It’s Ugly, but I am here: Daughter of Haiti’s Story
On January 12, 2010, as the news started to emerge about the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck the city of Port-a-Prince in the small Caribbean nation of Haiti, the Internet was flooded with search requests for basic information about the country. Just over an hour and half by plane from Miami, Haiti is home to more than 9 million people. One might wonder why so many within the United States do not know our Haitian neighbors, yet here at Vanderbilt Divinity School you do not have to look far to see the face of Haiti.
In Cherisna Jean-Marie, a fourth-year master of divinity student preparing to be graduated in May, we see Haiti. Cherisna, with her parents and six siblings, are among the estimated 530,000 Haitian Americans in the U.S. Over coffee, I listened intently to her perspective on the disaster. Like many, it is hard for me to comprehend the devastation and destruction although I have seen thousands of pictures, listened to news reports, and followed the developing story. Today’s 24-hour news media provide us with unprecedented access while creating a false sense of distance. For Cherisna the situation in Haiti is not something happening worlds way. The quake has directly affected her family, who are sleeping in the streets because their home has been destroyed.
The earthquake and the media’s coverage of life in Haiti have opened the world’s eyes to a country that has struggled throughout most of modern history. As to why it took such a tragedy for people to take notice, Cherisna offers a simple explanation. Haiti has always been so removed from the modern world’s collective reality that it has been easy to turn away, and for those who have seen the complex issues facing the country, there is a loss for direction of where to start to assist in creating positive change.
Despite all the recent media attention on the tragedy, Cherisna expounds on a few storylines the media has failed to cover. At the epicenter of the quake, homes are nothing more than crumbled debris and mangled messes. The structural damages have displaced nearly a million people forcing them to find shelter in the streets, makeshift tents, and temporary relief camps. Without the security of permanent structures, Cherisna shares that many in Port-au-Prince and its surrounding areas are vulnerable and susceptible to crimes, especially against women and children.
Beyond the issues of safety and security, there is a greater question of who is situated best to provide for the Haitian people. The immediate response of many is to donate money to reputable charities, but Cherisna questions if this is the best practice. These resources have been slow to arrive and be distributed despite the immediacy of the need. With the sizable Haitian American population in the U.S., our cultural response to swift action may have overlooked the power of established relationships. Haitian Americans and their communities have been collecting needed supplies and using long-standing connections within Haiti to get those supplies to those in need. Cherisna’s Nashville church home, Ray of Hope Community Church, has partnered with her home congregation, New Jerusalem Baptist Church, in New Jersey to collect basic materials that are currently being shipped to Haiti. Cherisna’s home church has sent a team to Haiti to meet and distribute the supplies with a partner congregation on the island. Many within the Haitian community including organizations who have been working within the country for years have knowledge and long-standing connections to create an effective and sustained relief effort.
We are now a month into the relief effort, and as the media coverage weans and the world’s collective conscience and concern for Haiti slips, it will be up to those who have an invested interest in the country to ensure the response continues. Cherisna knows that Haiti’s future is up to her and her family and that this will become part of her ministry upon graduation. For now, however, she is most concerned with helping to address the immediate needs of the Haitian people.
Cherisna shares a great sense of promise and hope for the next chapter of Haiti’s story. Her confidence stems from her understanding of the resiliency of her people. She explains that much of that is rooted in faith. Haitians have “nothing but faith,” she states.
In the days following the quake, we saw pictures of people singing and dancing in the streets or gathered together outside of their former churches worshipping. It is those images that instill faith and hope in Cherisna. In the midst of chaos and despair, Haiti sang together.
There is a saying in Haiti that when asked how they are doing, many respond “It’s ugly, but I am here.” A month after the quake, the countryside of Haiti is ugly and devastated, but life abounds. The future of the country is fused with the lives of those who survived, a testament amidst the mounds of rubble that life exists. Cherisna is connected to Haiti in life and blood, but carries the hope of faith that those who respond “I am here” will “rise above the present situation and create much out of nothing.”
Cherisna is only one Vanderbilt face of Haiti. For some alumni/ae, current students, and parents within the Vanderbilt Divinity School community, Haiti is an all too close picture of reality whether they were on the island during the quake or they have been part of the immediate response. But I think it fair to say that we are all connected to Haiti and share in their deep sense of hope. No matter how ugly it is, life abounds, and we will help each other create something out of nothing.
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