Traveling with eight other students and three teachers on a mission to Haiti in July opened Julia Cashen’s eyes to the country’s intense poverty as well as to the Haitians’ incredible selflessness.
The Los Altos High School graduate, now a psychology major at UCLA, joined Los Altos and San Jose teachers and college students to deliver computers, labor and medical supplies to a tent-city camp of 30,000 in Delmas, Port-au-Prince.
The participants paid their own way on the 10-day tour organized by San Francisco’s Global Exchange Reality Tours. They carried a formal letter from U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D- Palo Alto) confirming their official capacity.
Once in Haiti, the group shoveled cement to build a cistern to store water for SOPUDEP (Society of Providence United for the Economic Development of Pétion-Ville), Los Altos High’s recently designated K-12 sister school. With an enrollment of approximately 400, SOPUDEP operates out of an abandoned mansion. Future plans call for a more spacious three-story building with rooftop gardens where they can grow food for school families.
The medicine brought from the U.S. targeted malnutrition, dehydration and cholera, not seen on the island for a century. Haiti now suffers in the aftermath of a cholera epidemic, aggravated by food and water contaminated after the 2010 earthquake.
Karim Poonja, a Foothill College student, brought 21 laptop computers for Cité Soleil community organizers working with children. Cité Soleil, which means Sunny City, is widely considered the worst slum in the Western Hemisphere.
Spearheaded by Los Altos High School history teacher Sean Donnelly – who has traveled to Haiti 10 times since 2004 – the group met in Port-au-Prince with grassroots women’s and community organizations frustrated by the growing humanitarian crisis. Devastated by the 2008 hurricane and the 2010 earthquake, thousands remain homeless, surviving on rations and living in tarp cities with 10 people to a tent.
The U.S. students expressed “outrage over the devastating humanitarian crisis” they had witnessed at a press conference at Martin Luther King Jr. Library last month. Evergreen High School teacher Victoria Duran, San Jose State professor Akbundu Lott and San Jose State University student Andrea Kennedy participated. Julisa Garcia, a member of the Bay Area-based Haiti Action Committee, and others who had gone to Haiti contributed to the press announcement.
Donnelly’s group criticized the U.S. government and the international community for neglecting the refugee camps, “left suffering under deteriorating conditions” now that it’s not “hip” to contribute. Donnelly said that Haitians support the return to power of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who raised the minimum wage and increased women’s rights. He condemned U.S. support for the March election, which was mired in voter fraud. The students said they want a change in U.S. foreign policy, which they claimed contributed to the crisis.
“Haitians are the greatest people … with selflessness that includes not just their family and friends, but the entire country,” Cashen said.
She pointed out that Haiti was the first black republic, becoming independent of France in 1804.
“They have vitality, and resilience … and the Haitians are people of incredible strength that’s still evident,” she said.
Cashen anticipated a life-changing experience because her younger sister Audrey had traveled earlier in the spring with another Los Altos High group led by Donnelly.
“Her whole outlook changed,” Cashen said. “She discovered what she would devote herself to in the future, and I was inspired to go, too.”
Cashen and Poonja noted that Haitians rely on street vendors to buy zip-close bags of drinking water, probably untreated. Poonja said he only had bucket showers during his stay.
“My parents grew up in Kenya and I’ve been there, too, but this was the poorest refugee camp I’ve seen. People live in tin shacks with no stable houses, just tents made out of tarp,” said Poonja, noting that a lack of heavy machinery slowed progress. “It took us one week to do what we could have done in two hours.”
Non-profit groups have funneled money to Haiti, but Cashen said the government mishandled the distribution. Ravaged by unemployment, the country continues to suffer while leaders misdirect NGO (nongovernmental organization) aid. “We need to get the NGOs and the United Nations’ troops out, and let Haitians rebuild Haiti,” she said, referring to MINUSTAH, the controversial United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, peacekeeping forces often accused of human-rights violations.
“The Haitian activists had plans to build housing on land which was donated, but they were abandoned by the government,” which wouldn’t supply them with low-interest loans, Cashen said.
She plans to encourage social entrepreneurship between Haitian and UCLA students.
The trip taught her “really important life lessons because in Haiti, they stress nonmarket skills and values, like kindness. They share everything.”
Poonja said staying with local families allowed him to witness Haitian culture and to learn a little Creole, although the group did have a part-time translator.
For more information, call Donnelly at 814-8495 or visit www.haitisolidarity.net.