"I really don't believe it was ever a decision I had to make but more like, yeah … I'm gonna say it, a calling," my brother, Hervé, writes to me in an e-mail from Jacmel, Haiti. He traveled there two weeks ago from his home in Los Angeles to assist in what had previously been solely our mother's project: maintaining an orphanage in our deceased father's hometown.
"I knew my small donations to the organizations that were helping Haitians just weren't enough," he continues. "Every fiber in my being commanded me … Do more!" After organizing a charity event and raising $20,000, Hervé got a donated Continental Airlines ticket and, with 180 pounds of luggage (medical supplies, clothes, blankets), he traveled back to a crumbled version of our parents' homeland. He has spent the last few weeks sleeping in a tent with the boys from our orphanage and sporadically sends pictures taken on his cell phone. "Though the news had pretty graphic images," he writes, "to see it firsthand is unbelievable."
My siblings and I grew up like most Americans of Haitian descent in the Diaspora, privileged and proud of our background, but distinctly American. We answered in English when our parents spoke to us in French or Kreyol. We loved eating Haitian food on visits home from college, but our knowledge of Haiti was somewhat diluted from growing up in the Diaspora. We never shied away from identifying ourselves as Haitian-American, but Haiti wasn't necessarily present in our everyday lives. The earthquake changed all of that.
"I couldn't watch CNN anymore," says William Gibbs. "I'm a physician; I had to do something." Gibbs was born and raised on Long Island, N.Y., and has a pain and rehabilitative medicine practice in Queens, where he treats many Haitians. Less than a week after the earthquake, he traveled to Port-au-Prince with a large group of first-generation Haitian and Haitian-American doctors in the Association of Haitian Physicians Abroad and began working right away in 12-hour shifts amid major aftershocks. To be on the safe side, the team slept outdoors without tents.
"When I got there, it looked like a bomb had gone off," Gibbs remembers. "Most of what was going on there, well, I'll just say one word: amputations."
Gibbs notes that not all doctors were driven to Haiti by altruistic or familial reasons. "There were a lot of people there just to promote their organizations, and they seemed to have plenty of time for photo-ops."
Over two and a half months later, much of the media has since left or reduced the number of correspondents in Haiti, but the urgency to rebuild has not waned for Haitians in the Diaspora. "We want Haitians to rebuild Haiti," says Edouard Lénéus, a Haitian-born, American-educated entrepreneur who was in Haiti at the time of the earthquake. "But we also know that administrations have been corrupt," he says. "You can't change culture overnight."
The Haitian government says it will cost at least $11.5 billon, according to the Preliminary Damage and Needs Assessment (PDNA)—a report released by the Haitian government earlier last week. The plan, which has been co-authored by international aid organizations, will be presented at a Haiti donor conference at the United Nations on March 31.
"Who is getting all the contracts?" wonders Lénéus, who runs a business between Washington and Port-au-Prince, translating, locating and processing Haitian documents. "I was able to gain access to a better education [in America]. But I took my time and money to bring a change to Haiti," he says. "I shouldn't be left on the outside."
"We have a unique and singular opportunity to finally correct the course of Haiti," says Al Léandre, an entrepreneur and participant in the forum who is originally from Haiti but has lived in the United States since 1976 and has two American-born daughters. "The talent that resides outside of Haiti is significant and is the only hope for the country to be put on a better path. I hope that my children will come to see the country as their homeland and will work with all their strength at making sure their gifts get added to the overall intellectual capital of Haiti."
My father's intention as a physician was to do a medical residency in the United States and return to Haiti with his developed world know-how. But the Duvalier dictatorships and continued political instability kept many educated Haitians like my parents out of the country, resulting in an unfortunate brain drain. (One U.N. study says 82 percent of all college-educated Haitians live outside their homeland.)
Still, my father offered free health care and educational workshops for Haitians in the Diaspora and frequently sent medical supplies back home at his own expense. He often told us that medical school in Haiti hadn't cost him a cent, and it was the least he could do to pay something back to his country.
"I can't speak for you guys," Hervé writes, "but it's like Dad is reaching down and saying, 'Haiti needs your help.'"
Rose-Anne Clermont is a Haitian-American writer based in Berlin, Germany.