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Haiti on Our Hearts

There’s something about having too comfortable of a life that makes Djougine Desrosiers C’2009 downright uncomfortable.

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 Washington.

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 USAID release.

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 University.

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 the family.

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, busy week.”

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 had treated.

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 Haitians.

“I will never forget the faces of the patients and families we saw,” she says. “They were faces searching for hope.”