Areas of Study


Thursday, when the volunteers arrived and began their work in Port-au-Prince, was about introductions. Friday through Sunday brought meetings, donation distribution, workshops, and CNN coverage–which aired in October. On Sunday, the members of the Gallaudet community met more of the Haitian deaf community at a church service.

Over the subsequent days, the Gallaudet alumni, staff, and supporters who had traveled from the U.S. to work with the deaf community continued probing for problems and putting their hands and hearts toward solutions. Their task list for the week covered a vast amount of ground.

The following Monday, August 9, Friends of Deaf Haiti (FDH) board members Lise Bien Aime, Yolette Cohen, Eve Mitton, and Juan Reinbold continued to distribute clothes and food at the deaf tent camp. They led the first of a series of meetings with the three community leaders and discussed ways to motivate the residents to work as a team and support one another.

On Tuesday, the workshop series continued. Supporter Alon Weir held an HIV/AIDS prevention session with men in the camp, while FDH board member Sylvie Marc-Charles-Weir conducted a session on the same topic with women. Weir, who is a physical therapist, also worked with men with knee injuries that might otherwise have gone untreated and reviewed safe weightlifting techniques that they could put to use in the weight room they had built on the periphery of the camp. Facilitating communication between American Sign Language (ASL) users and members of the camp who use Haitian Sign Language were deaf community leader Widler Fils-Aime, another resident of the camp, Reinbold, and Cohen.

That evening, the board members met with supporters of their work. This time, the topic was launching the deaf organization Association des Sourds d’Haiti (The Association of Deaf Haitians). This would serve as the in-country counterpart of FDH.

The FDH members also found time to meet with specific segments of the tent community, holding rap sessions for women and teenage girls, the three community leaders, and any concerned residents who wished to talk without the leaders present.

Also, they held an evening meeting to discuss the tents, temporary housing, and finding land for a more permanent community for those who wanted to continue to live with other deaf individuals and families.
The deaf residents were positive in their outlook on living in the deaf camp, the board members reported later. They had security–a place without worry of violence, FDH representatives explained. They had found a unique space where they could express themselves openly, and have direct communication with their neighbors and friends. The residents also noted that they had food provided, the shelter of tents, and toilets and showers.

The FDH board members also shared advice with the deaf leaders, and helped them start to develop rules for the tent city site to reduce dilemmas and bureaucracy. The leaders themselves expressed optimism about the future of the deaf community in the country, as well as the fact that the tent city was much better at that point than it was in previous weeks.

Everyone must have a chance
The following Wednesday, August 11, was the last full day for most of the travelers. On that day, the group members both reached out and dove in.
Bien Aime had arranged to meet with Dr. Michel Pean, Haiti’s secretary of state for the inclusion of people with disabilities, along with fellow FDH members and Weir.

Pean’s office was operating from a temporary location on Rue Panamericaine in a shaded one-story building near the Villa Creole hotel.

The fact that Pean is hearing and prefers to speak French does not deter them. And indeed, the first glimpse at the office is hopeful; the one poster hanging among temporary furnishings and bare walls bears the slogan, “Pou ayiti gen yon chans, fòk tout ayisyen gen menm chans, meaning “For Haiti to have a chance, everyone must have a chance.”

A French-ASL interpreter, who will facilitate communication between the secretary and the deaf group members, greets the visitors. Soon it is time to meet the man who coordinates more than 40 organizations for people with disabilities in Haiti, and who once told the BBC that his appointment to the position shortly before the earthquake allowed him to ‘”motivate and sensitize’ the population and ‘encourage a better attitude towards persons with disabilities.'”

With the help of Bien Aime, who speaks French, the Gallaudet group has a productive discussion with the secretary. The visitors explain the situation in the deaf tent community and the overall environment of discrimination that deaf and hard of hearing people face in Haiti. Pean, who is blind, is well aware of negative views of people with disabilities, who are referred to with the denigrating slang term kokobe The term means, essentially, “worthless.”

Though deaf people face their own negative attitudes and derogatory appellation of bebe, the group members explain that they see hope. Lifting the policy banning driver’s licenses for deaf people, they tell the secretary, could smooth the way for the camp members to pick up supplies or drive the sick to a clinic without relying on favors or overpriced taxis. Reinbold, they point out, gets along quite well as a deaf driver with an American license in Haiti.

“You drive?” Pean asks with interest. Reinbold describes how he navigates the rugged Haitian roadways and gets along with fellow drivers in a driving culture that can border on the chaotic.

The conversation about education leads the group to mention their Gallaudet connections. Pean smiles. “It is my dream to visit Gallaudet,” he says.

The group then delivers the rest of its wish list: Seeing deaf students admitted to universities in Haiti; a chance at a quality, affordable education for deaf students in elementary and secondary school; a better system for addressing health problems in the camp; guidance for the establishment of a national deaf organization.

Pean notes immediately that these requests are not for handouts but for handshakes. FDH and PIE members are already working towards noble goals that will help rebuild and strengthen the deaf community toward reaching new horizons. “In my experience,” Pean tells his visitors, “when organizations work together, that is when they are successful.”

The meeting ends with promises to follow up on action items and arrange a visit to the Gallaudet campus.

A bientot, not au revoir
As they purchase a few more items for the camp–first aid supplies, diapers, milk powder–the visitors become more aware that they will soon see their last sunset with the tent community. Reinbold will stay with his family for a while longer, but Mitton, Bien Aime, Cohen, and Marc-Charles-Weir, and her husband will fly out the next day.

Their final afternoon with Marcillon and the other deaf leaders, as well as families and individuals they have gotten to know, goes by quickly. As night envelops the camp, the crowd naturally moves toward the one powerful lamp, a solar-powered light resembling a streetlamp installed near the water system. The leaders call for everyone to come for a plenary meeting. About 80 group members gather and continue to stand together, some rubbing bare arms as the air takes on a chill.

Marcillon and fellow community leaders Widler Fils-Aime and MacKenson St. Louis explain that they have identified some rules–using the Haitian Sign Language term that means “law” in ASL.

They have developed the rules with the advice and example of their guests. The new rule of law that they are suggesting emphasizes respect for women, peaceful resolution of disputes, and responsibility for keeping their camp clean and smoothly operating.

The final rule is about the term bébé. From that point on, the leaders want to use the term sourd, the French word for “deaf,” and encourage others to do the same.
When the visitors finally pile into Reinbold’s Land Rover to leave the camp, hands will hasten to get in a last word.
“Thank you!”
“I’ll miss you!”
“When will you be back?”

The visitors will respond as best they can and make plans for more visits, explaining that this is a bientot (see you soon), not au revoir (goodbye). Then they will pull away, driving down the gravel path.
But at the moment of the meeting, all eyes focus on the discussion.

The community members gather around the illuminated presenters and nod to their ideas for governing laws. They continue to debate long after the rule discussion, though by now even the visitors accustomed to an American climate feel the chill. Bits of the crowd break off and return wrapped in long-sleeved shirts, jackets, and blankets. Rain begins to fall, but most stay, lingering together in the light.

–Rhea Yablon Kennedy

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