The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



CSC cancels spring trip to Haiti

Matt Bramanti | Thursday, March 4, 2004

The University has cancelled a planned humanitarian trip to Haiti as violent civil unrest intensified in the impoverished Caribbean nation, while other programs with volunteers from Notre Dame and the Congregation of the Holy Cross continue, albeit in a restricted role.

Over the last several weeks, anti-government rebels have seized much Haiti, forcing the ousting of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and plunging the island nation into anarchy.

Engineering professor Steve Silliman, who runs the Haiti Experiential Seminar, said the decision not to go was made in late January.

The program sends Notre Dame undergraduate students to work on water pumps in rural areas in Haiti for a week to 10 days. Silliman said most students work in Cap-Haitien, the country’s second-largest city, but some participate in Leogane, about 20 miles outside the capital of Port-au-Prince.

Silliman organized the first seminar in 1999, after discussing the possibility with other faculty members.

“I had looked for ways to get involved in developing countries. The potential for interaction with [Haitian] society was spectacular,” Silliman said. “Students are trained on how to fix hand pumps, which are the primary source of drinking water. More importantly, they teach groups of Haitian men how to fix their own hand pumps, and we leave parts and tools with those guys.”

Silliman said participants include himself and up to 10 students, half of whom are engineering majors. Non-engineering students help put the technical work into a social context.

“The technology is actually extraordinarily simple,” he said. “Making that technology work in a different society requires skills way outside the engineering experience.

In a typical trip, students spend the first day speaking with a local pastor and identifying a group of young men to train. The next day, the students train the men on the pumps’ components. For the next few days, students repair wells and pumps as the locals observe, and then they turn the project over to the Haitians, coming back to check on their work.

The aim of the program is to build a base of Haitian workers that can continue the repair efforts after the seminar has ended.

Silliman said he’s encountered some difficulties during the program, especially in persuading the locals to accept pay for their continuing work.

“We have to get the villagers to talk about what they’re going to get in exchange,” he said. “It’s not a money-based society. It’s a barter-based society.”

Silliman said he has received at least six e-mails this week from students who participated in the program in previous semesters.

“Everybody comes back just completely blown away by the experience,” he said. “They’re pretty well connected back there in their hearts and their minds.”

Despite the cancellation, the students who planned to go to Haiti are still undergoing their training, and Silliman was optimistic that conditions will improve.

“We’re still meeting two hours a week as if we were still going,” he said. “The vast majority of [students] are looking to go next fall or sometime in the future.”

The seminar is sponsored by the Center for Social Concerns and funded by a grant from a South Bend family.

Despite the cancellation, biology professor Father Tom Streit said dozens of volunteers from Notre Dame and the Congregation of Holy Cross continue their fight against filariasis, a mosquito-borne disease that leads to grotesque disfigurement.

“We have about 70 people working with us in Haiti, and they continue heroically,” he said.

However, he added that personnel have recently been evacuated from the areas hardest hit by the violence.

“There are some areas where our work stopped the week before last,” Streit said.

Streit left the country in late February, but he was optimistic that he and others will be able to return.

“We anticipate students going down [to Haiti] this summer,” he said.

The project is a collaborative effort, including assistance from Emory University and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

The efforts center around St. Croix Hospital, an Episcopal institution in Leogane. In 2000, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave Notre Dame a $5.2 million grant to fund anti-filariasis efforts in that city.

Streit said last year, volunteers administered medication to nearly 500,000 Haitians. The preventive drug, which is effective for a year, wards off new infections by the parasitic worm that causes filariasis.

Streit said the eventual aim of the project is to eradicate the disease.

“It’s going to be exciting for Notre Dame to be part of such a historic achievement, and that is to eliminate [filariasis] forever,” Streit said.

The only time such a thing has happened was in 1980, when the World Health Organization declared that smallpox had been eradicated.

Michele Sexton, a staffer in the biology department who has worked in Haiti, said she is optimistic that the deployment of peacekeeping troops will stabilize the troubled nation.

“I’m glad the Marines have gone in,” she said. “Hopefully they’ll be able to secure the roads and get the humanitarian effort there.”

Sexton, whose fianc is working in Haiti, said the struggle against poverty and disease must persist.

“It continues to be difficult there,” Sexton said. “You have people who are worried about what’s going to happen.”