Léogâne, Haiti. Almost two years ago, an earthquake moved Haiti decades backward. Hundreds of thousands perished, and over one million were left homeless. Having first arrived in Port-au-Prince in 1999, and now on my 26th trip over the last 12 years, I have come to know Haiti not as my own motherland, but perhaps as my step-mother. In my gut, I feel that following the unprecedented disaster of January 12, 2010, Haiti is now 10% recovered.
I am pleased on this trip to realize that the Haitians I serve — the students of the International University Center Haiti (Uni Haiti) in Léogâne — are today 20% better off. In addition, we are paying for 33 orphaned children to attend elementary and high school through Orphans International Worldwide Haiti (OIWW), one-third of the 100 students we would like to assist.
I began Orphans International Worldwide in 1999 in Indonesia, and soon branched after tsunamis and storms out into Sri Lanka and Haiti. We were there for Haitian children orphaned by disaster following Hurricane Jeanne in Gonaives in 2004. We were in Cyvadier outside Jacmel. But after the 2010 earthquake, following the logic of our “Mathew’s Rule,” named after my own adopted son — that no child in our care be dealt with differently than we would care for our own children — I realized I would not raise Mathew in Haiti. Haiti was just too daunting.
However, I desperately wanted to help Haiti and could not walk away. Something about the beauty of the Haitian landscape and people — the first slaves in the world to throw of the yoke of oppression, unimaginable mountains and seascapes, perhaps the world’s strongest people. The only vehicle I could imagine that could help this decimated nation move forward to build the New Haiti was to begin a university where the skills needed by the next generation could be obtained. I wanted to create the “International University Haiti,” but my supporters cautioned me to begin with only the International University Center Haiti. To build a Harvard Club, for example, before attempting a Harvard-like institution itself. We break ground for our Uni Center Haiti this upcoming January — the quake’s second anniversary.
Following the earthquake of 2010, the Leadership Training & Mentoring program
met for its first year in an open-sided tent with no security, electricity or connectivity.
Following a radio appearance in Léogâne shortly after the earthquake, where I was speaking about OIWW’s work with orphans in Haiti, the college-aged host kept interrupting me to ask what I was doing for his peers who had lost their universities. I replied that was not my mission and continued to explain our orphan work. On the fourth mention of the host’s student friends who no longer had an academic home, in exasperation, I invited any listener to have coffee with me the next morning and discuss international opportunities I could possibly steer them towards. More than 200 students arrived the following day, waiting to speak with me in a patient line. Luckily, I was traveling with a group and we all pitched in to triage these students, choosing the top fifty to work with.
I decided to offer these fifty students a one-year course in English and do our best to help transition them into international scholarships around the world. Institutions in the U.S., China — even Sri Lanka — expressed interest in hosting them. When I returned to New York, my attorneys were not pleased — I was operating as Orphans International and did not have the reach to offer English language lessons to Haitian university students. After concentrated thought, I realized our new class could become the nexus of a Leadership Training and Mentorship program to have Haitian college students work with our orphaned children. The lawyers approved, and there we were. Group and individuals from around the globe, from Dominicans to Japanese, supported our efforts to begin this program.
Uni Center Haiti breaks ground next January — the second anniversary of the quake — to
build the Main Campus, the Academic Campus (above), and the Healthcare Campus (below).
We soon discovered that, although each of our students had graduated from Haitian high schools where they had studied English, their language skills were so remedial we could not yet even begin to try to transition them into foreign university programs. The seed was planted that the best way to help these students — and to help Haiti — was to create our own university program. Believing that there already existed opportunities to study in French and Creole, my team decided we would incubate an international university that taught in English — the first English-language university in Haiti. We decided to branch off from Orphans International and create the separate Uni Center Haiti, under which Orphans International Worldwide Haiti could operate.
This month we launched the program’s Year Two — our Intermediate Level — with plans to follow it with a parallel Beginning Level course for new students in January. Last year we enrolled fifty young Haitians, graduated 25 in the spring, and have just learned that five of these students have been employed in Haiti — a challenging task — as a direct result of our program. A solid 20% of our students have found jobs teaching children basic English through our efforts — a grand success.
The architects on the Infrastructure Committee of the J. Luce Foundation are working hard to
create the optimum university setting, earthquake and hurricane-proof, for the least cost possible.
Last year we had one director and one instructor — this year, under Uni Haiti, we begin with two of each. Cheddi Jagan, the former president of Guyana, was one of my early mentors and I remember him sharing with me with stories of how the University of Guyana began in his humble living room on the second floor. One of my ancestors, Gov. Thomas Dudley, co-founded Harvard hundreds of year ago. If these great men could found universities, with the 160 Global Advisors now supporting our efforts, I am convinced that we could do it as well. But for now, we focus on the Center. The Uni Center will be spread over three small campuses in downtown Léogâne: the Main, Academic, and Healthcare Campuses. Like N.Y.U., we will spread out across an urban landscape instead of building a massive Columbia-like campus outside the city.
Léogâne, the epicenter of the January 12, 2010 quake, will be home to Uni Haiti.
Last year we were stymied by our efforts to connect our students to the world. We operated out of tents and had neither the electricity nor the bandwidth needed to connect to the cloud. We could not secure the equipment last year even if we could power it with generators and link via satellite. This year, the Koreans are building an electrical generator for Léogâne and their team has already visited Uni Haiti and promised to connect us to the grid as it comes on-line next spring. And, now, broadband exists here and we can pull it into our classrooms by cable. We are finally moving forward at a very fast pace.
The Leadership Training and Mentoring program of Uni Haiti, coordinated by the Programming Committee of the J. Luce Foundation, will allow our students to learn grammar while engaging in real-world activities such as a community needs assessment survey necessary for Uni Haiti to know which direction is needed, to write for my foundation’s Stewardship Report focused on Connecting Goodness, and to assist the youth of our partner school Ecole de la RÃ©demption and our soon-to-be-built OIWW-Haiti Community Center with English skills — mentoring the next generation of Haitian leadership in the lingua franca of the world.
In the interim, The International University Center Haiti will borrow desk space from
our academic partner in Haiti, Ecole de la Redemption.
We are in the game to stay — and to win. Many NGOs raised millions of dollars for Haiti and have already packed it in. What few restaurants there are here are now strangely quiet as the international community moves on to the next disaster. Our Uni Haiti is just beginning. Many thousands of Americans journeyed to Haiti following the earthquake, many truly helpful but others disaster tourists — how many of them remain committed and on the ground? The International University Center Haiti, as well as Orphans International Worldwide Haiti — continue to move forward in Léogâne.
The planned Ste. Croix Healthcare Campus of the International University Center Haiti.
With what I believe to be about 10% of Haiti rebuilt more than a year and a half post-disaster, I am delighted that our own students have experienced a 20% success rate with employment. With your support, Haiti will develop leadership capable of allowing this nation to take its rightful place in the international community. Thanks to our 160 Global Advisors — from doctors to lawyers, educators to architects, artists to publicists, and all our other supporters — we continue to raise and educate global citizens. Join us Nov. 4 as the United Nations Aux Antilles Club hosts a dinner dance sponsored by five missions to the U.N. on behalf of the International University Center Haiti (tickets).
Originally published in The Huffington Post, October 18, 2011.