Magazine Feature / People

Graduate student educates DU community about Haiti

Figaro Joseph, a current PhD candidate at DU’s Korbel School of International Studies, hails from St. Mark, Haiti. Since the Jan. 12 earthquake there, Joseph has been gathering support for his country. Joseph hasn’t traveled to Haiti since 2004 but his extended family remains in St. Mark. He shared with DU Today his involvement in the earthquake relief efforts.

Is it nerve-wracking for you, knowing you have relatives that are still in Haiti? Do you know if they’re OK?
Yes. For the first four days I couldn’t get in touch with anyone. By the fourth day, we were very anxious. My mom would call me every day, every night, asking, “Have you heard anything? Have you heard anything?” And we didn’t hear anything. Surprisingly, I posted a message on a listserv, and within a few hours, I got a response from a woman who was in St. Mark, the city I’m from, and she said they only experienced minor damage.

You were in a panel discussion at DU last week. What did you talk about?
I gave the audience a context that may help explain why the earthquake was so devastating. I explained that 70 percent of the country is agricultural, but over the past 30 or 40 years, the sector has seen drastic decline to the point of being essentially nonexistent. Many of the people that would be doing agricultural work moved to the city in search of jobs. And the Haitian government, beginning in the 1980s, began to focus on establishing factories or assemblies. People started moving to cities in search of jobs, but they weren’t there. So when they got there, they built wherever they could, people lived on top of each other basically, in areas that are prone to flooding, and the building code was not there because the authorities — the Haitian government — had failed to educate people. The buildings were not sound. That’s not to say that with an earthquake of this magnitude that we wouldn’t have any damage, but I do think the tragedy of the city could have been less. So that was my point — just to give people a context of why the cities are so overpopulated, and how certain policies have contributed to this overpopulation.

Do you think there are problems in Haiti that are solvable?
I think so. First, I think even with the short-term rebuilding, if the government becomes more serious about reinvigorating the agricultural sector, it will help people to resettle to rural communities. I think that’s a good thing. And then cities would not be that overpopulated. The second part, in terms of reconstruction, is really to get serious about infrastructure. In Haiti, we have one main national road that you can travel from Point A, north Haiti, to Point B, south, and then it’s like one car each way. When you have a catastrophe of this kind, it’s very difficult to get to people, because if you have one major road, that’s not the best condition in the first place. Then, any natural disaster can shock the entire country because transportation has become a problem. If we could build a national road to connect the secondary and tertiary roads to the national road, it would be much better in the future. And, if you have a good national infrastructure, commerce will go a long way. Commerce and communication would be much easier, and the need for people to move to one city and stay there would become less. They would be able to travel more often in search of opportunities in different parts of the country.

What is one thing about Haiti you want people to know?
The strength of spirit of the Haitian people. And I think we’ve seen it from the rescues. The earthquake rescuers were able to pull a 16-month-old girl out of the rubble alive, and more than a week after the earthquake, I think, they were able to pull a 74-year-old woman out alive. And 12 days after the earthquake, they pulled a 24-year-old guy out. From what you hear in the news, people are afraid of violence, riots; but for the first week, dealing with such magnitude of a disaster, there wasn’t any major disturbance. People were supporting each other, and that’s something that Haitians do well. We have a word for that—we call it “kombit.” It means working together.

What do you predict for the future of Haiti at this point? Do you think goals of infrastructure and assistance from other communities are realistic?
I do think it is a realistic goal. And I think the third part of that, in the long term, is the justice system. A transparent and fair justice system is essential for development in politics, and one of the key reasons for that is to prevent minor disputes from becoming major disputes. In Haiti, the poor do not expect to get justice if they are aggrieved. There is a huge gap of mistrust between the poor and the rich. The leaders can pretty much do what they want, without much accountability. And the poor really don’t trust, and if you could have that, it could begin to create more trust among Haitians. That’s important to create a more social contract among all citizens. Those things are key for the long term, and I think they’re possible. The question is, “Does the international community have the will, or the patience, to help the Haitians long-term?” And I hope the answer is yes. I don’t mean any of this without expressing a deep gratitude for the level of assistance that the Haitians have seen from the international community. I really want to express my heartfelt gratitude to the American people for the assistance.

Do you predict that those efforts are going to be sustained in the future?
My prediction would be no. When I was on the panel I mentioned earlier, [fellow panelist] Father Morgan gave an analogy. When you have a family member that passes away, if you have neighbors, they come to your house daily with casseroles and everything, but after a week or so you don’t see them. So the level of people coming to visit and to offer help will go down, and that’s to be expected. It’s natural. But I hope given the gravity of the situation that the attention to Haiti will last more than six months. But I don’t expect the level of assistance or the level of attention to remain as such. It’s also responsibility of people like myself to do whatever we can to keep the attention there, and to do our part in the long-term development of the country. I think this would be a test case for people like me and my colleagues to be part of building this new Haiti we’re talking about.

What are your thoughts about the community aid from DU?
The DU community has done quite a bit. Many of the student groups organized fundraisers. Many of them, even when they didn’t collect funding, encouraged their friends to give money to Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross. They have done a lot, and I was impressed. You always come away with a high level of appreciation for students doing that, and the DU students were magnificent. In Colorado, many families are adopting Haitian orphans. Last Friday, many of us in the Haitian community went down to the Colorado legislature to encourage the passing of a resolution in support of Haiti. Resolution 1003 was passed by both the House and the Senate. Many in Colorado office are doing what they can, and we in the Haitian community are grateful for that.

What about the medical, food and water aid that’s being provided in the country?
Assistance is getting there, but more and more people are getting frustrated because the system is not working fast enough. Yesterday in the news I saw there was a UN convoy that came to deliver food to the people, and as they started to unload the food a crowd began to show up. And all of the sudden, they loaded the food back in the truck and drove away. Why? The UN representatives were afraid there was going to be a riot. So while we have a lot of assistance on the ground, I think the international community could be doing much better with getting the food and water and medical assistance to people who are really are becoming more needy each day. If we are afraid of riot, and as a result we do not give people the food they need…well, that is unacceptable.


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