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Founder of Haiti school discusses rebuilding

<lass="FreeFormA">On Oct. 5, native Haitians Max Adrien and Rea Dol came to Carleton to speak about their roles in mitigating the aftermath of the earthquake that struck Haiti approximately ten months ago.

The event, required for many upper-level French classes, began with a slideshow of images depicting the quake’s immediate effects.  As pictures of the dead and wounded occupied the auditorium screen, Adrien, a French professor at Hamline Univeristy, discussed his initial reaction to the disaster.  “It could be me,” he said.  “It could be you.  It could be anyone.”

But Dol’s speech was the lecture’s main event.  Dol, who founded the SOPUDEP school in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Pétionville, and taught there as well, was working late the day of the earthquake.  She ran out of the building as the quake began, and managed to escape to her house.  Once there, however, she realized that “my place was not at my house.”

The next morning, Dol looked through the city and found an abandoned store with gauze and benadene.  “If God had allowed me to survive,” she said, “then there must be something I must do.”  She returned to her school to see if any of her students were there; miraculously, it was the only building in the area still standing.  Over the next few weeks, she used the school as a shelter for hundreds of people, distributing food and supplies that she mostly found in abandoned buildings.  The New York Times named her “the Mother Figure of Morne Lazarne.”            

At a time when most Haitians were fleeing Port-au-Prince for refugee camps, Dol tried to keep local neighborhoods together.  Today, she still faces a large number of problems.  The area magistrate wants to close the school, which is still being used as a shelter.  His previous attempts to do so were impeded when Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota wrote a letter to the Haitian embassy after visiting the school, asking them not to interfere with Dol’s work.  In addition, conditions in the refugee camps and the city are still poor.  According to Dol, only 2 percent of the rubble from the earthquake has been cleared, and over a million people are still homeless.

Conditions in the refugee camps are no better.  “I started to help the women out, because I didn’t like how they were being treated,” Dol said. “If you don’t have a food card, you must give up your body to get food for your children.”

Adrien discussed how Haiti has pulled through the crisis, citing the major role of religion in Haitians’ day-to-day life as a source of resilience.  His own religion came into play, he said, when he tried to think of how he, with no training in medicine or engineering, could help his own people.  Recalling a phrase from the Bible, he resolved that, “I will give what I have,” and began teaching free classes in Creole, the language most Haitians speak, to relief workers bound for the island.  In the ten months since the earthquake, he has helped relief workers learn to communicate with the people they serve.

The bulk of Adrien’s presentation consisted of a quick lesson in Haiti’s history.  Haiti occupies the island of Hispanola, the island on which Christopher Columbus originally landed.  In the three centuries after its discovery, Haiti was a colony of first Spain and then France.   Both countries farmed sugarcane there, importing a substantial number of African slaves to act as a labor force.  In the 1790s, Haitian slaves revolted and forced the French off the island.  Adrien called this last event one of the most important in Haiti’s history, saying it was “the first time that minorities claimed equal rights” for themselves. 

After Adrien’s presentation, Hunter Knight, the leader of the student organization Haiti Relief Carleton, made a brief statement discussing her organization and Northfield’s Haiti Justice Alliance.  Haiti Relief Carleton meets from 7:30 to 8:30 on Mondays in Sayles 250.           

The most important thing to do, Dol and Adrien agree, is to learn more about Haiti.  Dol ended her talk by thanking people for the help they gave immediately after the catastrophe, but, she says, there is much more that needs to be done.  

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