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'A window on the modern world': Creighton students experience life in Haiti

Creighton students were welcomed to Haiti at numerous turns with hundreds of Haitians coming out to greet and talk to the American visitors.For the better part of a half-century, Creighton University has been sending students, staff and faculty on immersion experiences and service-oriented excursions to the Dominican Republic, the nation that makes up the eastern two-thirds of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.

On occasion, Creighton’s voyagers have had the opportunity to travel to the western border of the Dominican Republic and gaze across a vale into Haiti, the country that shares the western side of the island. What they’ve seen there, and what they’ve heard about the neighboring nation from Dominicans, is but a fraction of a much wider picture.

For 10 days this summer, a group of 12 Creighton students and two professors traveled to Haiti, to get that broader, deeper perspective.

“It was good to see that other side,” said Shannon Mulcahey, a junior in the College of Nursing who has traveled now with Creighton groups to both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. “When you’re in the D.R., you hear a lot of talk about the Haitians, but usually it’s about how the Dominicans are deporting the Haitians, even the ones who are born in the Dominican Republic. Even on the same island, there’s not a lot of understanding of the Haitian culture.”

And in this, Dominicans are not alone.

It’s what led Roger Bergman, Ph.D., director of the Justice and Peace Studies program at Creighton, to take his fifth trip to Haiti and welcome students on a study-abroad opportunity in Haiti for the first time in more than two decades. The course, Public Health and Social Justice in Haiti was one of the University’s credit-bearing Faculty-Led Programs Abroad (FLPA). Using three texts, Laurent Dubois’ Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, Paul Farmer’s AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame, and Farewell, Fred Voodoo by Amy Wilentz, the course moved through a look at how Haiti has been placed in the Americas and the world. The students took their reading as preparation for what they would encounter on the ground in the country.

“More and more, I thought of Haiti as a window on the modern world,” said Bergman, who is also a professor in the Department of Cultural and Social Studies and who led the trip with his colleague in the department, Laura Heinemann, Ph.D., a medical anthropologist. “It was one of the places Columbus landed on his first voyage. It was a site of the first genocide in the Americas. It was the site of the first European settlement in the New World. And it was the place where the first African slaves were brought. Haiti was the wealthiest colony in the world, the site of the first successful slave rebellion, and yet we don’t put the Haitian revolution in the same category as any other revolution. The world doesn’t have a grasp on what Haitian history and contributions have been.”

Take democratic government, for instance. Mention democracy in the 21st century and you’re likely to hear a lot about a shining city upon a hill and the 18th century roots of government driven by that great beacon of the New World, the United States of America.

Fewer people are apt to remember that Haiti, following a 13-year revolution in which African slaves ultimately threw off the yoke of French, Spanish and British colonizers and declared Haiti an independent nation on Jan. 1, 1804. The Haitians established a republic and abolished slavery.

The rest of the world, the U.S. included, was aghast and refused to throw any support behind the fledgling nation.

Ever since, Haiti has struggled mightily. In addition to recolonization efforts by the French, Haiti’s pains to gain diplomatic recognition also failed until well into the 19th century. The U.S. and Europe tried every means to smother the Haitian republic in its cradle and Haiti was occupied by American troops from 1915 until 1934.

“One thing that’s really noticeable is how the international community still has a hold on the country,” said Ben Merrill, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. “There are not a lot of businesses in Haiti that are owned by Haitians. It’s not that Haitians don’t realize this, but they feel powerless to do anything about it. It’s a system that’s been rigged against them.”

And yet, as Merrill and the other Creighton students noted, Haitian history, along with Haitian religion and culture, is a very proud component of any Haitian’s life. Traveling with a complement of young Haitians as their hosts, the Creighton students quickly picked up on the old dictum that history is never “was” with Haiti, but “is.”

“The reference to all of Haiti, from the very beginning to today, was always ‘We,’” Merrill said. “Haitians are proud of their heritage and they see their history as still happening. Their founding fathers are still very much alive in their country’s memory.”

It’s a way of being open to history in a way few Americans are, Mulcahey said.

“American history, the real American history, doesn’t often get talked about,” she said. “We owned the slaves. That’s a complication most people just want to skip over. As the descendants of the slaves themselves, the Haitians talk very openly about it.”

History and culture often coalesce around a constituent element of Haitian culture the Creighton students observed: a Voodoo service. Even as a majority of Haitians identify as Roman Catholic, the Voodoo culture still permeates across the society.

“Voodoo is not a religion as we would think about a religion,” said Amanda Schoening, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s a way of life. It’s everywhere, every day. Even people who claim not to believe in Voodoo still respect it.”

As a kind of social currency, Voodoo is often looked to as another uniquely Haitian means of contending with the realities of a physically and psychically scarred nation. In the mid-20th century, Haiti was beset by a dictatorship led by the Duvalier family, which used intimidation and violence to maintain a hold on power.

Following the Duvalier regime, Haiti’s first freely elected president in more than 50 years, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown by a military coup just months into his term in 1991. American troops again occupied Haiti in the wake of Aristide’s ouster, and put the former Catholic priest back into power until he was exiled by a second coup in 2004.

In January 2010, Haiti was struck by a devastating earthquake leaving more than 158,000 people dead and more than one-tenth of the nation homeless. International aid efforts remain stymied in the country today and this was another motivation for the Creighton FLPA trip.

“We learned that aid to Haiti has to be by Haitians, for Haitians,” Merrill said.

The Creighton contingent did visit the Partners in Health hospital started by Dr. Paul Farmer, an American doctor and medical anthropologist who has devoted his life to delivering primary care to people in Haiti. Located in a remote region of the country, the hospital and those who staffed it put a different face on helping Haiti.

“I saw nurses who traveled hundreds of miles to be with their patients,” Mulcahey said. “It’s the kind of thing you want to carry into your own career. It’s a way of being the help that’s needed in the right place, at the right time.”

Moreover, the influx of aid in the quake’s aftermath also led to the depletion of jobs for Haiti’s construction industry. Donations of clothing took away from the work of tailors and the sales of retailers.

The temblor also exposed the massive gap in Haiti between the nation’s political and social elites and the average citizen. These average citizens are the ones with whom the Creighton students ate and drank, shared stories and from whom they learned.

“I saw a land and a people that were so beautiful, it’s difficult to put into words,” Merrill said. “On our last day, our hosts told us, ‘You know the people of Haiti, you know what we can do.’ It was a way of asking us, as Americans, to spread the word and speak out against our American misconceptions, mostly that we can’t distinguish the people of Haiti from their failed state.”

In the same way, Bergman said, most Haitians have been able to put aside the deleterious effects of U.S. policy on their nation and embrace the tens of thousands of Americans who travel to Haiti annually.

“They are able to differentiate between the actions of the American government and the goodwill of the American people,” he said. “What they see is that there is a need, in their own country, for a new system.”

Each student on the trip resolved to find ways to return to Haiti and to carry the message forward on the Caribbean nation’s plight and its strength.

“I don’t want to just go back home and live a normal life,” said Molly Ebmeyer, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. “I want to be able to do my part, to keep this experience in mind and realize that every little thing does matter. I want to be able to return to Haiti someday and do something, even something little, and let it make a difference.”

Bergman and Heinemann plan to repeat the trip next year, with a new group of students.

Creighton University is a Jesuit, Catholic university bridging health, law, business and the arts and sciences for a more just world.