A community event sponsored by Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service (GSS) helped shed light on the suffering in Haiti and to address its short and long-term needs, after one of the century’s worst earthquakes demolished the tiny nation in January.

Native Haitians, community representatives and religious leaders who gathered on Feb. 27 in New York City’s Church of St. Paul the Apostle for “United For Haiti: Compassion in Action” agreed on two major factors that are desperately needed:

–    the West’s image of Haiti as the poorest nation in the world, with corrupt, dictatorial governments, needs to be retooled to foster a new era of recognizing Haiti as a leader in democracy;
–    both the Haitian Diaspora and the Haitian people must be consulted in the reconstructing and rebuilding of the fragile nation.

“Even though we are getting much media exposure, Haiti is not understood any better than it was before,” said Joel Dreyfuss, a Haitian native and founder of the National Association of Black Journalists. Dreyfuss said the one-dimensional perspective of Haitians as the world’s “poorest” people completely ignored their rich culture and their proud history of fighting and winning independence from France.

“Our contributions as a people present a different face,” concurred RosemondePierre-Louis, deputy Manhattan borough president. “Haiti has served as a gateway for many other nations fighting for independence. We [must]assure that when people speak ill of Haiti, there really is a response.”

Two of the speakers—Bill White (FCRH ’89) and Myrianna Salomon, a financial services worker—shared their firsthand experiences of the earthquake and its aftermath. Salomon, who was in Port au Prince visiting family on the day of the quake, recalls waking to the stench of sulphur and the sound of barking dogs before the earth began to shake.

“Sometimes it is said that God orders your steps,” said a tearful Salomon, recalling how lucky she was to escape injury and even death. “I was [also]lucky because I had an option to leave. So many of my people don’t have that option. We are a proud people, but we need help.”

White, president of the Intrepid Museum and ambassador to a Haitian education and development organization, FOKAL, said his mission to deliver 500,000 pounds of goods following the quake opened his eyes to the horrific conditions.

“It is a thousand times worse than what you see on CNN,” said White, who shared slides of his recent trip showing the devastation of the structures of nearly all seats of government. “We can’t just talk about it. Action is needed, and so are prayers.”

Part of the impetus in holding the event, said event organizer Jade de Saussure, was to bring social workers into the discussion about the needs of the Haitian people.

“I feel that social workers have a unique responsibility and perspective,” said the second-year GSS student. “We understand the psychology of the people, but also take into account their environment and the impact of a trauma.”

Dr. Jeffrey Gardere, a psychologist and director of the Harlem Family Institute, said that the impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on the Haitians should be factored into relief efforts, even if it means training non-professionals to help do social work.

“There is a massive amount of depression going on in Haiti,” he said, offering a list of PSTD symptoms—nightmares, emotional numbness, grief, anger, re-experiencing of trauma and others. “We need to get anyone who is willing to do this work . . . whatever it takes to get people to acknowledge their PTSD and work it through.”

Pierre-Louis, a first-generation American of Haitian ancestry, suggested initiating regional conferences to engage the Haitian Diaspora in the relief and rebuilding efforts. In New York City, there is a large Haitian community that includes MTA engineers and doctors, she said, and there is one prominent Haitian-American in the White House—Patrick Gaspard, director of the Office of Political Affairs.

“If the Diaspora does not get involved, it is a missed opportunity,” said Pierre-Louis, “and the dreams and hopes that our parents have shared with us will never be realized in Haiti.”

Dreyfuss concluded by suggesting that the “blessing of the earthquake is that we have a chance to redo Haiti fresh,” drawing on examples and solutions of how other nations of the world, including post-World War II Japan, have moved from poverty to prosperity following a major trauma.

“That may be the most positive thing for which 300,000 souls have been sacrificed.”

GSS Dean Peter Vaughan opened the event by thanking de Saussure for taking the initiative to involve Fordham and GSS in relief efforts, and program associate Priscilla Dyer for helping her.

“I’m proud to be the dean of such a student who would say, ‘I will embrace the [Jesuit] consciousness of this institution.’”


Janet Sassi is editor/associate director of internal communications. She can be reached at (212) 636-7577 or [email protected]