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Saint Mary’s students travel to Haiti over break

Basinski, Annie | Tuesday, October 28, 2003

While many students headed home for fall break, nine Saint Mary’s students went to Haiti as part of the Poverty and Development Seminar to interact with and learn more about Haitian people and the problems of their country.

A faculty member, a Saint Mary’s alumna, and two representatives from Women’s Perspective on Faith and Spirituality, a Connecticut-based organization that has conducted many immersions and seminars in Haiti, accompanied the seminar participants. The project was funded largely by a grant from the Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership (CWIL).

Seminar participant and Saint Mary’s senior Becca Doll described the experience as “not a missionary trip, but a cultural submergence.”

Realizing that they would not be able to make drastic changes to better Haitian society, the participants went to Haiti with the intent to learn more about the effects of globalization and the role of women in Haiti. Alison Gavin, a Saint Mary’s senior who participated in the seminar, said she learned a lot about Haitian people’s outlook on their country’s present state.

“[We went to Haiti] to listen to the people, to get their perspective on their own situation, and to bring the knowledge gained on the trip back to the U.S., so we can think about how we might be able to make changes for them,” Gavin said.

The participants prepared for the trip by attending meetings and discussing readings about the government, economy, living conditions and women’s roles in Haiti.

The group began the seminar on Oct.19 in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. They spent majority of the trip there and in the mountain village Gwo-Jan until they returned late Sunday night.

Several women’s organizations spoke with the participants about legal rights and health care issues for Haitian women. The participants also had the opportunity to listen to seven political rape victims speak out about their attempts to seek justice for the rapes by filing legal suits against the Haitian military.

Jan Pilarski, a justice education professor who participated in the seminar, said the women took a “great risk to speak out” about their rape incidents. Formerly a military dictatorship, Haiti was a country where many citizens gave their lives as a result of standing up for their beliefs. Although the country is now a Democracy, fear of persecution still lingers.

The rape victims have formed a theatrical troupe that shares stories of their tragic pasts through song and dramatizations. The seven women offered the participants not only their stories of sadness, but also their message of hope that they have found by working together to fight for women’s rights.

“Haitian women are so strong, so knowledgeable, despite their poverty,” Gavin said. “They are committed to work for change and it is inspiring to learn from them.”

Saint Mary’s senior Zoà Zelazny said she was personally affected by witnessing the hope many of the Haitian people she spoke with have for the future, even though their living conditions are poor.

“They are family oriented and spiritual people,” Zelazny said. “They have hope, warmth, and happiness, despite not having material things.”

What little they did have, they shared with the participants.

“Even though they didn’t have much food, they gave so much to us,” Gavin said. “The people were really welcoming, really warm. They are very community focused.”

The participants shared in the community by eating traditional Haitian dishes, learning to cook Haitian food, and painting using Haitian style.

They also had the opportunity to spend time with babies who live in an orphanage sponsored by the Sisters of Charity, the same order that was Mother Teresa’s. The babies are placed in the orphanage either because they are severely ill or malnourished, or because their families cannot support them. The participants held and rocked the babies to sleep, giving them acts of affection that they rarely receive.

Now that the seminar participants are back in the U.S., they say that they plan to make others aware of the problems they observed during their trip to Haiti. Together, they will also reflect on their experiences and brainstorm ways they can impart their knowledge to others so that changes can be made in Haiti.

“Seeing what we saw – you can’t not be impacted,” Zelazny said. “We will share our experiences with friends and family and try to always keep that a part of us.”