Fifteen months after an earthquake destroyed thousands of homes and left over one million people homeless, the Haitian people are still suffering the effects of that catastrophe today.
Students came together on Friday night for “Tent City: The Haiti Virtual Experience” to contemplate the devastation and the political conflict which prevails in the country. This 18-hour endeavor by Campus Ministry and Haitian Society was created to bring the consciousness of Haiti back to the college community.
“The conditions they are living in are a continuous uphill battle,” said Ketienne Telemasque, a Graduate Assistant for Campus Ministry. “Many students here are Haitian or Haitian American, so it’s also an experience to remember family and friends who are struggling or who have passed away in this disaster.”
Dozens of students began the event on Friday night with a Haitian themed dinner. Afterward, students conversed with volunteers from the Catholic Relief Services, and individuals making a difference in the Haitian community.
Sister Arlene Flaherty, working for Catholic Relief Services spoke to the students concerning the disaster and its impact on the Haitian people.
Catholic Relief Services has been working in Haiti for the past 50 years and is considered the leading agency for aid since the
disaster. Flaherty, who recently returned from a trip to Haiti this February, shared her experience with the students.
“There were signs of recovery and I was deeply aware of the resilience of the Haitian people. I saw lots of international representatives all trying to support the recovery,” Flaherty said. “At the same time, I saw challenges. Some of them are long-term, such as the rebel revolts and getting people to move from the tent cities into transitional housing.”
The Roman Catholic Church is the largest health care provider in Haiti. Catholic Relief Services has supported the Haitians providing medical attention as well as education. Since the earthquake last January, Catholic Relief Services has offered cash for work programs to promote jobs and reconstruction.
The purpose of this two-day event is not only to join in solidarity with the Haitians suffering from the earthquake, but to also bring awareness to the political conflict that the country has witnessed for several generations.
Ariyo Ojagbamila, a sophomore student from Nigeria, took part in the event because of his identification with the Haitian people. Nigeria has also suffered from political corruption and unrest. He was interested in taking part in the event because he shares the same hope as the Haitian people: to end political unrest.
“The leadership in Nigeria is corrupt, and even though we are the world’s richest continent with resources, most people live on $2 a day. The government of Nigeria is very greedy and we have a misguided leadership,” said Ojagbamila. “But that’s the reason why I’m here. I’m studying in America so I can one day help my people.”
Ojabgamilia said that the discussion with Beatrice Turnier impacted him the most. Turnier, who graduated from St. John’s in 1993 and is a native of Haiti, returned to the motherland after graduation. She currently works as a social mobilization advisor for the United Nations. Even though Haitians have fled the country due to the political unrest, Turnier made a conscious decision to stay in her country in order to help her own people.
“Beatrice is someone good to look up to,” said Ojagbamila. “I want to do similar things for my people. She said that at St. John’s she was a voice for people and she continues to use that voice as an inspiration in her mission to improve the situation.”
When asked how college students can take an active part in helping the circumstances in Haiti, Turnier claims that students should first take a trip to Haiti to see firsthand the political struggles and poverty which contaminate the country today. Secondly, she claims that it is important to raise the education level for Haitians.
“We need people to educate the community. 50 percent or less of children attend school right now,” said Turnier.
She also says that students should lobby to their congressmen for the aid, which the United States have promised to give Haiti. Students should demand that the money be used for education and the creation of jobs.
Sister Flaherty shares the same sentiment, claiming that students should advocate to their congressman that the international funding to Haiti be sustained in the FY12 budget. While numerous Americans believe that the government is sending an extensive amount of money to the country, only 0.7 percent of the federal budget goes to international assistance.
“We need to educate the American public about the small impact,” said Flaherty. “The whole country should take responsibility for the budget.”
Through the celebration of Peace Week, Campus Ministry hopes that this event will encourage students to make a difference for the Haitian community.
“Through this event, I hope students can leave feeling optimistic that they’ve found tangible ways to help people in Haiti,” said Telemasque. “It’s an experience to gain that feeling of solidarity with these people hundreds of miles away from them.”