Haitian medical students from UEH standing by the ruins of the State University Medical School in Port-au-Prince in May 2010. Months after the January quake, huge piles of rubble remain.
Ami Ben-Artzi, a professor and rheumatologist at UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine and the acting executive director of the UC Haiti Initiative, is still blown away by the devastating effects of last year's 7.0 earthquake in Haiti.
"For 200,000 people to be injured in one city in one minute is enormous. It's like a nuclear bomb," Ben-Artzi recalled almost a year after the quake.
And a year later, Haiti still needs help. That's where the UC Haiti Initiative (UCHI) comes in. The earthquake didn't just create short-term horrors; it also exacerbated Haiti's chronic problems, making it all the more daunting to help Haiti rebuild, Ben-Artzi said. UCHI has a long-term strategy to provide UC resources, like faculty expertise and student enthusiasm, to build a new generation of leaders in Haiti who can tame longstanding corruption.
The largely student-based initiative, based out of UCLA's Program in Global Health, supports projects at multiple UC campuses. UCSF students, for example, are working with Haitian university students on a cholera-prevention project. UCSD students have Haitian partners for a project to increase Internet access for Haitian students. UCLA student Anna Alexandroni, the initiative's student chair who manages the 10 student campus chapters, is hard at work organizing an extravagant fundraising gala and a visit to UCLA by Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) for an advocacy event.
Cementing a partnership
From right, Tu Tran, a UC Berkeley graduate and founder of UCHI, and Harrinder Singh, a pharmacy student at UCSF, speak to physicians at the Gheskio tent camp for displaced Haitians.
The initiative's biggest event will begin this week with a five-day statewide symposium with its future partner, the State University of Haiti (UEH), that country's largest and most prestigious university. Largely destroyed by the quake, the university in Port-au-Prince is sending a four-member delegation to the symposium to meet with UC faculty all over the state.
The meetings began at UC Berkeley on Sunday, Jan. 30, before the UEH delegates move on to visit other UC campuses up north. Then on Wednesday, Feb. 2, delegates will meet faculty and students from Southern California at UCLA and other UCs, said Tu Tran, a recent UC Berkeley graduate who founded the initiative while still a student.
"The idea is that, by talking and meeting with the faculty, the delegation will see specialties to pursue and resources to tap for UEH," Tran said.
The UEH dean of medicine will visit the UCLA and UCSF medical schools, while the UEH engineering school chair will visit the engineering schools at UCLA and UCSD. The UEH president, who is an agronomist, and its vice president, a political economist, will meet faculty in their fields.
The main focus will be to ask Haitians what they need in order to rebuild rather than to push plans hatched in California onto them, Ben-Artzi said.
That's also why UEH chose to work with UCLA, despite being courted by several other prominent aid groups and other U.S. universities. "Other groups came to them and said, 'Here's the plan, here's how we can help you.' It's insulting," said Ben-Artzi. "We recognize that the Haitians can rebuild their own country."
Plans for the future
UCLA Professor Ami Ben-Artzi, left, meets with Haitian medical students in the supply room of the Haiti State University teaching hospital during a visit last May.
After the UEH delegates meet with faculty, the Haitian academics plan to identify UC specialties that UEH lacks, then request UC faculty's help as trainers, Ben-Artzi said. "One individual at UEH will then be the expert and train his or her colleagues," he said. "It's a train-the-trainer model."
Meanwhile, in addition to the cholera and technology projects, UEH students have floated the idea of tapping UC students for help in building a K-12 school that the Haitian university students would manage. "There's very little public education in Haiti, so that would make a big difference," Ben-Artzi said.
One key step for the initiative was becoming based at UCLA's Program in Global Health, directed by Thomas Coates, a professor of infectious diseases. The program supports a variety of global health initiatives, from HIV prevention in countries like China, Peru and Uganda, to women's leadership programs in South Africa. Coates advised the initiative's student supporters on how to focus their priorities, raise money and obtain grants.
Faculty make key contributions to rebuilding Haiti
Other faculty at UCLA with longstanding ties to Haiti are also working with the UC Haiti Initiative. History Professor Lauren Robin Derby has visited the country several times for her research, and provided valuable contacts when initiative organizers went to Haiti last August to find local partners and build relationships. Derby's chance encounter with a Haitian artist in need of patrons led the professor to start a fundraising effort by selling traditional Haitian vodoun drapo, flags used interchangeably as art and in folk religious ceremonies. Derby is now developing an NGO, Les Twa Ti Siren, to sell the flags to raise money for the artists.
Haitian artist Maxon Sylla lost his home and his wife in the earthquake. He is rebuilding his life by focusing on his work: creating traditional vodoun flags, which UCLA Professor Robin Derby sells for him.
"Haiti has a lot of its own civic organizations on the ground, and I've tried to hunt those out," Derby said. "This symposium is the moment when we can actually hear how the Haitian university thinks we can serve its needs. … We have to work with the Haitians on their objectives, or we're doomed to fail."
Efforts to rebuild and improve Haiti's banking sector are also underway, said Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, a professor of Chicana/o studies and director of UCLA's North American Integration and Development Center (NAID). The center deals with economic relations between rich and poor countries, and it was brought in to provide Haiti's central bank with low-cost mobile banking programs and micro-financing for the poor, Hinojosa-Ojeda said. With NAID and UCLA students working to improve the Haitian banking system, they could soon create a way for donations to be made directly to Haiti via cell-phone texts, much the way the Red Cross raised funds immediately after the quake.
"Haiti is one of the most expensive countries in the world to send money to right now," Hinojosa-Ojeda said. "It's great that the university has come together on this. There's an incredible amount of resources at the University of California that, if harnessed, could make a huge difference. As soon as UC gets out of the financial crisis, we should look at this more systematically – not just for Haiti, but for other global initiatives."
The initiative could be a model for how to respond to future disasters, Ben-Artzi said. As populations grow bigger and denser, especially in third-world countries with less sturdy infrastructure, mass fatalities become more likely.
"These mega-disasters are happening more often. If we can help Haiti today, we can learn how best to respond, and UC can be a leader when humanity faces its worst, most devastating events," he said. "Our response in Haiti is a model for our response to future Katrinas, Northridges and Indonesian tsunamis. Knowing how to respond is crucial to our own success and survival."