Saturday, March 19, 2011

Day 7- Ted

As I reflect on the past week, I’m reminded about the odd tension in which we live.

I draft this entry on an airplane, where an in-flight magazine features Alec Baldwin elaborating on the hardships of fame and a seat-back catalog tries to convince me that I need a $500 helmet that uses laser therapy to replenish my hairline. Meanwhile, the cost for each student to participate in this trip is well over the average Haitian’s annual income.

After a week of witnessing dehumanizing poverty, you might say I’m experiencing a bit of cognitive dissonance.

Why do I live in luxury in the United States while my Haitian brothers and sisters suffer in wretched tent cities and slums? And why do I so easily put out of my mind the billions of other human beings who face similar struggles relentlessly? These aren’t new questions for me. I’ve already lived in Haiti for 4 months, and this week was but a short return trip. Still, posing them again helps to reflect, recalibrate my values, and recognize how I so easily neglect them in my day-to-day living in the U.S.

Life is short. I want my years on earth to count for things that matter like love, peace, compassion and justice, all the while lived in the richness of meaningful community. Instead, I’m so often preoccupied by the distractions of materialism, petty worries, worthless entertainment and self-centeredness.

When I first started laying plans for the Haiti Justice Project two and a half years ago, I wanted it to be an opportunity for students to stretch their hearts and minds in service to the poor, marginalized and oppressed. I hope we’ll remember those short moments of connection and relationship we experienced this week, both with the dispossessed and with each other, and that these experiences will motivate us to eschew mediocrity and live lives marked by values that transcend ourselves.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll quiet Alec down and opt out of picking up that laser helmet. Here’s to spending our lives for the sake of others--thanks to the team and all of our friends in Haiti for helping me, and hopefully us, move towards that end.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Day 6- Adan

After a quick breakfast we visited representatives from Un Techo Para Mi Pais (“Un Techo”). Un Techo is a youth-led Latin American non-profit present in 19 different countries.

To say that I was impressed by Un Techo would be an understatement. After a week of seeing NGO sites that included fancy office space, pampered air conditioning and brand new sport utility vehicles, it was refreshing to see a model focused on improving the conditions of the Haitian people. Un Techo keeps their staff size small and administrative costs low. Whereas other NGOs admitted to not having direct contact with residents living in the slums, Un Techo takes a holistic approach to community development. During construction projects, everyone including the staff members, volunteers and displaced residents eat lunch together, sleep in the same camps, and work in teams to build each transitional home.

One final point that impressed me about Un Techo was their dedication to working in an area that hasn’t been designated as an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp. There are some property rights issues between a private landowner and the Haitian government that has affected the legal status of the land. As a result the land where 25,000-30,000 families currently reside do not get mentioned in the statistics of IDPs. Even more importantly, the aid that is designated for IDPs aren’t being distributed to these estimated 200,000 individuals. If you drove up on the high hills overlooking this area and saw the thousands of homes where people are living, it would be impossible to believe that these people do not fall under the category of an IDP.

Once we got back in the car to return to the Guest House, Tom told us that Aristide arrived during our visit with Un Techo. Aristide spoke to the thousands of supporters that greeted him at the airport. This was a long awaited return for the first democratically elected president of Haiti. His return meant more people in the streets which also led to more drivers on the rickety roads. We got caught in a slight traffic jam but fortunately escaped without any damage or harm.

We spent the rest of the afternoon, until dinner, working on reports for Regine. At one point we recounted the last 70 years of Haiti’s history as experienced through the residents we interviewed. I think Tom stated what we were thinking when he said he was amazed to hear the richness of these people’s stories. There were events even Regine didn’t know occurred that displaced people in Cite Soleil.

After dinner, the delegation bonded in a different way. We sat around chatting, laughing and even played a game where we guessed the person’s name on a piece of paper that was on our foreheads. Both Giselle and Lydia (whom coincidently were sitting next to each other) ended up having the same person – one of the presidential candidates. Regine was funny because she was getting very competitive the more the game progressed. However, I think Tom’s “Dora the Explorer” was the icing on the funny cake. Overall, we couldn’t have asked for a better ending to this wonderful experience.

Day 5- Giselle

We woke up early today, really early. We were headed to mountain called Beau Michel to see the newly rediscovered Fort Durouet. We ate our standard morning fare--egg soufflĂ© with Haitian bread--and then all piled into the SUVs and headed north along the coast. To my left I could see crystal clear Caribbean waters, but to my right barren beige mountains speckled with squatter “homes” which continued for miles. I remembered this area being discussed by World Vision. We were in Corial, Port-au-Prince’s newest settlement. Although Corial has an ocean view many would pay millions to have, it was plain to see that this new settlement had nothing much to offer the 30,000+ squatters. It was far from the city and water could only be obtained by the use of trucks. We all knew that Corail’s inconvenient location was likely to assure it’s destiny as Haiti’s newest slum. We turned off the main road and headed down a dusty gravel path. I didn’t know at the time that the trip was going to be hours long.

In our dusty caravan was the well respected Pastor Wualaier. Pastor Wualaier was described by Ted as a Ghandi or Martin Luther King-type figure. The pastor recounted his story, telling us how he had been sold into slavery as a child and had lived a mistreated and tortured life. After a fateful reunion with his mother Pastor Wualaier was set on a path that would later help him organize communities. His philosophy was simple; heal people, heal communities and then create a stable environment.

The drive took us past a community that he had helped. We got out of the car and trekked up the side of a mountain where two meager structures were built. One was a school comprised of a tarp held up by sticks and a small church with cement block walls and a corrugated metal roof. In that church, Pastor Wualaier told us that Haitians were hard to organize because the Haitian tradition of voodoo makes them inherently suspicious of each other.

After another bumpy hour or so, we arrived at our destination, Fort Durouet. This was a French fort built when Haiti was still a French colony. Its remote location had kept it untouched for centuries. It was great to be able to climb among the stones and explore the ruins. The delegation climbed among leftover and cannons, even adopting a horse-- Icarus. As I gazed across the landscape I couldn’t help but try to imagine Haiti how it once was a lush tropical island, the “Jewel of the Caribbean.” I wondered how this little country could have been so mutilated. I was told that satellite views show the Dominican Republic as a green-filled spot in the middle of the sea, but that green abruptly ends into brown: the indication that you have wandered across the border and into Haiti. Tom later commented how the resources of Haiti are taken without the slightest care for its future. Haiti was sucked dry by deforestation and the greed, leaving it the barren and starving country we know today.

Day 4- Megan

Where Do You Start?

Last night we had a discussion around the dinner table how to start helping Haiti. People are starving. They live in overcrowded tents and do not have clean water to drink. Many have no medical care, no jobs, and no security in their communities. Where do you start? Do you fix the roads so that business and industry move in? Do you buy food so that everyone can eat? Do you bring in agriculture experts to teach people how to grow their own food? Do you build medical clinics to stop the spread of disease?

I have been thinking about “where to start” all day. This morning, while sitting around the guesthouse, we talked with some farmers from Indiana. They were here to teach a small village how to farm. Their church was paying for a resident of the village to go to agriculture school. The resident was then going to teach his whole community how to grow crops on their land. I thought this sounded like a good place to start.

Later in the day, we met with World Vision, a large international organization that does relief work in Haiti. Representatives from World Vision told us about how they were building transitional shelters for people whose houses were destroyed in the earthquake. Shelters built by World Vision have a concrete floor that helps keep them from flooding. They have steel frames, wood siding, and windows for ventilation. Currently, World Vision has built 800 shelters. These shelters are designed to be temporary, however they are so sturdy that people will likely stay there for years. World Vision said that they decided to build sturdy houses because they will last longer. However, the trade off was that that fewer houses could be built and that it would take longer. I thought the idea to build sturdy more permanent shelters for people was a good idea. It seemed to be a good place to start.

On the way home, we were packed into a car bouncing up and down in the heat. As we were dodging around holes and rubble, I thought about the importance of roads for a community. Better roads would connect communities. They might bring in businesses, and they would help bring assistance to people all over Haiti. Better roads could really help Haiti. They would be a good place to start.

Finally, before bed we were lucky enough to have a woman come and talk to us about the history and political situation of Haiti. There are elections coming up this Sunday, and I thought she was going to talk to us about the candidates and their positions. But I wasn’t exactly right. Instead, she sat down and started talking about Haiti’s independence in 1804. She started there because in order to understand the politics today, we needed to understand Haiti’s past. We all sat around the table listening intently for 2 ½ hours. We could have sat longer, except we had to cut the meeting short because people in the guesthouse were trying to sleep.

In the end, I don’t think there is a “right” place to start. With so many pressing needs, it seems like just starting is the important thing. Perhaps, the best place to start is by learning about all of the struggles and the years of oppression that people have faced. Hopefully, by understanding a country’s past, it will help us understand the way things are today and make meaningful change for the future.

Day 3- Claudia

Today was a very busy and emotional day. We began the morning by traveling to Cite Soleil, the slum in Port Au Prince where LAMP for Haiti is located. Cite Soleil is one of the poorest slums in Haiti; there is no running water, little electricity and no sewage system. It is composed primarily of one story cement or wooden structures and tents. Cite Soleil used to have churches, schools and other buildings that were two stories, however, most of these were destroyed by the UN for fear of snipers. Cite Soleil was a dangerous area prior to the occupation of Haiti by UN forces in 2004, but has since stabilized for the most part. Although Port Au Prince is full of NGO’s providing relief to the people, there is a real lack of services in Cite Soleil because many of the organizations refuse to work there, in essence excluding the people with the most need from receiving aid. There are a lot of tenancy and land ownership issues in Cite Soleil because it is situated on public land and people “own” only the structures that they build. We have been conducting interviews in small groups with a translator. This morning my group interviewed a man named Casimir who has been living in Cite Soleil since 1978. Although at one point he owned seven houses which he rented for income, most of those properties have now been destroyed either by gangs or the 2010 earthquake. Casimir now lives in a large blue tent and cooks in the partially collapsed structure that was once his home. He took us to visit his tent, and I was shocked by how hot it was- almost unbearable- I can’t image sleeping in it. We also took a tour of the medical clinic located at LAMP where they provide pharmaceuticals and diagnostic testing. There was a little girl there who was near starvation, which was very sad to see. Her father was waiting there with her to get a special supplemental peanut butter that LAMP provides for malnourished children. It is heartbreaking to see such severe devastation. After interviews in Cite Soleil, we went to downtown Port Au Prince where we met with several Americans working at Beaure Des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) This is a legal organization that partners with grassroots organizations to support the people and stabilize the legal system. The women that we met with worked on housing issues and women’s rights. Rape is prevalent in the displacement camps in Haiti and is under prosecuted so BAI is attempting to empower women and strengthen the legal system by investigating and prosecuting cases. BAI is also working on a periodic review which will be submitted to the United Nations of the human rights conditions in Haiti. We also visited a museum of Haitian history which was fascinating; Haiti has such a rich history but has been plagued by many problems. After returning to the guesthouse that we are staying at, we decompressed and took notes about our interviews for the day, then engaged in a rousing round of Taboo, 1990s version, which somehow found its way down here. Remember beepers and disquettes?

Day 2- Lydia

After breakfast, we met Regine and drove around the city to see the different areas and get a feel for what was where before interviewing people. On the tour, we stopped by the presidential palace, which caved in on itself after the earthquake. It was a strange feeling to be standing across the street from hundreds of tents, looking through the chain-link fence at the neatly mowed grass and pristine white building which had fallen. There are plans to turn the palace into a new apartment building. The pictures of the plans and interior of the rooms were nicer than what you’d find in Rittenhouse; I wonder if the vision will match the reality.

Next on the agenda – visiting LAMP in Bwa Nef, an area in Cite Soleil. After a brief tour of the facilities (medical center, new public toilets/shower, office), we split up into groups for the interviews, where we spoke with older members of the community who had been in Cite Soleil in the 1960s or earlier (when it was called Cite Simone). We had two rounds of interviews – one in Bwa Nef, and one at Trois Bebe, another area of Cite Soleil that was nearby. Both areas were devastated by the earthquake. In Bwa Nef, there were still some structures standing, and new shelters were made by hanging sheets and tarp and such to form a kind of roof. In contrast, the settlement at Bwa Nef was mainly run by an organization (Pax Christi), and was striking because of the quality of the tents: neat rows of bright white, house-shaped living spaces. Both areas had the same major problem – a lack of permanent, safe housing for the displaced families who lived there.
One of my interviewees said something that has stayed with me – when asked if she felt safe and secure, she responded “I go to sleep at night, I wake up in the morning.” Every class in law school has given a standard by which to measure safety in a community: police presence, lighting, architecture, visitors, crime statistics. Her answer seems simplistic, but when you think about it, it’s the most accurate measure of an individual’s feeling of safety.

We also met with a man from IOM, an organization whose mandate is to help internally displaced people (not refugees) get basic human rights. The first thing you notice is the surroundings: white SUVs everywhere with “UN” on the side; flushing toilets; individual offices and meeting rooms with air conditioners; cold, clean water to drink; people in full suits in 90-degree weather. It makes you question the connection and involvement they have with the people they are there to help, although our contact assured us that he went to Cite Soleil 2-3 times a week. It was interesting to hear his point of view and, by extension, see the mindset of all the aid organizations that are in Haiti. While they are there to help, there is a self-imposed limit on what they do; he kept telling us, “We are not here to replace the government, we are here to give them a boost. It is the government’s job to take care of its people and citizens.” A valid point, but it makes you wonder just what exactly these organizations are doing in a country with such an unstable government . . .

We returned home around 5pm, though we had been so busy that it felt like 10pm. After a delicious Haitian dinner (rice and vegetables in a tomato sauce, summer squash, fresh bread), I was thinking about my first day here. As I reflected, one thing that kept coming up in my mind was the children. Everywhere you look, there are kids running around; those who can afford it are in uniforms and go to school, others help their families throughout the day. As we walked around the different camps and areas, kids would run up to us, smiling, playing. Practicing my (extremely limited) Kreyol, I asked one little girl her name, and she replied “Gallandine”; we seemed to be best friends after that. We took a few pictures with them – they love the camera and always have the biggest smiles. Despite this image, many of the children are neglected and malnourished (you can tell by their bodies and by their hair – the more malnourished, the finer and blonder their hair turns). These children weren’t smiling as much.

One image has stuck with me of this day. I was walking from the medical clinic to the LAMP office in Bwa Nef, and saw Mimi taking a picture of a little girl. Unlike all the other children who were running around us, the girl just stared, unsmiling, at the camera. I wasn’t sure why Mimi was taking her picture, and assumed this was a common procedure at the clinic and that the girl was very sick. I found out later that the young girl was very special – tomorrow, she is flying to the US to get an operation. It is an interesting juxtaposition which I think represents the situation in Haiti now – the sadness you see very easily next to the hard work of organizations which are giving the people hope. I can’t wait to keep working, and hope that I can impact a child’s life in the same way.

Day 1-Yuan

In addition to the seven law students, Dean Susan Brooks, and Tom Griffin came on the trip. Tom Griffin is the co-founder of Lamp for Haiti and an immigration attorney in Philadelphia. He is also one of my personal mentors. He has done incredible work in Haiti for the last eleven years, specifically investigations on human rights violations and has written reports on his findings.

Our flight to Port-au-Prince departed at 6 a.m., which meant we all had to be at the Philadelphia airport by 4:30 a.m. As you can imagine, most of us passed out cold due to lack of sleep. Believe me I did as well but only after bonding with Dean Brooks for about 45 minutes. We had a layover in Miami. We boarded the plane in Miami and were one step closer to arriving in Port-au-Prince. I was personally surprised to see so many people on the plane. The passengers were mainly all foreigners.

We all sat down, put on our seat belts and then…

We were told that there was a technical difficulty with the plane and so we couldn’t take off…for three hour delay. During that time we had a group meeting to discuss the specific questions we wanted to ask during our interviews with the local residents of Cite Soleil for our human rights investigations. After a one hour and forty minute flight, we landed in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

While going through immigration, I looked around and saw so many foreigners coming into the country. When we exited the airport after going through customs, we saw groups of men gathered outside wanting to help us with our luggage for some extra cash.

One of the hosts of the guest house we are staying at met us at the airport with a mini-van. We all hopped in with our luggage piled in the back. On our drive to the guest house Matthew 25, I could not believe what I saw. With my bare eyes, I saw multiple tent camps. My eyes welled with tears as I saw how crowded the camps were. As we passed by one of the camps, I saw an older woman in a towel bathing behind a tent. The lack of privacy struck me…how are people in the camps able to have any privacy as they are all crowded around one another?

There were people bustling along the streets as we drove by. Street vendors. Painted pick-up trucks that serve as public transportation with over 8 people on them. When we arrived at the guest house, we met Regine, the full time Haitian American attorney with Lamp for Haiti. We discussed our schedule for the week and then had a delicious meal of pasta prepared by the staff of the guest house.

After dinner, we all went to Lamp for Haiti’s program director’s home in another part of Haiti. The program director’s name is Mimi, a Haitian woman who I came to admire. She has adopted multiple neglected children in the community. Different teams from the states live at her home when they come to Haiti. As I sat in her living room, I felt a deep sense of community around me.

While we were at Mimi’s house, we got a beautiful night view of Port-au-Prince. When I got home that night, I couldn’t wait to see what the week had in store for us. I could already sense the resilience and beauty of this land after only being here for half a day.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Introduction to the Delegation

What:  Investigation of human rights violations in the area of transitional housing  in Cite Soleil
When:  March 13, 2011 - March 19, 2011
Where:  Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Why:   Creation of a human rights report
How:  Interview of local residents and non-governmental organizations

Yuan Tang (3L)
Yuan was born in China and came to the United States at the age of 6.  She has always lived in or around the Philadelphia area.  She went to undergrad at Penn State's main campus where she got degrees in Psychology and Advertising with a minor in Sociology.  After college she did Teach For America for three years where she taught middle school special education in North Philadelphia.  During that time, she pursued a Master's in Education and then came to law school after her teaching experiences.  She never thought she would come to law school but am glad that she did.  She came to law school because of her deep commitment to justice and the underserved in the American society and the world.

Ted Oswald (3L)
Ted is from a suburb near Sacramento, California.  He went to undergrad and studied international relations at the University of California, Davis, and had a life-changing trip to Egypt late in his college career.  Ted returned to Egypt and completed a grad program in refugee studies which gave him lots of opportunities to learn from and live with Sudanese in Cairo.  He started at Drexel shortly thereafter with an interest in asylum and human rights law, which led him to immigration work over the last few years.

Adan Cerda (3L)
Adan was born and raised mostly in Southern California, but recently came from the Phoenix-area.   He attended high school and undergrad in Arizona (ASU).  Adan studied economics and got really into developmental economics.  To him, it didn't make sense that countries continued to struggle even though there were some sound economic principles that could be used to develop greater wealth and hence a greater standard of living for its residence.  He believes the problem often came from non-economic factors including politics, culture, infrastructure.  Adan came to law school because he thought it would give me the greatest leverage for future change in other countries and in our own country.  Specifically, he wanted to work on international affairs in Mexico, but his interests are not exclusively with Mexico or even with just Latin-American countries.

Megan Strobel (2L)
Megan grew up in central Wisconsin. She did her undergrad at UW-Madison where she double majored in legal studies and psychology.  She came to Drexel for their joint law/psych program. She is really interested in the interplay between law and psychology. This is her second year in the program, and really enjoys it. Eventually, she would like to do mental health policy work.

Giselle Aloi (2L)
Giselle is a permanent residence of Texas although she has not lived there in almost five years. However, that is the state where she attended high school and ultimately obtained her BA in History and Art History. Right after graduating, she packed up two suitcases and headed out, alone, to Asia where she carved out a life in Taipei, Taiwan. She left her travels only to come to law school hoping to gain a degree that can meld her love for travel and her passion for helping those less fortunate.  After graduation there is no doubt that she will return to her ravels but this time she hopes to be more focused and better equipped.

Lydia Abdo (2L)
Lydia is from Southern Illinois -- a teeny tiny town in the middle of cows and cornfields called Harrisburg, near Carbondale (Southern Illinois University? Salukis for college sports followers?) and in between St. Louis MO and Nashville TN (each about three hours from my house).  She studied music and English in undergrad, and minored in modern Middle Eastern studies (my parents are from Lebanon and Syria). Don't let her majors fool you -- she's wanted to be a lawyer since she was 3.

Claudia Shank (2L)
Claudia is from Lancaster Pennsylvania. She still lives in Lancaster with her husband, and commutes to Drexel every day. She went to West Chester University (about 30 minutes outside Philadelphia) where she studied Communications and minored in Russian and studio art. As an undergraduate she got her first taste of travel when she went to China through a program at her university. Although she'd always considered law school, she started doing a lot of volunteer work as an undergrad and became very interested in social justice issues which spurred her on to come to Drexel.