Haitian ambassador visits UCLA to thank nurses, others for earthquake relief efforts
Also outlines Haiti's rebuilding strategy at UCLA International Institute talk
By Letisia Marquez, Kevin Matthews & Wendy Soderburg April 08, 2010 Category: Campus News, Health Sciences
In the days following the devastating 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12, UCLA medical personnel scrambled to provide whatever assistance they could to the beleaguered country.
"From the first footage I saw of the catastrophe, I was thinking, 'I wish I could go help,'" recalled Dr. Bita Zadeh, a UCLA anesthesiologist.
A little more than a month later, Zadeh got her chance. As part of UCLA's volunteer effort Operation Haiti, she and six nurses from the UCLA School of Nursing traveled to the island, where they spent two weeks providing critical care and comfort to those injured in the quake and its aftermath.
On Thursday, April 8, Raymond Alcide Joseph, Haiti's ambassador to the United States, visited UCLA to express his gratitute to the Operation Haiti team and other UCLA medical personnel who volunteered for relief efforts and raised money in the wake of the devastation.
"I'm here today to say thank you to all of you who gave your time, your heart — I can see that here — who gave of yourself for my people, who have become your people," Joseph said at an event at the School of Nursing.
UCLA's assistance to Haiti had also included a half-ton of medical and surgical supplies sent immediately following the disaster by the UCLA Health System and paid for by anonymous donors.
Joseph urged the UCLA community to continue helping the Haitian people, 1.2 million of whom are now homeless as a result of the quake. There are also 165,000 victims who are pregnant, 1 million children who are orphaned or who lost a parent, and more than 35,000 amputees.
Barbara Bates-Jensen, an associate professor at the School of Nursing and the David Geffen School of Medicine Division of Geriatrics who volunteered in Haiti, said she plans to return to the island in May and eventually wants to train nurses and doctors to treat critical wounds.
"It was one of the best experiences of my life, and I saw some of the worst things I've seen in my life," said Bates-Jensen, who worked 16-hour days treating the injured and who spoke of her experiences in a UCLA video. She handled a variety of injuries, including botched amputations and surgeries.
"[The Haitian people] were just phenomenally powerful in their understanding of the tragedy that beset them and their handling of it," she said. "Their graciousness was just overwhelming."
Bates-Jensen volunteered independently of UCLA's Operation Haiti team, which in addition to Zadeh included nurses Patti Taylor, Bethany Fontenot, Jessica Kubisch, Shannon McCarville, Holly Phelan and Kathleen Weinstein. The team worked both on the ground and aboard the USNS Comfort, a Navy ship docked in Port-au-Prince, and kept a poignant blog chronicling their efforts.
Ambassador Joseph said that in addition to the continued help of volunteers, Haiti's road to recovery will be aided by the billions of dollars in international support that have been pledged so far — for repairing and reconstructing buildings, roads, schools, houses and other important infrastructure — as well as foreign investment in industries such as tourism.
Joseph told the audience that once a tourism infrastructure is built, he would invite them to come "see what black folks, former slaves, did 200 years ago," referring to the slave rebellion that led to Haiti's independence in 1804. "Haiti will become the mecca, and we'll make enough money for us not to accept any handouts."
The ambassador also touched on rebuilding and relief efforts during an afternoon discussion at UCLA's International Institute.
A major priority in the reconstruction of Haiti, he told a crowd of roughly 50 students and faculty members gathered in Bunche Hall, would be the "decentralization" of the country, with people moving out of the overcrowded capital, Port-au-Prince, to less dense areas in the north, center and southwest of the island.
The capital city, built for 150,000 residents in the 18th century, had grown to an unmanageable 2 million by the time of the earthquake, Joseph said, and many of the ad hoc structures that housed the population had little chance of surviving the temblor.
"Anyone with some sense could see that this monstrosity could not stand, but there was no one who had the political will or who was crazy enough to tell the people, 'You move out of Port-au-Prince,'" he said. "Well, nature did it for us in less than a minute. Now we have a chance in a million to keep them out of Port-au-Prince by building infrastructure."
Post-earthquake construction in the city, Joseph stressed, will be radically different from the past. No longer will structures incorporate the ubiquitous cinder blocks that proved so fatal during the quake. Instead, new buildings will make use of stronger, more lightweight materials such as light steel, synthetic products and bamboo and will be constructed according to current seismic codes.
The population decentralization plan, he said, would create new centers in other parts of the island, where the government hopes to build airports and seaports, attracting investment and creating jobs — in essence, building a new Haiti.
"I cannot say I'm glad that an earthquake brought me here," he said, "but I think it's for a purpose that this earthquake happened, so that we can look at Haiti with new eyes."
Event at Four Seasons Hotel
Joseph's whirlwind day in Los Angeles ended on a glamorous note, with an event at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills sponsored by the nonprofit Artists and Athletes Alliance.
Following a reception attended by an eclectic mix of guests — including Joseph's friends and family from Haiti, representatives from various nonprofit groups, and UCLA faculty, staff and students — the ambassador participated in a question-and-answer session moderated by David Gere, an associate professor of world arts and cultures at UCLA and director of UCLA's Art|Global Health Center.
Joseph again addressed rebuilding efforts in Haiti and highlighted the important role non-governmental organizations and private donations can continue to play in the island's recovery.
Gere was instrumental in establishing this year's UCLA Global Citizenship Initiative, a program in which some 6,000 incoming freshmen and transfer students at UCLA read and engaged in discussion groups about author Tracy Kidder's "Mountains Beyond Mountains," which details the longtime efforts of Dr. Paul Farmer to fight HIV and tuberculosis in Haiti. The experience gave him some familiarity with the country, which he has not yet visited.
"I truly was feeling tonight as though I were acting in the surrogate role," Gere said of serving as moderator, "because I was thinking like someone who's moved by the situation of Haiti but actually doesn't know it intimately."
During the discussion, Joseph prompted applause, and even some laughter, with a story about his 1960s New York radio show, "Radio Bug," which was the first to use the American airwaves to agitate against the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti.
"When I was doing the broadcast against Papa Doc Duvalier, Papa Doc tried to get me in New York," he told the crowd of 150. "When he could not — because I had a better intelligence network — he condemned me to death in absentia. Well, he died, and I'm still here."