Young Haitians In The U.S. See Hope Amid Destruction

Several high profile celebrities have offered their voices and their dollars following the devastating earthquake in Haiti. But there are countless others — ordinary folks — who have stepped up, donating their time and innovative ideas to raise money and awareness. Haiti natives Yves Louis-Jacques, a marketing and brand strategist living in New York; Miami-based Cassandra Theramene, founder of the philanthropic group Essence of a Haitian Woman, and college student Roberte Exantus, president of the Haitian Student Association at Howard University in Washington, D.C, share stories of loss, hope and devotion to their country in the aftermath of the tragedy.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

Coming up, which of our recent guests scored big at the Grammys, and my commentary. But first, every so often, we like to have conversations with ordinary people who do extraordinary things. The devastation three weeks ago in Haiti has prompted a huge outpouring of support from around the world, including a celebrity telethon featuring megastars like George Clooney, Halle Berry and Clint Eastwood, big names like former President Bill Clinton and the well-known, Haitian-born artist Wyclef Jean. But we want to focus on a few less well-known individuals who are also working with what they have to make a difference in Haiti.

In this segment, well feature those who all happen to have a direct tie to Haiti. We're joined by Yves Louis-Jacques. He's a marketing brand strategist, and he's independently coordinating efforts to raise money for earthquake survivors. He joins us from New York. We're also joined by Cassandra Theramene. She's president and founder of Essence of a Haitian Woman Incorporated. She joins us from Miami. And Roberte Exantus, she's the president of the Haitian Student Association at Howard University, and she joins us from Washington. I thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. YVES LOUIS-JACQUES (Marketing Brand Strategist): Thanks for having us.

Ms. ROBERTE EXANTUS (President, Haitian Student Association, Howard University): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And at first, I have to say I am so very sorry for the losses that you are suffering individually and, of course, all of us as a community. And I did want to ask how each of you is holding up. And Roberte, do you want to start?

Ms. EXANTUS: Sure. I have lost many friends. I grew up in Haiti and went to school in Haiti, so basically, these people I have lost are more than friends to me. They're more like family. Its been a very hard time, but being (unintelligible) the Haitians (unintelligible) I have to be strong, not only for me, but for the people that follow me. Thats all - what I have to say.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for coming to speak for them. Yves, what about you?

Mr. LOUIS-JACQUES: My experience has pretty much been the same. I grew up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, came to the States right before I attended Howard University. You know, I recently spoke to pretty much everyone in my family. We lost two younger cousins, unfortunately, and a few friends. And weve lost homes, but we're glad that, for the most part, everybody's okay.

MARTIN: Cassandra, what about you?

Ms. CASSANDRA THERAMENE (President and Founder, Essence of a Haitian Woman Incorporated): I guess my situation would be a little different, as weve been very fortunate that our immediate family - whether it be our aunts, uncles or cousins - no one has been harmed, aside of some of them being without a home. But as far as any death, weve been very, very blessed in that area. So, friends' lives - I dont have any friends, per se, in Haiti aside for those that Ive worked with in the past through local nonprofit organizations, because I left Haiti when I was two years old.

MARTIN: But Cassandra, youve been - although you left Haiti when you were two, you still have done a lot of work with the Haitian-American community to give back. And youve been connected to community service to Haiti for a long time. Tell us what you did last year, and how have the recent events kind of refocused your efforts?

Ms. THERAMENE: Well, last year what we decided to do was we had our first annual fundraising brunch, in which we had a lot of corporate sponsorships come out help us. And through our silent auction, we were able to raise hundreds and thousands of dollars in which we went to Port-au-Prince, Haiti - we had a partnership. We worked with the mayors office and we donated over 200 backpacks to children within Port-au-Prince public school system. So, with the recent devastation, I think definitely the need goes beyond backpacks. It definitely goes to the next level. So, we're definitely hoping to partner with some local, as well as international organizations to go to Haiti this summer and do some long-term strategies and initiatives.

MARTIN: Roberte, you participated in an event at Howard, where you are currently a student. Tell us about that.

Ms. EXANTUS: The day after the earthquake, one of my colleagues Victoria Fortune(ph), she's American and she felt what we were feeling, and she decided to put a concert together in less than a week. We raised over $15,000. The concert sold out. It was pretty good. I was surprised. Im very thankful for the Howard community. They just have been very, very great since the earthquake hit.

MARTIN: Why were you surprised?

Ms. EXANTUS: I was surprised just because - not Howard in general, but as a community - the United States community, especially when Katrina happened and all I could think about is the aftermath of Katrina. Whats going on in New Orleans right now, there isn't much going on. So I was afraid that because Haiti has been on the backburner for so long that when this earthquake hit, it probably would be in the newsroom for two days, and it would go away.

MARTIN: You thought nobody cared?

Ms. EXANTUS: Yeah. I didnt think anybody cared. Haiti has such a rich history, you would think that more people would care. I just - I felt that nobody cared before.

MARTIN: Yves, what about you? What you have been up to?

Mr. LOUIS-JACQUES: I took a slightly different approach. Last year, around November, I was fortunate enough to work with one of my friends. She was an executive at Nike. I planned to send items from Nike Air Jordan back to Haiti, and she was gracious enough to send me boxes and boxes of clothing and brand new sneakers, which I planned to send to the kids during Christmas time. And unfortunately, I couldnt find a solid organization to send it through. So, you know, I was talking to my mother and I said Im going to do it myself. And after the earthquake, I took a slightly different approach.

My focus now is to reach out to friends in Washington, to reach out to investors to see how we can rebuild a better Haiti so something like that doesnt happen again. I know that friends and family and the international community in the U.S. will continue to raise millions and millions of dollars, but I think that in a month, when the media leaves, the onus is going to be on us, you know, Haitians, to keep the momentum going. And to me personally, again, you know, I grew up there. Ive lost friends in there. You know, so, its like its very important to me to see my country in a different light, because I know the potential of it.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Im speaking with Yves Louis-Jacques, Cassandra Theramene and Roberte Exantus. Theyre all Haitians living in America. And were talking about their work to support relief efforts in Haiti and what it's been like to live through this terrible experience so far away. I wanted to ask each of you about how this tragedy has changed what you want for yourself, or what you think your plans would be for the future. And Yves, you opened the door, so Im going to start with you. What do you think?

Mr. LOUIS-JACQUES: Its always been my objective to go back to Haiti, and I still maintain my citizenship. Its very important to me. But I think before, I wanted to wait. I wanted to accomplish certain things. I wanted to be influential, to leverage relationships and go back and change the country. What I realized from talking to a few friends who are currently in Haiti, they said that in order for the country to change, you guys, like, in the U.S. or in France or in Canada, all the Haitians who are educated, you guys have to come back. Thats the only way that the country's going to get better.

Haiti has so many problems, from color castes to a big division between the rich and the poor. We dont have a middle class. We dont have a strong working class. And if we dont go back, if we do not switch whatever it is that we were doing, if we do not invest in our own country, it will never change.

MARTIN: Roberte, what about you? I - it was my understanding that you had planned to go back after graduation and work in your family...

Ms. EXANTUS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...business, and that probably is a different calculation now.

Ms. EXANTUS: Well, I am a political science, international relations double major. My plans were to go to grad school or take time after undergrad to go to Haiti and work. The earthquake definitely sped up the process for me. I must say, at first, I thought, you know, well, maybe I should wait. Maybe I should start working in the United States and then go home with a foundation. But when this happened in - when I spoke to my father and the fear that I heard in his voice and the fear that I heard in my family - like, my father was always the kind of person, when you talked to him, he could reassure you that everything was okay, no matter what was going on.

And this is the first time in my life - Ive never spoken to my father and hear that fear in his voice. And automatically, my plans started changing, because they need us there. We talk about child slavery, or can talk about agriculture, the deforestation - theres so many different things that one can focus on.

Mr. LOUIS-JACQUES: Mm-hmm.

Ms. EXANTUS: Thats my goal. I have to go back. I have no choice. It's what I always wanted to do.

MARTIN: Cassandra, what about you?

Ms. THERAMENE: I think what happened in Haiti with the earthquake didnt necessarily speed up the process, but it just reassured to me what Ive always wanted to do, which was - what Im doing right now by going back to grad school, Im getting an MBA in international business. And Ive always - long term, beyond just what I do in a non-profit - always wanted to bridge the gap between the for-profit world and the non-profit world. Because understanding that we need businesses in Haiti, we need to teach people how to farm.

We need to teach people how to build factories, how to build schools. To me, its beyond just saying let me provide backpacks. I want to help foreign countries like Haiti understand how to build a solid economic and physical infrastructure, because we lack a lot of that. And it goes back to us, Haitian-Americans in the United States. Weve been disconnected for so long, where it took this event for us to open up our eyes and say: Do you know what? What have I done for Haiti? Yes, Ive been fortunate to leave, but how am I going to give back to a country that represents who I am?

MARTIN: I wanted to ask each of you: Do you feel hopeful, even amid such a terrible loss? Roberte?

Ms. EXANTUS: Yes. The only reason I can say this is Haitians have been such a strong people. For so long, we have been through so much, and I feel like that's something people dont focus a lot on, the unity in Haiti. People might - were separated, but when something comes up, people forget about color. They forget about skin color. They forget about class. They forget about everything, because at this point, we're all in the same situation. And this is what this earthquake has done to Haiti. It has broken every barrier that was ever between mulattos and dark-skinned people, the rich and the poor, because at this point, we're all the same. And that's the only positive thing that came out of this. And right now, Im definitely hopeful, because there's - we're all the same, now. We have to rebuild Haiti together.

MARTIN: Yves, what about you?

Mr. LOUIS-JACQUES: Im hopeful because, you know, for the first time, just looking at the international response, it seems like the event shed a light on Haitis history. It seems like people want to get involved, people from all over the world. So Im hopeful, and especially seeing the Haitian community in the Diaspora finally, you know, standing up and wanting to get involved, whether its through raising money or going back or figuring out how they can help long-term. Im just excided. Im hopeful. I know we can do it (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Cassandra, final thought from you?

Ms. THERAMENE: Im beyond hopeful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THERAMENE: Im ecstatic. Im optimistic, because I truly believe - and it's unfortunate we have to have a tragedy to bring out things. But I believe in the midst of chaos, God speaks, and this is an opportunity for us to rebuild in many ways. So, I know that Haiti has a brighter and better future, and thats why for me, my faith, as well others, it cant be broken. We are a people of strong faith, a beautiful language, strong culture and festive music. And were not going anywhere. Were going to continue to get better.

MARTIN: That was Cassandra Theramene. She's president and founder of Essence of a Haitian Woman Incorporated. Thats a group that has been working for sometime to support community efforts in Haiti. She joined us from NPR member station WLRN in Miami. We also heard from Roberte Exantus, president of the Haitian Student Association at Howard University. She joined us from our studios in Washington. And Yves Louis-Jacques, he's a marketing brand strategist living in New York. He's been raising money for the earthquake survivors in Haiti through Facebook and other online efforts. He joined us from our bureau in New York. I thank you all so much for joining us.

Mr. LOUIS-JACQUES: Thank you.

Ms. THERAMENE: Thank you for having me.

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