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American Today

Student Life

AU Students Lead Alt-Break Trip to Haiti

By Charles Spencer

Presidential palace in Port-au-Prince after the earthquake

The devastated presidential palace in Port-au-Prince after the earthquake. Photo by Shoshanna Sumka

Nothing prepares you for the scope of devastation in Haiti. Not the images of buildings reduced to rubble. Not the news reports on the nation’s shattered economy and government. Nothing.

That’s what two AU students leading an alternative break to Haiti last month discovered.

But they also discovered reasons to hope.

One was a Haitian student who visited the country in June 2010 to help organize the alternative break, just a few months after the earthquake that killed at least 220,000 people. The other was a Haitian American visiting the country of her parents and grandparents for the first time.

Tent Cities Bigger than D.C.
“When my parents came to pick me up from the airport [in Port-au-Prince], I began to notice the tent cities and damaged buildings as we drove home,” recalled Tania Smith, a sophomore from Haiti in the School of International Service. “Although the images I saw on television prepared me somewhat, there is nothing compared to the real thing. As we drove my parents pointed out places I didn't even recognize: my brother's old school, the prime minister's residence, old apartment buildings, all collapsed or turned to rubble. It was especially heartbreaking when I took a trip downtown and saw the damaged palace and government buildings. It was a lot to take in.”

The tent cities that serve as backdrops to TV news reports are all the more startling in person because of their scale, said the trip’s other student co-leader, Nakeesha Ceran, a Haitian American graduate student in the School of Public Affairs. You drive for hours and the tents go on and on.

“The thing I kept thinking about is the statistic that there’s about a million people still living in tents,” said Shoshanna Sumka, assistant director of global learning and leadership at AU’s Center for Community Engagement and Service. “It’s more than the entire population of Washington, D.C. Try to imagine the entire city of D.C. living in tents.”

Not There to Give Advice
The six-student alternative break, for which Sumka served as staff adviser, visited Haiti March 5–12. The theme of the trip was women’s empowerment in Haiti after the earthquake.

As part of the Haiti Compact, a group that includes AU and four other schools, among them the University of Maryland and the College of William and Mary, AU pledged to send students to Haiti for four consecutive years.

While in Haiti the group was at pains to avoid the all-too-common patriarchal model of presuming to dispense advice, Sumka said. Its members were there to help and to listen.

And as Smith notes, Haitians are hardly passive victims waiting for rich countries to dole out aid. Active Haitian organizations were part of the reason she proposed the trip in the first place.

“After I saw the coverage of the earthquake and all the devastating images that were broadcast on television about Haiti, I was determined to show another face of the country,” Smith said. “I wanted students to know that despite the earthquake and the images they saw, there were still Haitians that were empowered, tenacious, and striving. I also wanted to create awareness of the fact that there are established Haitian-run organizations that are effectively helping to rebuild their own country. This was why when we began planning for the trip we made sure that we were partnering with Haitian organizations.”

Women’s Empowerment after the Quake
The students met with Haitian women’s organizations and with representatives of Fonkoze, a grassroots Haitian organization whose programs include business development and microfinance. About half their time was spent in the town of Fondwa, where they worked with the Association of Peasants of Fondwa, a group that helps the poor build a basic infrastructure and provide training and education in the area.

Since the theme of the trip was women’s empowerment in contemporary Haiti, the group also confronted the issue of sexual violence that women continue to face there, in part a legacy of the chaos following the country’s history of coups.

“There’s a history of violence against women, both physical violence and rapes, but also economic violence where women aren’t given access or provided access to schools, resources, clean water—all the things that would prevent women from being economically [independent],” Sumka said.

New Orleans as Lesson Plan
For trip co-leader Ceran, two previous alternative breaks to Katrina-ravaged New Orleans helped prepare her for Haiti. She traveled to New Orleans in 2009 as a group member and in 2010 as a leader.

“I keep calling New Orleans my lesson plan because this is Haiti’s history,” Ceran said. “Each time there’s an effort to rebuild it something happens; whether it’s a coup or an earthquake or a hurricane, there’s always something that continues to happen. But the point for me is that while this was a huge tragedy and while it was personal for me, it’s an opportunity for the world and Haitian Americans and Haitian people to come back and really try to fix the problems that have been going on.”

By all measures—fund raising and student involvement with the groups they visited and learned from during the trip—the experience was a success. The students donated $1,000 toward planting trees, for example, and helped plant about 100 seedlings themselves.

“In choosing the social justice theme for the trip, my co-leader and I wanted to examine Haiti through a unique lens, and that lens is women’s economic empowerment,” Smith said. “Haitian women are the ‘poto mitan’ or pillars of Haitian society. They are the fabric that hold everything together.”