On January 12 this year, Sister Marjorie Wysong Raphael ’45 was on the second floor of Saint Margaret’s Convent in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, when the ground began to shake. An 86-year- old Episcopalian nun, Raphael was preparing to go to chapel with several other women. It was 4:50 p.m. “The furniture shook and everything fell off the walls,” Raphael says. “I started running downstairs—the walls started falling apart around us. The stairs were filled with chunks of cement.”
The women climbed through piles of rubble and down one more flight of stairs before they reached the parking lot outside the convent. The first shock had lasted just 12 seconds, but it had caused unimaginable damage. Holy Trinity Cathedral, just a few feet away, had collapsed. So had the Holy Trinity Primary School, Music School, Concert Hall and Professional School. In a fraction of a minute, structures in which Raphael and her colleagues had worked and worshiped for decades were reduced to piles of rubble.
Across Port-au-Prince, the damage was tremendous. Thousands of homes were destroyed, along with many government buildings. Roughly 230,000 people were killed. As the world watched, the country worked to aid the wounded and bury the dead. At Barnard, students struggled to comprehend the devastation—then began working together to raise awareness and money for Haiti relief. Like Raphael, many Barnard alumnae were profoundly affected as well.
Yvrose Smarth Gilles ’86 was watching a PBS program about the country when she first heard the news. A Haitian native who now lives in Davie, Florida, Gilles has self-published two books about Haiti. She and her husband also run Bookmanlit.com, an alternative source for news about Haiti. “The video said things were finally turning around, that the country was improving. It seemed to imply that this is Haiti’s last chance, but it’s finally getting somewhere,” she recalls. “In the middle of the program, my husband called me and said, ‘There has been a terrible earthquake.’”
That same afternoon, award-winning writer Edwidge Danticat ’90 was grocery shopping in Miami with her two young daughters. Chantel Nicolas ’07, a graduate student in chemistry, was in an Atlanta movie theatre watching The Princess and the Frog when she received a text message from a friend: “Did you hear about the earthquake?”
Dr. Yanick Chaumin-Savary ’74 had just returned from a long day at her cardiology practice in Queens. In addition to her medical career, she has spent the last 10 years preparing to build a Haitian stock exchange with her husband, a Wall Street broker. When she learned of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake, her reaction was that of a first responder: “I said, ‘They need doctors. I am going to help.’”
Haitian Roots & An American Education
Prior to the earthquake, Chaumin- Savary thought frequently of Haiti, though her day-to-day efforts were focused on her private practice. Born in Les Cayes, Haiti, she’d attended an all- girls Catholic school. On Sundays, she would tag along on the nuns’ hospital visits and play with the orphans she had befriended. Early on, Chaumin-Savary decided that she wanted to be in the business of helping sick people get well.
When she was 15, her father brought her to live with him in Brooklyn. While she only had a few years to polish her English before applying to college, she succeeded in her efforts to gain admission to Barnard. Her advisor, Dr. Grace King, helped her plan her premed course load. Chaumin-Savary attended medical school and, in 1984, started her own practice. Today, her waiting room is graced by a photo album of all her patients. “When you become one of my patients,” Chaumin-Savary says, “you join a family.”
Like Chaumin-Savary, Gilles was born in Haiti and came to the United States as a child. On a return trip to Haiti in 1986, Gilles gained a visceral understanding of how hard it was for people to survive there—and the extent of the poverty in which they lived. When she returned to the U.S., she began trying to determine how best to help her own family and her native country. Her publishing company and advocacy work followed.
Danticat, meanwhile, came to the United States at age 12 with one short story already under her belt. Just a year after earning her degree in French literature at Barnard, she published Breath, Eyes, Memory, a novel about a young Haitian girl who leaves her loving aunt behind to live in America with her traumatized and sometimes abusive mother. An acclaimed author whose most recent honor was a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, Danticat continues to write frequently about Haiti.
Raphael’s connection to Haiti came later in life. A Long Island native, she studied religion and philosophy at Barnard and, eight months after graduation, felt the call to religious life. She took her vows with the Sisters of Saint Margaret in Boston in 1951, and then worked in Canada and Boston until the late 1970s, when her order sent her to Haiti.
For the last 30 years, Raphael lived at the convent in Port-au-Prince, where she spent her days in prayer and community service—visiting the sick, helping local women with sewing and other chores and spending time with Haitian women staying at the convent. She also spent two days a week in rural Haiti, where she and a few other nuns provided meals for local children and helped out in any way they could. “Haitian people are very artistic and musical, even though many of them do not have access to great education,” says Raphael, adding that she “fell in love” with the country and its people long ago. “They have lived courageously for so many years.”
After The Earthquake
In the hours after the quake, Raphael’s world turned on its head. She spent three nights in a tent on the football field next to Saint Peter’s College— which had collapsed during the earthquake—along with 1,000 other displaced people. They survived on a little rice and a bottle of water a day. A week later, she was finally able catch a plane to Boston to join her sisters at the convent, where she plans to stay. “I love Haiti and I would go back if I thought I could be useful,” she says. “But at my age, I might get in the way. I think it’s time that the younger ones take over.”
Danticat, who is 41, spent hours on the phone, being interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, and other prominent media outlets. “I couldn’t go to Haiti [right away] because I had a little baby, so that’s what I could do,” she says simply.
Danticat also wrote a piece for The New Yorker, an obituary for her cousin Maxo, who died when his house collapsed. Twenty-three days after the earthquake, Danticat got a last-minute seat on a relief plane and visited the site where Maxo died and was buried. “The people who got burials of whatever kind were lucky,” she says. “You were sad for the dead, but you were also sad for the living.”
Chaumin-Savary was on the ground in Haiti quickly, along with 25 other doctors and a slew of medical supplies donated by local pharmacies and hospitals. “The international community went above and beyond when it came to giving supplies,” she says. “But Haiti needs more than supplies—we need to incorporate Haitian workers into the rebuilding efforts.”
That’s Chaumin-Savary’s motivation for establishing a stock exchange in Haiti. Though the building housing her Haiti offices collapsed, she is determined to move forward. “The principal idea is to issue bonds,” she says. “There are lots of Haitians in the world community who could invest in the long-term prosperity of their country rather than just sending cash.”
Building—and Rebuilding— Communities
Back in the United States, Facebook provided critical connections for some alumnae, who used the social networking site to track down friends and family. Nicolas, the graduate student, spent three days wondering what had happened to her father and brother. “I realized that I had to prepare myself for the possibility that my father had died. I was in my first semester at Clark Atlanta University, and I thought if my father did die, he would want me to finish my studies,” she says. “So I stayed in classes and continued working.” Her brother soon called to say that he and their father were fine.
Gilles and her husband were similarly fortunate: Though a few relatives were injured, they all survived. “Events in Haiti became the focus of our lives after the quake,” she says, noting that traffic to Bookmanlit.com tripled in the wake of the disaster.
After the earthquake, Gilles continued to use Facebook to build a community of journalists, activists, and artists. She has gone from updating her Web site monthly to working on it daily, and recently added a memorial for the dead. “I felt it necessary,” she says, “since the government is burying them without much ceremony or respect.”
At Barnard, students mobilized quickly to aid the struggling nation. The Caribbean Students Association and the Haitian Student Association launched a campus-wide coalition, There Is Hope Campaign, to coordinate relief efforts and generate discussion and collaboration. Since January, the campaign has raised approximately $8,000 and coordinated a number of fund-raising and awareness events.
As Haiti continues to recover from the devastation, both Danticat and Helene Gayle ’76, CEO of CARE, the humanitarian organization, believe it is critical that relief efforts focus on women and girls. And, they hope, Barnard alumnae will help lead the charge. “Women and girls are the change-makers in society. If you help them, you help everybody,” says Gayle. CARE, which has been active in Haiti since 1954, had nearly 150 staffers on the ground at the time of the earthquake. They immediately transitioned to emergency response mode, reaching nearly 300,000 people in Haiti by mid-March. “Women and girls are among the most at risk now,” says Gayle. “They are vulnerable to violence, to sexual violence. We need to make sure they are not forgotten about—now, and going forward.”
-by Harper Willis, illustration by Chris Silas Neal