Haitian Ex-Pats Hold Out Hope For Loved Ones Affected By Disaster

It has now been a little over a week since the devastating earthquake in Haiti. One group in the United States has been playing particular attention to the news out of Haiti is the Haitian ex-patriate community. Michel Martin speaks with Dr. Robert Fatton and Sylvana Joseph, both Haitian ex-pats, talk about how they are getting word about friends and family in Haiti..

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Im Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we discuss the latest twist in the long-running case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. The former radio journalist was sentenced to death for killing a Philadelphia police officer back in 1981 in a case that has drawn worldwide attention and high-profile advocacy for years. The Supreme Court weighed in earlier this week. Well find out more in just a few minutes.

But first, back to Haiti. For many of us here in the U.S., the images are heartrending unlike anything many people have ever seen. But for many, the images hit very close to home because they are of home. We wanted to reach out to just two of the millions of the Haitians living in the U.S. to get a sense of how they are reaching out to loved ones and trying to help in a situation that is so devastating, where communication is so difficult.

Weve called on Dr. Robert Fatton. Hes a professor of political science at the University of Virginia. He was born in Haiti. He joins us now from the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. Also joining us is Sylvana Joseph. She is a lawyer and a writer. She now calls New Orleans home. She joins us from Philadelphia. Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you both.

Professor ROBERT FATTON (Political Science, University of Virginia, Charlottesville): Well, thank you for inviting me.

Ms. SYLVANA JOSEPH (Lawyer; Writer): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Dr. Fatton, can I start with you? Where are you from and how are your people?

Prof. FATTON: Well, Im originally from Port-au-Prince, in Petionville. And my immediate family and extended family, well most of them are in Haiti.

MARTIN: And have you been able to hear from them?

Prof. FATTON: Yes, I have been able to hear from them either through cell phone or through the email system. And that has been working fairly well in the last two or three days.

MARTIN: And how are they?

Prof. FATTON: They are all fine, and Im one of the lucky ones. But on the other hand, Ive lost several very good friends.

MARTIN: Im very sorry...

Prof. FATTON: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...for the loss. Sylvana what about you? How are your people?

Ms. JOSEPH: Six of them are fine, including two elderly aunts but a dozen of them are still missing.

MARTIN: Im so sorry.

Prof. FATTON: Sorry.

MARTIN: Sylvana, how are you? What did you - how are you reacting to all this? How are you trying to reach them? Is it something that you can - can you just tell us like how is your day processing now - since youve known about this?

Ms. JOSEPH: Well, the day starts out, the first thing you think about is getting on the Internet, getting on the phone, calling family, seeing if there have been any updates during the night. I had to institute a, dont-call-me-after-1 A.M.-unless-theyre-alive policy because, you know, otherwise I was afraid it would - the bad news was just going to be too much.

But so far, I mean, weve had good news, but were still hoping for the rest of the people. You know, you just go through your day, you keep in contact, you organize, you try to help the country, you try to figure out what you can do, and youre joining with Haitians all over the country and all over the world in doing this.

MARTIN: Professor Fatton, you were saying that - you were telling us earlier that that Haitians are very good at organizing at a time like this. What did you mean?

Prof. FATTON: Well, what I mean by that is that youve had in many parts of Port-au-Prince spontaneous organizations by neighborhood. So, people are getting together, trying to get some food, putting money together and trying to buy the food. So, that is the kind of image that we are not seeing too much on TV. But it is the real story, the capacity of being very resilient in the face of adversity.

MARTIN: And can I ask you that what you think, Professor Fatton, we were speaking earlier about the images that are coming out of Haiti. And on the one hand, they are creating a tremendous sense of urgency, I think, on the part of people here. On the other hand, some wonder whether theres something dehumanizing about allowing us to see so much of the direct suffering of the people. What is your perspective on this?

Prof. FATTON: Well, I think your - one of the speakers you had earlier said that there is narcissistic element in the press. And I think he - that bothers me. It bothers me also the element whereby most Haitians are portrayed as quite backward and prone to violence as if there were some sort of connection to their DNA.

And actually what is interesting is that while there have been incidents of violence, it has been grossly exaggerated. And the resilience and the patience of Haitians, I think, seems to me the big story of the earthquake.

MARTIN: Sylvana, what about you? What is the big story for you? When you are talking to your friends and colleagues about this who presumably are concerned of the well-being of your loved ones, what do you tell them? What do you think the big story is?

Ms. JOSEPH: Well, I tell them that as much they are concerned about my loved ones because I am their connection to Haiti if they are not Haitian, Haitians are concerned about all of Haiti. We are a nation where as much as we are concerned about our family, we are concerned about the greater Haitian family at large. And I agree with the professor is that thats not being told in the media.

There is extraordinary examples of people sharing food and resources and medical supplies in a devastating earthquake. And thats what I tell my friends and my family. I said that, you know, you just got to realize that the Haitian people are extraordinary. They are resilient. And they are the descendents of people that fought for their freedom 200 years ago just like the United States fought for theirs. They will overcome this adversity, and they will build a better country.

MARTIN: What it - Sylvana, what are your next steps here. Presumably youre still trying connect with people who are unaccounted for, what do you do now?

Ms. JOSEPH: Well, now I continue to try to get the word out. I continue to help organize medical supplies and just, you know, try to get people to donate money for those things. And really, my next steps are looking toward when I probably am going to go to Haiti within the next few months, when things have calmed down a little to see what I can do to help.

MARTIN: And, professor, what about you? What is your next step here?

Prof. FATTON: That will be...

MARTIN: I want to guess that everybody probably wants to go, that must - to me, that must be the hardest part of the thing, and your instinct is probably to go but would your presence be helpful at this point is - is a big and open question?

Prof. FATTON: Yes, I think at this point, yeah, I think we would be a burden except if I were a medical doctor or something like that. So, well have to wait and with patience. And I think we are the lucky ones, because most of our family on both sides are actually doing fine. But my immediate step is, really, to try to organize at the university some relief, and that has started already.

And on a sad note, this afternoon, one of my former students, a Haitian, well, she died in the earthquake. And there will be a memorial service in her honor.

MARTIN: Yes, we recall, and we are so sad about that. And professor, as we've discussed, immediate needs are still very present, but I would like to ask each of you, in the time that we have left, is going forward, what would you like to see? What - it's not just a question of how Haiti rebuilds, but how - how should - what structures should be in place? What would you like to see? Professor, when you're thinking about it, it's not just a matter of rebuilding buildings. It's rebuilding systems and all these things. So...

Prof. FATTON: Yeah, we have to rebuild - yeah. We have to rebuild state institutions. One of the tragedies of the earthquake is that we've seen that the state is an empty shell, really incapable of coming to the rescue of the population.

So we need state institutions, powerful ones that can be responsible to the population. I think this is the big, big road ahead, and hopefully, that will come true.

MARTIN: And how do you think that should happen, though? How should that proceed? What do you envision? I mean, is it - do you envision, what, a continuing kind of U.S.-Haitian partnership in this regard? What do you think?

Prof. FATTON: Well, I hope there's a partnership. I mean, one of the issues, obviously, is the complicated and conflicted history of the United States and Haiti, but let's hope that this time, the partnership will really be a partnership and that we will, in fact, see, in the process of rebuilding, see Haitian institutions helped by the United States but not overwhelmed by the decisions of the United States.

And there is some fear, actually, that the presence of the United States -which is welcome, but it is a presence that is heavily military. And that has generated a certain uneasiness in the Haitian community.

There was a picture, for instance, of an American military helicopter on the grounds of the symbol of the nation, which is the National Palace - which is, as you know, partly collapsed. And I think that disturbing symbolic consequences for the Haitian population here and in Haiti itself. But we recognize the need at this critical juncture for massive American assistance. So...

MARTIN: And Sylvana, a final word - forgive me, professor. Sylvana, a final word from you. I am reminded that you lived through Hurricane Katrina.

Ms. JOSEPH: Yes.

MARTIN: And so there must be some parallels that are striking to you, also, about, you know, how that situation has been, has proceeded in the wake of the tragedy there and then what's going on here. The parallels must be rather striking for you.

So just in the minute that we have left, what do you think should happen, going forward?

Ms.�JOSEPH: Well, I think that the same things that you saw after Katrina need to happen. You need to have economic stimulation. You need to have resources that are rebuilt, educational resources, political resources and private-sector resources.

The Haitian people are willing to work, ready to work and want to work, but there is no work. So going forward, it is not enough for us just to say that we need to rebuild buildings. We need to rebuild lives. And to do that, we need to have a broad panoply of things in place so that when people finish their education, they can continue to work in Haiti and that we're not exporting our best and our brightest and the best resource we have, which are Haitians.

MARTIN: Sylvana Joseph is a lawyer and a writer living in New Orleans. She joined us from Philadelphia. We were also joined by Robert Fatton. He's a professor of political science at the University of Virginia, and he joined us from their studios in Charlottesville. I thank you both so much for speaking with us, and my best wishes to you and to your families and loved ones and extend network of folks. They are all very much in our thoughts.

Prof. FATTON: Thank you so much.

Ms.�JOSEPH: Thank you.

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