By VALERIE TORRIZO
Clifford Denis, 21, sat in his living room in Port-au-Prince, Haiti watching a television show on a Tuesday afternoon nearly three years ago. Within seconds, the shaking walls and floors sprung him form his couch and he ran out his door watching the devastation happen in front of his eyes. Homes collapsed, dust filled the air and people ran for medical safety.
A 7.0 Magnitude Quake struck Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010 at 4:53 p.m., and an estimated 3.5 million people were affected. The Disaster Emergency Committee reported that about 220,000 people died, more than 300,000 injured and about 294,000 homes were either badly damages or destroyed by the earthquake.
“I saw people screaming,” said Roselaure Charles, 25. “I thought it was an accident. After I saw the country covered with dust, I understood it was an earthquake. It was a very terrible moment.”
Denis and Charles are now a sophomores at Ramapo College, but their future at Ramapo College is pending further scholarship fundraising.
A Community Effort
After the critical destruction of the earthquake, the international community banded together to help rebuild Haiti and aid in relief efforts. In response to the earthquake that devastated Haiti, the Ramapo College community came forward with a strong desire to provide meaningful assistance. The Ramapo College Relief Committee formed and undertook a study to consider how the College could best help.
“We wanted to do what we do best,” said Lisa Lutter, a Ramapo professor of vocal music performance, “Educate.”
The Committee succeeded in raising enough funds to enroll Denis and Charles into Ramapo, but funds are running out and now they are finding trouble raising money.“At this moment we are actually focusing our energy on a college wide effort to find a creative way for the College to provide room and board for the last two years at Ramapo,” said Professor Shalom Gorewitz.
Haiti occupies the western third of Hispaniola, west of the Dominican Republic. Officially known as the Republic of Haiti, this nation is said to be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and has been plagued by political violence for most of its history.
Gorewitz hopes that the students accomplish a positive, healthy and rewarding experience at Ramapo College and serve as life long ambassadors for the College in Haiti.“Immediately after the earthquake someone at a large meeting of faculty, staff, and students suggested that this might be a way to help young Haitians and prepare them with skills to use in Haiti after they graduate,” said Gorewitz.
The Committee and Ramapo College, with the support of President Peter Mercer and the Haiti Foundation, established an initiative to provide a four-year Ramapo College education to two Haitian students. The Committee received money in the past from faculty and staff, alum Dr. Timothy Finnley (Class of 1994), a doctor who has contributed time in Haiti as a first responder after the earthquake carrying two canisters of oxygen with him on the plane to Haiti.
“It was our own project and we want to educate,” said Warner Wada, Ramapo professor of painting. “It is more of a collective effort instead of writing a check.”
Edouard Eloi, Berrie Center operations manager, visited Haiti, and taped interviews with 13 applicants. The students needed to provide high school grades, SAT scores, involvement in community service, have a certain level of English proficiency, and financial need.
After several professors reviewed the taped interviews, they selected Clifford Denis, majoring in Engineering Physics, and Roselaure Charles, majoring in Communication Arts (Digital Filmmaking).
“This was a community effort. Over 200 people met and so many people pledged and supported. This is year two and we’re desperately in need to finish. We need others’ support,” said Eloi. He mentioned that because the interest in the media has gone down, so has the enthusiasm in the scholarship.
From Haiti to Mahwah
Denis is now excelling at his academic career at Ramapo. He has made Dean’s list every semester since he enrolled, and has a campus job helping with fixing computers.It is a much different picture than when Denis was homeless after the earthquake. He lived with his family in a place where his uncle worked for six months, and then spent another year and a half somewhere else before coming to Ramapo.
It has been a little over a year since he left Haiti “I miss them [my family], but my mother raised me to get used to things easily,” Denis said.Denis recalled his experience during the earthquake and said that he was watching television in his underwear when everything began to shake. He ran to the door frame in a hallway in his house because he was previously told that it was the safest place.
“Everything was falling so I had to run outside,” said Denis. “I had to find clothes, but then I saw that my closet was already outside.”
Denis broke his toe while he was running from his collapsing house. Denis said he then sat outside and “just thought about everything that was going on.”
“I started going to school in Haiti,” said Denis, “but it was destroyed in the earthquake.” Luckily, his best friend, who attends Ramapo, forwarded him information about scholarship.
About a year after the interview, Eloi, who met Denis after his remarkable application, called him and told him that he had received the scholarship.
“I wasn’t even expecting it,” said Denis. “All I said was, ‘Oh, really?’”
Denis felt that Ramapo College was a big school because his school back in Haiti was only about a tenth in size comparison. He recalled the challenges he faced and the difficulty of cross-cultural adjustment.
“The first semester was difficult because of the English. Social Issues was hell,” said Denis. It was the first time he was taking an English class, and he noted that it would have been a different story if it were a math or science class, where the numbers and formulas are the same in every language.
Denis explained that learned English during the second semester became easier, mostly because his best friend helped him out.
Although Denis has adjusted to life at Ramapo and gained several friends, he hates the weather. “I wanted to see snow. I saw it, and it was done,” exclaimed Denis.
Charles had a much different experience. She was inside a car when the earthquake happened.
She was a freshman studying film at the time of the earthquake at Cine Institute. Her school collapsed, but she was continued working on a project with her classmates about the earthquake.
Shortly after applying to the scholarship and her interview with Eloi, Charles found out that she was one of the two students accepted at Ramapo. “I was so happy. Everything happened so fast,” she said.
Charles recalled that the language and culture made her feel like a baby. “It was really hard for me to adjust, but if you want to do something you really have to suffer.”Her writing was something that she struggled with. In Haiti, studies are really focused on math, physics and science, but Charles said that at Ramapo, writing is very important.
“My friends and professors helped with me with proofreading,” said Charles.
Like Denis, she has an on-campus job working in the Communications Department, lending out cameras and other multimedia to students.Charles is happy to have had good roommates and meet good people, hoping that her education at Ramapo continues.“When I graduate, I will go back and help Haiti like community service,” said Charles, “I feel good when I help people.”
One hurdle in fundraising is convincing donors where their money goes. When people donate money to a non-profit organization, there is some uncertainty to where the money goes, Eloi said. He said that in this case, “One hundred percent goes to room and board. Here, you see exactly, and know exactly where money goes.”
Lutter added that it is difficult to get the word out. “It’s difficult when time passes and when shocking events pass. It’s less present in the mind.”
The lackluster economy and the natural events of Hurricane Sandy set back their fundraising efforts.
“With a bad contract deal, our own hurricane aftermath to deal with, and the knowledge that there are empty beds in the dorms and piles of food being thrown away every day, we are hoping to work with administrators to lessen the financial burden on the faculty, staff, students, and friends of this effort.”
Their Gift to Ramapo
Lutter saw growth in both students. “They used to be very shy, and knew some English, but not fluently. They barely spoke two words and it took a whole year of adjustment and English skill,” she said.
“One of the pillars of the College mission is International Education. Everyone who works with Roselaure or Clinton in classes, activities, jobs, and events is having a direct experience with someone from a country that Ramapo has a special bond with through our art collection,” said Professor Gorewitz.
He continued to say that said that this kind of direct, experiential communication is important for all for the Ramapo community to better understand the world.
Even though the school is giving the students an education, Lutter noted that the Haitian student bring something to us—diversity in the Ramapo student community.