiti’s recovery.

“I would use my expertise to build the best engineering networks possible,” he said. He is also contemplating a career in teaching.

“We lost a lot of minds and it is hard to find people who can give education. So, I think I will try to work in that field and help.”

Saint Jacques sees his role in the restoration of Haiti as critical given the opportunities he has received in Trinidad.

“Knowing that people are still suffering and I had the chance to leave the country and get knowledge, I should go back to find myself useful,” he said.

Pascal, who got the opportunity to “practice my English and see other cultures,” said she intends to apply what she learnt at UWI with her dreams to boost her country.

“They have a lot of opportunity in Haiti and I can do something,” she said.

“The people tell me we are surviving. But, I like to live not just survive.”

Jean-Francois sees her assistance as a matter of obligation. She has thoroughly enjoyed her experience in Trinidad. She hasn’t been to nightclubs, due to her religious background, but enjoys volleyball and swimming and church activities.

“It is not the first time that I have left Haiti. It is the first time I have left for such a long time. So, I think my obligation is to go back to my country and not to rebuild because one person cannot rebuild a country, but make my contribution,” she said.

Well-known engineer Professor Clement Imbert, who has been somewhat of a father figure to the students, visited Haiti last September to get an account of the devastation.

He, too, observed that the progress was slow. “If you were to ask me ‘when did the earthquake happen?’ I would say last week and you did not see the activity that you should see at that stage,” he told Sunday Newsday.

Imbert, who sat in on the latter portion of the interview, said Haiti needs about 1,000 ten-tonne trucks and a further 1,000 overloaders to completely remove the rubble.

Giving reasons for the apparent lack of progress, Imbert suggested that international pledges of financial or material assistance after the earthquake had not been fulfilled. He noted that, even in the best run countries, “aid often goes back to the aid giver.”

“So, aid is not a figment but it is not exactly what one might think it is,” he added.

Imbert, Professor of Materials and Manufacturing at the UWI, reasoned that an ineffective political and administrative structure could have also hampered the timely distribution of resources to those who need it most.

“A major problem is the political and administrative structure. It is not conducive to filtering the aid in the right direction. And that is a very big problem,” he said.

“When America gives aid, they had to give it to somebody to execute. Money doesn’t have legs and hands and it does not work by itself. These things have to be worked by people and people have to work within system. People have to administer. I don’t get the feeling that the administrative system is really conductive.”

The extreme loss of life and infrastructure, he said, complicated an already dire situation.

Imbert also questioned the urgency of an election at such a crucial period in Haiti, arguing that such activities, “even in the best of times is a disruption of the society”.

“Why are you disrupting your society when it is already disrupted?” he asked.

Had he been responsible for an international humanitarian effort, Imbert said he would have set up a system involving young Haitians in various parts of the world as well as those in that country.

“Some things have to be done using Haitians because they understand the culture,” he said, adding the importance of culture should never be underestimated.

Despite the hardship, deprivation and apparent hopelessness, Imbert said the resilience of the people had amazed him. He observed that during a visit to Port-au-Prince, citizens were housed in small, makeshift tents trying desperately to piece their lives together.

“Every available space was taken, yet none of them seemed angry that this had happened to them,” said Imbert. He added that media reports about widespread rioting did not, in his mind, present an accurate picture.

“I was not scared. I think there is a spirit there,” he said, adding there were places in Trinidad he feared more than in Haiti.

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