Categories: Featured, Lifestyle

Haitian university emerges from the rubble – deconstructed, reconstructed

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Finishing up earlier than we expected, thanks to World Vision’s efficiency, we set out yet again, back to PetionVille for our next set of interviews with NetHope partner ESIH (Ecole Supérieure d’Infotronique d’Haiti).

Getting Nixon’s car up the almost 90 degree incline on a road made of rubble was no easy task, but eventually it sputtered up to the top and we toppled out, promptly slipping on the fine gravel beneath our feet.

Construction work was going on all around us, and the ever present sound of cutoff saws and hammering was stronger than ever. As with 90% of the schools in Haiti, ESIH was destroyed in the earthquake and is one of the first to have been rebuilt since.

We were early and as we entered the university quad, we could see dozens of well dressed, clean cut looking students sitting around eating their lunch and having a chat. Our contact, Marlene, flew down the stairs like a whirlwind, announced that she needed to run some errands in town and that she’d be back in an hour. And off she went.

“What are we supposed to do here for an hour?” asked Marc with a raised eyebrow and grumbling stomach. It was now 12pm, we’d been up since 4.30 and we were starved.

“Well, knowing how bloody long it takes to get food here, I don’t think we’ll have time to do that and be back here on time,” I said, also feeling sorry for our punctuality. In fact, if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that it’s definitely not a virtue in Haiti, because you just end up waiting around a lot.

My phone rang. I answered. “Sylvie, hi, it’s Marlene, I just realized I forgot to tell you, you can start by interviewing Patrick, he’s upstairs in the office, see you when I get back!”

“Who’s Patrick?” asked Marc. “I don’t know, but he’s upstairs, and I’m hungry, so let’s get a move on,” I said as we climbed up the steps to the second floor.

Patrick wasn’t hard to find, holed up in a book laden office complete with computer, ipad and projector, he was the quintessential French professor, slightly distracted but with a gleam in his eye.

He heartily shook our hands and cleared a space for us to sit, shuffling papers around and dusting off a couple of chairs. Eager to show us the university’s website, Patrick fired up the projector and switched off the lights.

“It’s going to be a bit difficult for me to film you in the dark…” Marc protested. Patrick looked a little disappointed. “I would like your viewers to see the slide show, of the reconstruction,” he sighed. “Well, I’m sure Marc could film the presentation after we’ve interviewed you?” I countered, which seemed to perk both of the boys up.

And so Patrick began by telling us his story, and that of the university, his life’s work and quite obviously his pride and joy.

The university had been thriving before the earthquake, but on January 12, the five story building had collapsed killing 15 students and one professor. Patrick himself had been on his way there to teach a class when it happened.

“The worst part was that some of them were still alive in there for about 10 days, but we couldn’t get them out, we just didn’t have any bulldozers or machinery to rescue them. We knew they were alive, but we couldn’t save them, it was heartbreaking,” he told us.

Indeed, it was only on January 19, seven full days after the quake that firemen from Miami Dade county even made it to the site with sniffer dogs, by that time hope was almost lost.

A further 115 students from ESIH lost their lives that day, either at their own homes or at work, taking a heavy toll on the student population.

“But I knew, I knew that the most important thing was to get things back up and running as quickly as possible, to allow those students who had lost so much to finish their semester, to give them somewhere to go, where they had framework and structure,” he said. It hadn’t been an easy decision, and many felt it would have been better to cancel the term, but Patrick was insistent. It was something positive that could still be done amidst the rubble, and an honor to those who had died there.

Patrick admits he didn’t know how many students would venture back. “We even debated getting a psychologist to come and talk to the students, but we ended up not doing that, and looking back, it was the right decision. The students who came back told us they didn’t need that, they were just happy to see their friends again, to work through the emotion with us together and to focus on the academics they had worked so hard on.”

Class restarted under canvas tents on March 15, barely a month after the disaster, and just two weeks after the last victims had died under the rubble.

80% of those still alive returned to class, in what has to be the most touching feat of youth spirit and bravery I can imagine. These kids who had lost family, friends, classmates, colleagues, homes and jobs came pouring back, determined to carry on. Some, like one student we interviewed, had even been buried under the rubble themselves, but hadn’t let the experience crush their spirit or drive.

“It wasn’t easy at all. We restarted the semester under the most difficult of conditions,” Patrick explained, noting how all the university’s labs and offices had been destroyed, along with the institution’s pride and joy – 170 computers.

Luckily, organizations like Nethope, IBM, Virginia Tech, Google, HP, Accenture and Microsoft came to the rescue, providing some 150 computers to replace those lost. These were also integral to Patrick’s decision to restart classes, because it provided students with the minimal means of getting their work done. Lexmark provided ESIH with 27 brand spanking new printers.

France’s president Sarkozy and the Agency for French speaking universities also came through for ESIH, providing scholarships for over 50 students, thus enabling them to continue their studies. Google is also sponsoring students from ESIH, enabling some to complete their masters in the US at American universities.

The university offers a robust course load, including telecommunications, programming for Android, parallel computing, IT, e-commerce and more.

While the university is sorely in need of equipment for its labs, Patrick says he doesn’t expect charity money. “This attitude, this dependence on handouts and charity, it’s the most stupid thing!” he told us, passionately. “My students pay quarterly fees, we can sustain ourselves if only the banks would lend us money at a reasonable rate. Instead, they charge me 11%. If they charged just 5 or 6% I could really build a nice campus here, that difference, it’s a difference between me being able to borrow one million or two million dollars, just on the interest rate!”

Students at ESIH pay $1200 a year for the privilege of gaining a higher technical education, no small sum in a country where most earn around $5 a day.

“Do you know how many Haitian students we lose to the Dominican Republic? How much money the Dominican Republic makes from Haitian students every year? $60 million! Do you know what Haiti could do with that kind of money to rebuild its institutions? And instead, the banks refuse to be reasonable on loan rates.”

This is a sore point for Patrick because his dream is not just to build any old campus for his students, but a welcoming, comfortable green campus, with all the equipment students world over would expect from an institute of higher education. Libraries, computers, servers, fast Internet connection, green spaces, bright clean classrooms and a quality teaching staff. He even showed us the new toilet block the school is building and boasted of his plans to employ a full time sanitation person to keep them clean. “Just because we are in Haiti doesn’t mean my students should have to accept unsanitary conditions and unpleasant bathrooms. It’s very important to me that this is a clean and nice campus for them.

“I am fed up with the fact that we have come to accept a miserable environment here in Haiti,” he told us, explaining how it was those seemingly small but motivational touches that really gave the students something to work towards.

For instance, Haitian phone carrier Voila donated $15,000 to the university last year, some of which went towards holding a proper cap-and-gown graduation ceremony for the students. “They had a terrible year, and they made it through, despite all the odds, why shouldn’t they be allowed to celebrate their success? To feel proud of their accomplishments?” he asked us. The money from Voila also went towards supporting those students who were under financial duress. “Students got some money every day to help them buy food, because if your students are starving, they’re not focused on studying,” Patrick explained.

ESIH has also forged a deal with Access Haiti, an ISP, which it allowed to build a tower on its land in exchange for free Internet service. “This tower is gold for us,” Patrick enthused, gazing at it admiringly.

Another huge cost saving ESIH has managed to implement is in its highly networked computer labs, donated by Microsoft and Google. Patrick explained that the team was using Windows Multipoint in order to run six computing stations off just one CPU, which not only decreases cost by half, but also slashes energy consumption by 75%. “We certainly plan to expand on this solution,” he told us as we walked around the ultra efficient lab filled with students working away (or posting on Facebook).

Marlene – who I can only describe as a smiling energy force – returned from her errand and went about rounding up students for us to interview. Thanks to Nethope, a large number of students had managed to get internships with organizations like World Vision and Marlene was keen for them to talk to us about their experiences.

Patrick, however, wasn’t finished showing us around his “baby”, making sure we saw everything from the server room to the administration offices and tin roofed classrooms.

“Most of the kids still have concrete trauma,” he explained, adding “so we’ve been trying to use alternate materials and adhere to Californian building codes,” he went on.

Eventually we returned to Marlene and the two students patient enough to wait for us. One, Juste, had been one of the students to escape from under the rubble when the building collapsed. He was a shy boy, quiet, but clearly proud of what he had achieved after completing his education at ESIH. Though he spoke to us quietly in Creole, both Marc and I were held in rapt attention. This was a very brave boy indeed.

Patrick tells us there will be a monument dedicated to the other student victims of the quake, both on and off site. Like everything else on the campus, it’s currently under construction. That’s what ESIH does best, it seems; construction. It builds and shapes young lives, and even after the students’ lives collapsed, the university didn’t blink, it just picked up the broken pieces and started rebuilding. It’s a real testament to human spirit and the power of education.

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