Second Haiti forum paints dismal picture, urges compassion

Catherine Leth
Contributing Reporter
VCU’s second Haiti Disaster Forum took place in the Commons Theater on Monday morning, acting as a follow-up to the first event that happened during the Spring 2010 semester. The L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs and the School of Social Work joined up with local non-profit groups to discuss how the situation in Haiti has developed since an earthquake killed 200,000 Haitians and displaced 1.5 million in January.
Dean Jim Hinterlong, from the School of Social Work, conveyed a message of moral responsibility, stressing that Americans must not feel detached from those who are suffering in Haiti.
“As you sit here today, in a climate controlled auditorium with these kind of seats, I’d like you to just understand the privilege that you have that brings you here today, and the extraordinary responsibility that places upon your shoulders,” he said in his opening remarks. “I always tell my students: Education is a slippery slope, because once you open your eyes and you come to understand your own circumstances, you can never go back.”
A series of speakers emphasized the extremely poor living conditions surrounding Port Au Prince, the Haitian capital. Since there are fewer private buildings and a widespread lack of proper housing, women are being raped in tents, and children are often seen begging on the streets.
“We are less concerned with the Richter scale magnitude as we are with the human consequences of what happened,” the Director of the L. Douglas Wilder School Niraj Virma said. “That’s what brings our fields together. At some level we are powerless at the enormity of this catastrophe, but at the same time this is a challenge for students and researchers.”
Social work and homeland security majors discussed poster presentations they had made as a class assignment, explaining Haiti’s struggle to organize and achieve throughout history. Ben Blevins, Director of the Highland Support Project in Guatemala, also cited the nation’s lack of proper governing in recent years as a reason for the tragic conditions that have developed there.
“The disaster that happened in Haiti was not the earthquake; the disaster that happened in Haiti was policies that push the people into the urban area and have continued to strip the island of any self-rule,” he said.
Reggie Gordon, CEO of the Richmond American Red Cross chapter, explained the complications that arise when non-profit groups try to deliver aid to a nation in need.
Legal restrictions and lack of government infrastructure make creating shelter very difficult, and getting staff members and volunteers to Haiti has been a tough process as well.
“When you put people on a plane and send them into a disaster area, there is no food, there is no water, there is no shelter, so you are not prepared to live in those conditions. Then you get sick, then you have to get medical attention,” he said. “So it just makes it worse for the people who were there and in need.”
Jean-Andre Constant, a Haitian social worker living in Virginia who lost family members in the earthquake, expressed “a loss of optimism.” He described the crude organization of government officials in the face of Haiti’s upcoming elections.
According to CNN, only 9% of the $15 billion pledged from various countries has been delivered. Despite this, Constant remains faithful in Haiti’s future, even if the path of recovery hasn’t been the quickest or most efficient route thus far.
“Instead of blaming, instead of accusing, instead of having pity for the Haitian people, it is time for all of us to say ‘we need to move from our comfort zone’ and to commit to how it’s possible to do something about it. It is a human duty,” he said.
The forum ended with a poetry reading by Constant, and all participants were served a Haitian lunch.

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