Haitians must look to themselves to rebuild their nation

  • January 7, 2011

Haiti construction

As Haitians go about constructing their future they have some surprising resources to draw upon. These include the Church, the international community and the vast network of humanitarian NGOs around the world.

But one of most overlooked accounts is the community of extraordinarily talented expatriate Haitians, mainly in Canada, France and the United States, who are deeply attached to the land of their birth.

The Catholic Register spoke to Haitian Studies Association president Guerda Nicolas about Haiti's present and future reality. Nicolas has been deeply involved in rebuilding efforts in Petit Goave near Port-au-Prince and has been called upon to advise the Haitian government. A professor of psychology at the University of Miami, she has both an insider's perspective and the ability to see Haiti through the world's eyes.

Catholic Register: What is your sense about the present state of the recovery effort?

Guerda Nicolas: I usually try to make it back to Haiti five to six times a year, but I've been going monthly since the quake. I don't think recovery is taking place yet. I participate in a lot of planning. I'm on the committee for higher education. I'm on a committee with the assistant minister of health. There's a lot of talk and discussion and strategies, but I haven't really seen a lot of movement.

I was really pleased when I was in Haiti recently that people have stopped waiting, especially outside of Port-au-Prince. I think the situation is quite different outside of Port-au-Prince. People have already started to take action into their own hands and say, "We really need to rebuild our home and rebuild our area. We can't afford to wait for aid." I think that's a better strategy.

CR: Was the earthquake an opportunity to start again for a nation that has been badly governed for so much of its history?

GN: Haiti has always been a very vulnerable place. There are lots of people who have in interest in Haiti and not necessarily for Haiti.

People are very cautious about this idea of rebuilding and refounding Haiti. People in Haiti — including myself who was born, grew up and did most of my education in Haiti — we are just concerned about the plans.

CR: Are you hopeful?

GN: I am very hopeful that the Haitian people are very, very strong and very, very resilient. People get a very narrow perspective of who Haitians are and what the Haitian people are about. Most people get a glimpse of what Haiti is about from a Port-au-Prince perspective, and for me that's like getting a picture of what Canada is like from a Toronto perspective or getting a glimpse of the U.S. from New York. It doesn't really capture the essence of what I think Haiti is about.

When I'm outside of Port-au-Prince I'm very hopeful. When I'm in Port-au-Prince I can't help but be depressed.

CR: How does the Haitian religious sense determine psychological treatment of people traumatized by the last year?

GN: The resiliency aspect of Haitians is because they are faith-based people. We're talking about people who have a really strong faith that doesn't get rattled by disasters, even what we just saw.

The majority of people in Haiti believe in God, in God's purpose, and in their purpose in this world. And they use that. That is really what people use to deal with the uncertainty of life. It helps them  to cope with whatever's coming their way.

Mostly people are just praying. They're praying and going to church, not just on Sunday but all the time. That's their number one coping mechanism. It's a really strong belief that God is with them, and is always with them, and God is good and is good all the time. When things happen that you don't understand you should have even stronger faith.

CR: Haitians also believe in the devil, and many people after the earthquake experienced nightmares featuring the devil. Can you explain the devil in the Haitian mindset?

GN: That's a part of our Catholic upbringing. I remember growing up and going to Catholic school, and there were really only two types of doctrine. One was God and the goodness of God and the other was the devil. All bad things are not a result of God. It's got to be a result of the other.

There's a sense from people that this (earthquake, cholera, hurricanes) is not God's doing. It can't be because God is just too good. Therefore it is the work of the devil. It is the work of evilness. This (earthquake) is not an opportunity to be unfaithful to our God because that's not what our God would do. That is the message that is not forgotten.

When I see the parents talking to the kids and the kids are wondering, especially the adolescents are wondering, "why are you going to church and why are you praying? Why would God do such a thing? Why would God allow such a thing to happen to us?" The answer is really simple. This is not the work of God. This is the work of the other. And we're going to have to continue to praise Him for His glory and what He did, which He did for us. Because that's the only way we will defeat the devil. This is not the time for us to become non-believers. That's the message they're giving to their kids.

CR: Does Haiti have the resources to deal with a traumatized population?

GN: Haiti has more of the resources that it needs than people have assumed. I think people assume that there are no psychiatric nurses in Haiti, that there are no social workers, that there are no psychologists and that there are no psychiatrists in Haiti. And that's false.

CR: What role do you see for Haitian expatriates? Can Haiti use you, use that community around the world, to build a new future?

GN: Actually, I think Haiti is dependent on that. My message this year to the Haitian Studies Association was very clear. We have Haitian scholars in every discipline that Haiti is in need of. We have medical doctors, we have psychiatrists, psycghologists, we have educators, we have nurses, we have engineers. We have all the groups... Haiti is in need of us now.

We're in a position that is very different from somebody who is not familiar with the culture, who is not familiar with the soil of Haiti.

It's very clear to me that Haiti's future is not dependent on foreign aid and foreigners coming into Haiti. That has been the history of Haiti in the past. I really do believe that this is the time that we need to come back home. It is time for Haitians to come back home. Not on a permanent level. I"m not asking everybody to go as often as I do, or to go back and live in Haiti. But those talented minds are needed in Haiti. People need to see people who speak for them who are highly educated. That's the kind of role models this next generation needs to see.

CR: Do we foreigners have a part to play?

GN: Absolutely. Working with some of my colleagues and some of the work we're doing there's an opportunituy to enrich both ways. My colleagues who are white get a chance to be enriched and be exposed to a whole other culture and a way of life that is very different.

I am in need of that collaboration with my colleagues. I can only speak from my experience, working with some of my white colleagues, how crucial it is to have their expertise, their level of experience and their outside perspectives in what we are doing.

I'm so in it, that once in a while it's good to have somebody say, "Hey Guerda have you thought about this?" I don't have all the answers. And it's really really good to be part  of a team. For me that's the answer, to be part of a teamwork approach.

CR: Is the Church a help or hindrance in Haiti's recovery?

GN: If you really want to get Haitians moving there are only two things you have to say to them. One is the Church. It's really having an opportunity to connect with their priests and pastors, to hear from their priests and pastors. That has a  lot of meaning to them. The second is to talk to them about how to get an education for their kids.

If we don't have a Church component in Haiti, really, honesty there's only half a Haiti. Haiti is so dependent, so attached, and the people of Haiti are so ingrained in their Church, in the Church message and in their spiritual self that it is absolutely crucial that that continues. But I think an examination of how the message is delivered is really important.

The question is not the importance of the Church, but really what kind of message is the Church delivering, and how is that message consistent on a day-to-day, week-to-week and monthly basis?

a Catholic Register special report

Haiti's churches need healing [slideshow]

What now in Haiti?

Post-traumatic stress proves difficult

Catholic aid organizations fly under the radar

Canadian engineer to oversee Haiti’s Church rebuild

Haiti must take this opportunity to change

Crisis makes D&P rethink how it operates

Bold education plan held up by a lack of funds

Church holds community together

D&P-funded program provides pro-life solution to Haiti's sexual violence

Haitians must look to themselves to rebuild their nation

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