The TC Community Responds to the Crisis in Haiti | Teachers College Columbia University

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The TC Community Responds to the Crisis in Haiti

Faculty, staff, students and alumni - many with a personal stake in the outcomes - are bringing their skills to bear.
Just 20 minutes after the earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, Tatiana Garakani, ’09, received a text-message from her United Nations disaster relief team:  she was needed immediately in Port-au-Prince.  The next day she flew to the Dominican Republic, hopped on a helicopter heading for the devastated capital city and arrived in the early morning hours of January 14.

There, she coordinated some 1,800 rescuers and 160 search dogs looking for survivors amidst the rubble. Conditions were challenging.  Communications were paralyzed by the massive media presence that sapped the available bandwidth on satellite systems. The influx of ill-prepared volunteers clogged relief facilities. UN officials in Haiti, meanwhile, were dealing with damage to their own homes.

“The Government, the UN, and other organizations who are the first responders in disasters were themselves severely affected,” says Garakani, a Canadian member of the United Nations National Disaster Assessment Coordination Team.  “The government, the UN, and other first responders were themselves severely affected.  They’d lost their homes and were searching and mourning their families, friends and colleagues. They were working and sleeping in makeshift offices without knowing the whereabouts of some of their colleagues, without equipment or communications.”

The earthquake in Haiti touched on many lives at TC, and faculty, students, staff and alumni have responded.  On campus, several Haitian-Americans mourned the deaths of relatives who were among more than 200,000 killed in the calamity. Others are still holding out hope for those they have yet to hear from – and the entire TC community has pitched in to a drive mounted by the College’s Office of Diversity and Community to collect supplies to send south. One TC professor is in conversation with development experts to defuse tensions certain to arise during reconstruction, others are preparing to collaborate with the UN on resettlement issues and ways the nation, which is the Western Hemisphere’s poorest and sits on a major earthquake fault line as well as in a storm zone, might better prepare for the next natural disaster.

“It’s going to be a sad memory, but the Haitians will survive,” says Gerald Murray,, a faculty member in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, who has worked on issues in Haiti since the 1970s. A former student of TC’s Lambros Comitas, Gardner Cowles Professor of Anthropology and Education and one of the world’s leading experts on Caribbean culture, Murray recently returned from Haiti on a project for the Inter-American Development Bank. Several organizations, including the U.S. Peace Corps and the U.S. Southern Command, have contacted Murray since the earthquake for advice on their plans for Haiti relief.   “The Haitians are tough, resilient, practical and energetic.”

Teachers College’s involvement in Haiti dates back to the nation’s  first minister of education, Jean Joseph Maurice Dartique, ’31, who earned his masters at TC and helped develop Haiti’s national educational system in the 1940s. (A TC alumna, Rahel Gottlieb, has written an entire dissertation on this subject.)

TC student Daniella Bien-Aime, ’10, whose family came to Brooklyn from Haiti when she was 12, plans to return one day to her native land, to help reform the nation’s preK-12 education system. The earthquake shook her on a very personal level.  Her step-mother lost a nephew and niece. Her cousin’s husband died, leaving four children without a father. Other relatives, however, survived.

“It was just so devastating,” she says. “I kept hearing about all these people who were dying, and you were hoping and praying it wasn’t one of your family members. You kept hoping you would hear some good news.”

On campus, Bien-Aime was among the students and staff involved in collecting clothing, personal items and food in a big blue box at the entrance of Zankel Hall, which was decorated with the Haitian flag and the logo, TC Cares. Jolene Lane, TC’s Director for Diversity and Community affairs, says she emptied the box most every day from mid-January through early February. On February 9, 10 volunteers sorted one-third of the donations, filling 43 large garbage bags, which will be shipped by the Ayfa Foundation in Yonkers.  

“The feeling was that people had more stuff than money,” says Lane. “We’re hoping to get it out to people in Haiti’s outlying areas.”

Andy Auguste, assistant director of student activities and programs, helped promote the TC Student Senate’s effort to raise money for Haiti relief efforts by selling t-shirts for $25. Auguste, whose parents emigrated from Haiti in the 1970s, also worried about the fate of four cousins who had yet to be heard from, three weeks after the earthquake.

“It’s just a waiting game,” he says. “There’s no way to reach them. The land lines are down, and people’s cell phones are under the rumble. So you just have to wait for them to contact you.”

The damage wrought by the magnitude 7.0 earthquake has  exacerbated Haiti’s already catastrophic conditions. In an opinion piece written last year, TC’s Peter Coleman, Associate Professor of Psychology and Education, described Haiti as being on “the brink of disaster of unthinkable proportions,” noting the island’s history of political violence, corruption, food riots, hurricanes, epidemics and environmental degradation.

Coleman had traveled to Haiti in the summer of 2009 with a multi-disciplinary team headed by Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University and Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The team worked with the Haitian government, UN officials and various donor nations, and visited  a model village in one of the nation’s poor rural villages, to develop support for a project promoting sustainable development and sustainable peace.  

Coleman, who heads TC’s International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, says that project has been shelved as the team looks at how it can help with rebuilding the nation. One tricky issue will be how development teams negotiate the nation’s land ownership system, in which people own land, but their ownership is not well-documented. The land isn’t surveyed, so disputes arise over where boundaries lie. Some land is handed down by oral contracts through many generations.

Coleman is now working with other faculty at Columbia’s Earth Institute putting to begin to develop a conflict resolution framework for issues of land rights and reconstruction. “Now’s the time to take advantage of the crisis as a way to rebuild Haiti in a smarter, long-term way,” he says.

Before the rebuilding occurs, however, Haitians are expected to leave Haiti for nearby countries such as the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas, says Murray, who was in Haiti in the fall of 2009 to investigate conflicts along its border with the Dominican Republic. Before the earthquake, Murray estimates there were 1.5 million undocumented Haitians in the DR, with most crossing the border without passports or visas.  Tensions between Haitians and Dominicans were already simmering, and though Dominicans have responded compassionately to the earthquake, Murray fears that tensions may  rise as a new wave of Haitians resettles across the border.

“Since the quake,  Haitians in border communities are flooding into the DR to buy food because the food-supply chain in Haiti is broken,” says Murray. “Some who cross are trying to stay.  I predict that, when the dust settles, there will be massive immigration into the DR, and that could  create a real problem.”

If anything positive comes of Haiti’s agony, it might be that governments around the world will now see the wisdom of investing more in disaster planning instead of simply spending money on disaster relief, says Rebecca Winthrop, ’08, co-director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. The global community can do more to help,  Winthrop says, having provided $300 million worldwide in disaster-prevention aid in 2008 compared to $9.5 billion on response to disasters around the world.

In Haiti, disaster prevention might mean investing in building sounder structures, planning settlements in a more rational manner, and training emergency service providers who are the first on the scene.

“With a better system for disaster-preparedness, you will lose a lot fewer lives,” says Winthrop. “There could be more training and it could become part of the school curriculum, so Haitians would know what to do in the next disaster. “

On Thursday, February 18, at 7:30, Catherine Benoit,  Professor of Anthropology at Connecticut College, will discuss “The Fault Lines of the 2010 Earthquake in Haiti: History and Politics of a Natural and Social Tragedy.” The event, in Thompson Hall 229,  is being presented by TC’s Office for Diversity and Community Affairs, the Office of International Affairs, the Center for African Education and the Black Students Network.

Published Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010


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