UNESCO special envoy for Haiti, Michaelle Jean, says the devastating January 2010 earthquake in Haiti revealed the country’s failings to the world. To Jean, now is the time to focus on rebuilding the people and their culture, not just the infrastructure. She spoke with Diane about leaving the country as a young child, UNESCO’s priorities in the rebuilding process, and why women are so important to the country’s future.
Returning to Her Birthplace After the Devastation
I was born in Haiti and I grew up there. I left Haiti, I was 11 years old. But at 11, it’s enough for you to know where you’re from. And I went back to Haiti several times after that. And really I could not recognize the place anymore…imagine it’s like if an atomic bomb were dropped on Haiti. It was total destruction,” Jean said.
Conditions in Haiti Today
Jean said that because about 700,000 people in Haiti are still living under tents, heavy rains are a constant concern. Relocating that many people is a large problem facing the government. “We need to understand that reconstruction will not happen overnight,” Jean said. “The task is immense and it must be done properly.”
Fear, Suspicion, and Risk Before Leaving
Jean and her family fled Haiti when Papa Doc was in power, when public executions were common and her own father had already been arrested and tortured. “I remember the day we were at the airport. It was like living my funeral I would say because you had friends who would come knowing that you were leaving, would come to say goodbye. But they had to stay at a distance just in case you would be arrested at the last moment. And it happened to many people. So they would not want to be associated to you,” she said.
Goals for the Coming Year
Even before the earthquake, lack of access to education was a major problem in Haiti. Jean says that this year, one of the country’s objectives is to make sure that 140,000 children who currently do not attend school will be able to do so. She says UNESCO is making teacher training and curricula-building a major priority.
The Role of Haitian Women in Rebuilding
“I remember that when I went back to Haiti a few weeks after the earthquake and on purposely I arrived on International Women’s Day because I wanted the women to know that they are not alone. And logistics were very difficult, you know, because it was all rubble everywhere. And I expected maybe 300 women to come to this rendezvous and meeting that we had just to hear how they were doing because I know that the women movement had lost many leaders, you know, on the rubble and during the earthquake and I lost many friends. And when I arrived, there were 5,000 women. And the energy…was amazing. Women from all, you know, walks of life saying life will triumph, life will triumph over this ordeal. And they came with their courage and their determination. This is what Haitian women are about in Haiti,” Jean said.