York Professor Takes Students on Research Mission to Haiti

Dr. Mark Schuller, an assistant professor of African American Studies and Anthropology in the Department of Social Sciences at York College, took a group of students to the earthquake-devastated island of Haiti for a fact finding mission a year and a half after the January 2010 disaster.

Professor Schuller, who chairs the Society for Applied Anthropology’s Human Rights and Social Justice Committee, led a team of five Haitian American students from York: Sabine Bernard (’11, African American Studies and Anthropology), Sandy Nelzy (’12, Nursing), Adlin Noël (’13, Physicians Assistant Program), Stephanie Semé (’12, Psychology), and Tracey Ulcena (’12, African American Studies and Psychology); and eight students from the State University of Haiti.

Each student team conducted five weeks of research in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, chosen around the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area, comparing camps with or without official (Non-Government Organization (NGO) management agencies. Research included 800 household surveys with 56 questions, 80 recorded interviews with individuals, direct observation, and focus group interviews, complemented with interviews with camp committee, NGO, and international agencies. Questions ranged from changes within families’ livelihood strategies, their living arrangements and ties to communities; participation and awareness of formal aid; intentions to stay or leave; continued challenges preventing people from leaving the camps; and their assessment of NGOs, the Haitian government, and the U.N. troops.

Upon their return to York, the students gave passionate testimony about their experiences in the field. It was the first time any of them had been to Haiti since the earthquake. The Students discussed their experience of being labeled “Diaspora” – or foreign – and what that meant about their freedom of mobility. They all noted difficulties in doing fieldwork, gaining trust given the string of broken promises by agencies conducting research in the past: “What will this do for me?” On the weekends, students and Schuller went to various locations outside of Port-au-Prince, attending a guest lecture as part of the CUNY collaboration of the Public University of the South in Les Cayes; visiting Jacmel, a seaside tourist town that was also impacted by the earthquake, and Cap Haïtien, with the famous Citadelle, one of the oldest and certainly largest standing forts in the Caribbean. In all the travels, students encountered U.N. troops, most of whom did not speak French, but some managed to question the York students about their presence.

It was a transformative experience for the York students as all five noted it in their presentations. They returned to the United States and York energized and eager to get involved in Haiti solidarity efforts, be they for IDPs, regarding the U.N., or justice for artists whose work is sold in the U.S., including at Macy’s (Department Store).

Adlin Noel argued that NGO aid to Haiti came with many side effects, reinforcing the disaster in health, security, and society. Compared to before, people relied on a new set of people.

“The aid caused a great change in family relationships as individuals live in their own tents,” said Noel. “The population’s revolt against UN troops known as “MINUSTAH,” is due to their many inappropriate actions. People in the camps complain that the security system is worth nothing. Diseases have developed due to poor sanitary conditions: rats attack people at night causing infections and even death. At the same time, cholera, brought by MINUSTAH, killed over 6300 individuals as of summer 2011.”

The study, funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Chancellor’s CUNY Haiti Initiative, and the PSC-CUNY, also yielded some timely results. For example, despite the discourse about not being “real victims,” that people only living in camps for the free services, 92% of people preferred to leave the camps, and only 3.5% came since the earthquake. On average, families lost .8 people in the earthquake, which would suggest that higher estimates of Haiti’s official death toll are plausible. One of the longest-lasting impacts of the aid delivery is the fissuring of Haiti’s households: average size went from 5.37 to 3.36.

This was likely because of policies from aid agencies to distribute aid (food, hygiene kits, tents, etc.) to heads of households. So following this reward structure, many families decided to split up to maximize their access to life-saving resources. But this has a downside: Haiti’s extended family ties are the first and last resort for solidarity, which explains how Haiti’s people can survive in very difficult times. Whether this rupture in solidarity ties is repairable in future disasters remains uncertain. The qualitative interviews and the focus groups will prove invaluable in this effort.

These and other results were discussed, and will be published in blogs and a large report directed at the U.N., aid agencies, and the U.S. government. Policy recommendations were distilled and shared as Schuller and the student-team met with members of Congress in October 2011. The group so impressed Representative Yvette Clarke (D-Brooklyn, NY), she ended up hiring one of the students – Sabine Bernard – as an intern. At the congresswoman’s suggestion, the students also launched a Facebook group. Rep. Clarke also offered to set up a briefing for the students for Congressional Black Caucus and USAID staffers.

Since their papers were accepted to the Society for Applied Anthropology conference which will be held at the end of March, in Baltimore, students will piggy-back on this event to meet in Washington, DC. For his part, Dr. Schuller will start blogging for the Huffington Post about the summer research project.

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