Hundreds of miles away from Haiti, students on campus who lost relatives there are still feeling aftershocks from the disaster.
For Haitain-born student Jean-Marc Perez-Cohen, this year’s Spring Break will be anything but relaxing.
On Jan. 13, one day after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake leveled much of the island nation, Perez-Cohen received word that his aunt died in the devastation. Somber news trickled in for days following that, as he found out that more of his family members had also died.
“It’s been hard, because you don’t know where they are or if they’re alive or not,” the senior broadcasting, telecommunications and mass media major said, adding that he’s still waiting for news on other family and friends. “There’s nothing I can do.”
Perez-Cohen visited the country several times to see family and friends, and remains connected to its people and culture. He said he hopes to visit Haiti to aid in relief efforts during Spring Break and over the summer. He wanted to go immediately, but decided to stay and finish his last semester at Temple, he said.
Tremors of fear and heartache continue to reverberate among Temple’s Haitian population, as well as throughout the world, two weeks after the disaster.
Since the initial earthquake, which devastated the nation’s capital city of Port-au-Prince, the country experienced several aftershocks. But the Haitians’ resilience and strength seems to remain unshakeable.
“I think overall the community is very optimistic. We’re a very resilient people,” Temple alumnus Stéphane Jean-Baptiste said. “If you look at the history of Haiti [and its] obtaining [of] independence as the first black independent country … it’s something ingrained in our blood.”
Jean-Baptiste, a native of Haiti, is the professional and community development co-chair of the Haitian Professionals of Philadelphia. He remains positive about recovering from the earthquake, despite what obstacles Haiti and its people must overcome, he said.
Others on campus mirrored his outlook, and looked to find a silver lining to the tragedy.
“This is [their] chance to get themselves together and hopefully no longer be the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere,” Melissa Menardy, a senior tourism and hospitality management major, said.
As the vice-president of Temple’s Haitian Student Organization and someone who still has family members living in Haiti, Menardy is personally affected by the disaster.
“Everybody’s affected,” she said. “But just at different levels.”
There are those who learned devastating news that a loved passed away in the quake and those who are still waiting to hear, she added.
For junior biology major Rebecca Fenelus and her family, waiting is all there is to do. Every day, she and her father place phone calls to people who might know the whereabouts of her grandparents, she said.
“I do not know my grandparents,” Fenelus said. “But this hit hard for my dad, [and] it hurts me because it hurts him.”
Despite the long and sometimes heartbreaking waiting periods that many Haitian families living in the United States are facing, several said they are maintaining their strength.
“It’s best to have faith right now,” senior political science and sociology major Josiane Chrisphonte said. “Hope for the best [because] there’s no reason to assume the worst if you haven’t heard anything.”
Chrisphonte has several family members living in Haiti. They were all fortunate enough to be left unscathed by the earthquake and are now living in a separate apartment that her family owns, she said.
The basic structure of the bigger house her family lived in prior to the earthquake was left in ruins, but the smaller apartment undamaged, she explained.
According to The Associated Press, the earthquake was the strongest to hit the area since 1770. Since the initial quake, Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area have felt approximately 30 aftershocks documented by the United States Geological Survey. On Jan. 20, a 6.0 magnitude aftershock shook the already crumbled region.
“I don’t know how long it’s going to take [Haitians] to go inside again,” Haitian Student Organization President Karl-Lydie Jean-Baptiste, a senior journalism major, said. “Especially since the aftershocks haven’t stopped yet. They’re traumatized.”
Many people are still sleeping on the streets, Menardy said, adding that she wonders why they haven’t been moved out of the decimated area.
“What about the people who need surgery and can’t get it?” she added.
Against the odds, many Haitians still made time to attend church, even though what is left of the structures is rubble.
Karl-Lydie Jean-Baptiste said she felt a true sense of pride seeing those in Haiti worshipping on Sunday after the earthquake.
“They still pulled out their best clothes. They still had their drums out, as [if] nothing happened,” she said.
Karl-Lydie Jean-Baptiste, who also has family in Haiti, had to wait a few days after the quake to hear news of her family’s safety.
For many other Haitians living in the area, though, this was not the case.
Many student organizations on campus, as well as faculty and staff, have flooded HSO’s e-mail with requests to help and host fundraisers, Karl-Lydie Jean-Baptiste said.
“It’s easier if organizations would come together and just do larger events rather than [separate ones],” Menardy said.
HSO began its fundraising efforts with a campus-wide Haitian Relief Collection Drive yesterday, and will continue with similar efforts as ideas and organizations collaborate, Karl-Lydie Jean-Baptiste said.
HSO is working with HPP, directing people to visit the Philadelphia organization’s Web site and donate money, she said.
HPP has also secured a private jumbo jet, courtesy of Blue Star Jets, to transport goods out of Philadelphia and to Haiti, Stéphane Jean-Baptiste said.
The organization is working around the clock contacting groups and individuals that might be willing to help, whether it’s donating money, supplies or expertise.
It’s not always easy to focus on the big picture, he said. But it’s what helps Haitians living in the United States stay optimistic and strong, he said.
“Being in the community, working for the community gives us hope,” he said. “It’s what we can do to affect change.”
Amanda Fries can be reached at email@example.com.