Haiti on Our Hearts
There’s something about having too comfortable of a life
that makes Djougine Desrosiers C’2009 downright
Perhaps it’s the feeling of surrealism. After all, she was born and
raised in a country now infamously known as the poorest in the
Western Hemisphere—whose recent history is marred by military
coups, political corruption, various human rights abuses, systemic
economic and social inequities, and now, one of the most devastating
earthquakes the world can remember.
Perhaps it’s her own esprit de corps—an empathy that charges her
to suffer in solidarity with her fellow Haitians, even when she’s
thousands of miles away on U.S. soil.
Regardless of her reasons, Desrosiers remains unequivocal about
one thing: Haiti is still home. And that means for this recent graduate,
confronting the nightmarish realities now facing her blighted
country is a priority far greater than chasing the American Dream.
“We have a saying in my country—Lakay se la kod lonbrit mwen
antere. In English it means ‘Home is where my umbilical cord is
buried,’” she says. “It comes from our custom of burying the umbilical
cord after a child is born. My belly cord is in Haiti. . . . Even
if I eventually become an American citizen, I will always consider
myself ‘Ayisyen’ [Haitian].”
Seeing her homeland in ruins just one month after the disastrous
January 12 quake was sobering for Desrosiers, to say the least. The
political science and French major had hopes of returning to Haiti
to help young girls victimized by sexual abuse, unmasking the culture
of shame that often silences their voices and perpetuates the
vicious cycle. “My goal is still to someday build homes for young
girls in Haiti, to give them spiritual as well as financial support,”
says Desrosiers, although she is quick to acknowledge the country
and its people now face much more immediate obstacles.
When she visited in July 2009 with Haitian Congress, (an Evanston,
Ill., nonprofit with whom Desrosiers serves as a board member) the
situation actually seemed hopeful. After President Jean-Bertrand
Aristide was exiled in 2004, life for Haitians grew worse before it
finally began to improve. But by 2009, Desrosiers says, optimism
had actually returned, along with a number of the diaspora with
hopes of rebuilding.
“Money was starting to flow more freely, and people had every reason
to believe the situation was getting better,” she says.
It was a stark contrast to what she witnessed just eight months
later—a wasteland of broken buildings and broken bodies, resulting
in what has been called one of the greatest humanitarian emergencies
in the history of the Americas.
“I’ll never forget the smell of the Caribbean market,” describes Desrosiers.
“I’ve never smelled anything like that. I lived in Haiti in the
1990s when people were
dying in the streets,
and I remember as a
child the scent of rotten
flesh, but nothing like
this. It’s worse than the
smell of any other kind
of rotting meat. If you’ve ever smelled a decomposing body, you
will never forget it.”
Another thing she’ll never forget is the look on her mother’s face when
she arrived in Haiti, after landing in the Dominican Republic and
traveling eight hours by bus from Santo Domingo to Port-Au-Prince.
“I saw misery in her eyes,” Desrosiers says. “Everyone around me was
in deep pain, even though they were trying to suppress it. It was a
sense of hopelessness and helplessness—nou oblije, as we say. There
is nothing we can do.”
Two of her cousins were killed in the earthquake, and her mother
only narrowly escaped being crushed by a wall as she cooked rice
in her kitchen. When the earth began to shake, she crawled under
a table, which protected her from the falling debris. Desrosiers was
working at a temp agency in Downers Grove, Ill., when she heard
the news of the quake, and vividly recalls the anxiety and fear she
experienced in the two tense days she spent waiting to hear that her
mother was still alive.
“They were the worst two days of my life,” she says. “I would call
every five minutes, and there would be silence on the other end of
the line. In my heart, I believed she was okay, but I was still afraid.”
Finally on Thursday around noon, Desrosiers’ mother called, crying.
Six months pregnant, she had walked 15 miles over two days
to reach the nearest working phone (a satellite phone in the town of
Carrefour), and waited in line for three hours to use it.
“She told me, ‘I almost died, but God saved me,’” says Desrosiers,
adding that her mother’s survival is a miracle. “She had bruises, but
no open wounds, so I know it was God.”
When Desrosiers visited in February, her mother was sleeping on
the streets on the steps of a friend’s home. Several nights, it rained.
She notes that many Haitians—even the few whose houses were
not destroyed—slept on the streets for weeks, in fear of numerous
aftershocks. Months later, some are still living in the streets with
no money to repair their homes, including her mother. Desrosiers
herself stayed at an undamaged house used as missionary quarters,
but confesses that the roof over her head provided little comfort
knowing she could do nothing to help her own family.
While in Haiti she gave her mother suitcases to store the remainder
of her belongings, and has since sent her a few hundred dollars for
the sand, cement, and metal beams needed to build a one-room
shelter near where her house used to stand. Unfortunately, the work
was short-lived due to inadequate funds. After returning to the Chicago
area, lingering concern for her mother prompted Desrosiers to
apply for American citizenship, although it comes at a high price.
“It would require me to give up my Haitian citizenship,” explains
Desrosiers, a permanent resident who came to the States with her
father a decade ago after her parents divorced. She later moved
to Chicago with guardians from her church who helped put her
through college at North Park University. Ultimately, she wants to
bring her mother and her unborn brother to safety in the U.S.
Desrosiers says that none of her family has received any aid, although,
since her initial visit, a huge donor’s conference was held in
March at the United Nations headquarters in New York, drawing
government officials, financial institutions, and charitable groups
to discuss Haiti’s future.
She hopes that public concern for her country doesn’t wane before
hope is restored and Haitians are once again empowered. “There’s
still so much to do,” she says.
Fellow Haitian native Robert Boncy C’71 also understands
that his country has a long road ahead of it. A former North
Park University professor, he led the school’s first ever mission
trips to Haiti back in the 1980s. Today, he is helping coordinate
the U.S. government’s recovery efforts in the island nation,
where, like Desrosiers, he lost two relatives.
Boncy graduated from North Park with a bachelor’s degree in political
science and taught the subject at his alma mater from 1980 to
1984. He now serves as a desk officer with the United States Agency
for International Development (USAID) in its Office of Caribbean
Affairs. He has also worked extensively throughout Africa and in
USAID is the principal government agency to extend assistance to
countries recovering from disaster, trying to escape poverty, and engaging
in democratic reforms. In the aftermath of the earthquake,
the agency, along with the Department of Defense, has contributed
more than half of $1 billion in aid to Haiti, according to a
Boncy works to ensure full cooperation between initiatives “on the
ground” and headquarters throughout that region. He also supplies
information to Congress and fields queries from the public.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, Boncy was specially assigned
to help plan USAID’s transition from disaster relief to recovery
efforts—a work that is deeply personal.
Two cousins in Boncy’s large extended family were killed by the
earthquake. One was a mother of two children, and another was
the father of three. “We lost two wonderful people,” he says.
He has helped provide assistance to numerous countries following
ecological calamities and wars. This is the first time he has been
involved in work following a natural disaster such as an earthquake.
Boncy says he is especially grateful for the opportunity to play a
significant role in helping his native country. He first learned of
the earthquake about 20 minutes after it struck. Since then, he has
worked from early in the morning to late at night with little rest.
Boncy has been working for years to expand others’ understanding
of Haiti and to generate assistance for its people. Along with
philosophy professor Mel Soneson, he led the first work trips of
North Park students to Haiti in 1983 and 1984. The students built
a fishpond in Furcy, a rural community located more than a mile
high in the craggy Haitian mountains.
Although the students knew Haiti was impoverished and a dictatorship
under the rule of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier they could
not begin to comprehend the implications until they arrived.
Boncy, the only Creole-speaking member of the trip, had to navigate
the Haitian bureaucracy to get back film that was confiscated
at the airport when the team arrived on the first trip. North Park
junior Susan Eckhardt wrote in the June 1984 issue of The Covenant
Companion that a woman offered to sell one of her children to
Boncy for five dollars. She eventually lowered her price to 20 cents
in an attempt to lessen the number of family members to feed.
Eckhardt asked of herself, “How does one act—react—to this?
Why am I so privileged? When am I going to take responsibility for
this problem? After dinner?”
In a 1983 article for the magazine Boncy wrote, “Being originally
from Haiti, the project had special significance to me. It reaffirmed
the linkage of my worlds, and in however small a way, represented
the possibility of reconciliation through understanding and caring.”
Boncy already knew firsthand the power of getting a helping hand
from others. His father, Roger, was a judge in Haiti, but fled with
his family to Congo when his life was endangered under the dictatorial
rule of FranÇois “Papa Doc” Duvalier.
While in Congo, the Boncys met Evangelical Covenant Church
missionaries. Two of them, Daniel and Anne Ericson, met the
family at a worship service. They ultimately connected them with
North Park Covenant Church in Chicago, which sponsored the
family and enabled them to get permanent visas. Boncy’s mother
and three siblings arrived in the city in 1963. His father followed
later and subsequently taught Latin and French at North Park
Boncy married Ginny Westberg C’68— the daughter of Sigurd and
Ruth Westberg, two missionaries that helped his family in Congo.
She is now a support services officer in the Casualty Assistance
Office of the U.S. State Department, working with families of State
Department employees who die overseas. “She puts a human face
on the bureaucracy,” Boncy says.
After the earthquake in Haiti, she was responsible for making sure
the body of an embassy employee who was killed was returned to
the United States and that all necessary assistance was available to
Other Americans in Haiti, like Heather Vruggink C’2005,
were fortunate to make it out of the country alive. Vruggink
had been serving with a missions team at a mountaintop
clinic in Haiti when the earthquake struck. She and her
teammates left Port-Au-Prince on January 15 on a Federal Emergency
Management Agency (FEMA) sponsored aircraft thanks to
the help of a U.S. Embassy representative.
The team had been spending a quiet week treating common ailments
such as skin infections and intestinal problems that are easily
healed and preventable in the United States.
“I knew that it was going to be life-changing,” said Vruggink, a
graduate of North Park’s School of Nursing. “I was really looking
forward to serving a population that truly and badly needed care
in even the smallest way. I knew it was going to be a hardworking,
They finished seeing the last clinic patients at 4 p.m. on Tuesday,
January 12. At 4:53 p.m., the earthquake struck, killing more than
200,000 people and injuring another 300,000. Over the next several
days, Vruggink and her team treated more than 200 injured
patients in the most rudimentary conditions.
The experience put her skills to the test. Until recently moving to
Michigan, Vruggink worked as a trauma nurse in the emergency
room at Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital and was studying
to be a pediatric nurse practitioner. That training proved invaluable
when the earthquake hit.
On the day of the earthquake, Vruggink and team member Sarah
Kane had run down the mountain from the clinic to return to their
room, where they began getting cleaned up for dinner.
“The floor started shaking like a big semi was going by,” she recalls.
“Then all of the sudden I was knocked to my knees. The floor rocked
back and forth, and Sarah and I looked at each other terrified until
someone yelled at us to get out of the house.”
Vruggink and others stood on the lawn trying to guess how bad the
earthquake had been. “We didn’t really understand the aftermath
of the earthquake until we were deployed to the Mission Baptist
Hospital and saw the devastating injuries that awaited us.” When
they arrived, there were scores of wounded—and only one doctor,
several nurses, and limited medical supplies.
“It was shocking to walk past so many hurt people,” Vruggink says.
“We saw and stabilized more than 100 pretty severely wounded
patients that night, working well past midnight.” While treating
patients on Thursday, two days after the quake, the team heard the
sounds of people singing. It was the funeral for the first girl they
Vruggink says she hopes to return to Haiti within the next year to
continue the recovery work in the country. Above all, she says, she
wants to see the people her team helped care for before and after
the earthquake, and continue the relationships built with these
“I will never forget the faces of the patients and families we saw,” she
says. “They were faces searching for hope.”