First Person

As new leaders emerge from the camps in Haiti, will their voices be heard? Part I

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Members of the Delmas 62 camp leadership committee. Stephan Durogene is on the left and Jennifer Banessa Destine is second from the right.
Members of the Delmas 62 camp leadership committee. Stephan Durogene is on the left and Jennifer Banessa Destine is second from the right.

An estimated 230,000 lives lost; huge swaths of the capital destroyed; more than one million people homeless. Where in the sea of turmoil left by the January earthquake does Haiti begin to right itself? What are the first steps?

Whenever I asked those questions during my recent field visit there, the answer was often a long sigh. So much in Haiti—its infrastructure, its educational system, its job markets–demanded attention before this disaster. Now the need is hyper acute. Where in the world do you start?

One answer seems clear to me: Reconstruction starts with the Haitian people—like the committee of young leaders who emerged at Delmas 62 to help the hundreds of people camped in the yard of a private compound. They needed food and water, shelter and medical care. And they needed to be organized. It was through the efforts of twenty-somethings like Stephan Durogene, Jennifer Banessa Destine, and a handful of others that sorely needed assistance began to flow over the tumbled walls into the makeshift camp.

“Stephan, since the first time I met him, has always shown good potential,” says Ulrich Bien-Aime, a retired school teacher who was living in his sister’s house in the compound when the quake hit and has known Durogene since he was a high school student. “He believes in doing well, doing good, doing what’s right.”

In the month since the quake leveled much of Port-au-Prince, the opinion of Haitian civil society has gone largely unheard. But at the end of February, a coalition of civil groups is planning to hold a conference on reconstruction. Wouldn’t it be a perfect opportunity for new leaders, rising to the myriad challenges in the camps, to have their voices heard? Encouraging their participation in the decision-making that lies ahead can only make for a stronger Haiti.

Already, some of these leaders have shown enormous personal strength. When the buildings at Ruben Leconte University crashed around him, Durogene, an engineering major, helped pull students from the wreckage before heading off to find his parents and siblings. They were safe—and deeply relieved to see him. They had heard the university had collapsed, and feared that he had died in the rubble. But when they urged him to move with them to a safer part of the city, Durogene refused. He saw the need at Delmas 62 and decided that’s where he had to stay.

“I didn’t know I had this in me,” he said, sitting still for a rare moment in a patch of hot shade at the camp. It was about 10 days after the disaster struck. “It’s during the earthquake I realized I can be a good leader.”

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