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Through unity, we find strength

August 28, 2010
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PART I

The first day of the visit to Haiti starts at 4 a.m. on August 5 and ends well after midnight. Before the sun rises over Washington, D.C., a group of volunteers convenes at Ronald Reagan National Airport, wheeling both personal luggage and large navy blue bags of donations for a group of about 300 deaf Haitians displaced by the earthquake. People who are deaf and hard of hearing were among the most marginalized when the trembler devastated the capital city of Port-au-Prince. These volunteers, all board members of the organization Friends of Deaf Haiti (FDH), want to help as many of them as possible take control of the situation.

Sylvie Marc-Charles-Weir and her fellow board members plan to distribute donations, conduct workshops, and work with the individuals in the community.  

That is, if they can get on the plane.

“I’m a little nervous, especially because of the weight of the suitcases,” admits Marc-Charles-Weir, who holds a bachelor’s  (’07) and master’s degree (’10) from the University, as she stands in line for a security check. “But I’m thinking positive.”

This group of Haitian-American alumni and staff members has helped to organize a week-long trip to the heart of the disaster, where members of the deaf community inhabit 40 tents along a busy highway called Rue Piste. The Washington Post estimates that 800 international aid groups have had a hand in relief efforts.

Several of these organizations, as well as the Haitian government, have joined to supply food, water, and land for this camp situated in the Delmas 2 section of Port-au-Prince. FDH, however, is the only Haitian-American organization–and the only organization comprising all deaf members–to lend its support.

The donated items include clothing, shoes, art and craft supplies, toiletries, school supplies, condoms, and educational materials about HIV and AIDS. FDH, along with students in general studies courses offered in the spring and summer, gathered these items and monetary contributions to buy more.

All of the bags make the airline’s weight check, barely clearing the limit of 50 pounds apiece, and soon the FDH members have boarded the plane.

To help and empower

Donations are not all the group brings. FDH board member Yolette Cohen, a 2007 graduate of Gallaudet, is anxious to see the progress at the camp since her visit to the tent community in April. During that visit, she and her husband, Richard Cohen, joined Gallaudet Cashier’s Office staff member Juan Reinbold–who is also on the board and a 1994 graduate of Gallaudet–to secure land for temporary homes.

Finding land is not easy in a country with a population of 9 million in an area about the size of Maryland (a state which about 5.7 million people call home). They did find the space, however, and even watched the community start to establish itself. “Before I flew out, I made sure I saw the first three tents set up,” Cohen explains as the plane prepares for takeoff. Soon, community leaders emailed the news that the settlement had grown to 16 tents, then 30. Now 37 tents provide living quarters, and an additional three serve as communal space for meetings and recreation. Cohen looks forward to seeing the land fully utilized. She also wants to work with the people in the camp to help them move toward a better life.

“Our plan is to help empower them,” Cohen explains, “to provide education, discuss their prospects for the future, and job placement. I’m responsible for planning activities with the children, including the CODAs [children of deaf adults].”

Cohen, who works as a family educator at the Maryland School for the Deaf, Frederick, was born in Haiti and attended Institut Montfort, the country’s only school exclusively for deaf children. In addition to her other duties, she will facilitate communication using her knowledge of Haitian Sign Language and her home country’s culture.

A Montfort classmate, Evelyne Mitton, will also ease communication. Mitton, a board member of FDH, was Montfort’s very first pupil. As a young woman she taught at St. Vincent’s Center for Handicapped Children before she came to the U.S. in her 20s. She attended classes at Gallaudet and now works as a benefits and records technician in the University’s Office of Human Resources Services.

While awaiting the flight’s 6:10 a.m. departure, Mitton explains that her main role is to run art workshops, but she also looks forward to playing with the children and catching up with old friends and family members she has not seen in more than 20 years.

Rounding out the group on this flight is Marc-Charles-Weir’s husband, Alon Weir, a physical therapist interested in sharing his skills with those in the tent community. They will meet more FDH members and supporters once they arrive in Haiti.

Arrival

At about 11 a.m., local time, the plane carrying Cohen, Mitton, and the Weirs touches down at Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport, which is up and running despite the damage it sustained in the 7.0-magnitude quake. Oppressively hot air approaching triple digit temperatures hangs in the air conditioned shuttle that transports the group to the customs and baggage claim area, and clings to them as they meander toward an escalator that brings the travelers to the terminal. Signs point the way in Haitian Creole, French, and English. A band in red shirts bobs with lively welcome music as the crowd descends.

Soon the group has collected its luggage and emerged into the bright Caribbean sun, meeting a host of red-capped baggage carriers. Many deaf men work for tips here, while others–including the majority of the camp residents who have been able to work after the quake–hold factory jobs at a nearby industrial park. 

Reinbold, who grew up in Haiti and then moved to the U.S. to attend Gallaudet, is one of the few deaf people in the country to hold a driver’s license. He touched down in the country four days earlier for his fourth visit since the earthquake. Minutes after the group emerges from the arrival gate, he shows up driving a white Toyota Land Cruiser ready to transport the passengers and luggage to their destination.

–Rhea Yablon Kennedy


Stay tuned to On the Green for the continuation of this series. Subscribe to the RSS feed here. Watch a video about the trip below.



 

28 August 2010

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