By Ashley Oliver
Former York College African American Studies Professor Mark Schuller returned to the school on May 5 to discuss his book on the Haitian diaspora.
Five years ago Schuller orchestrated a research group to go to Haiti after the earthquake in 2010. The group included 5 Haitian-American students from York: Sandy Nelzy, Stephanie Semé, Adlin Noël, Tracey Ulcena, and Sabine Bernard. The students conducted five weeks of research in an Internally Displaced Persons camp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. In 2012, Schuller published his book, Killing with Kindness: Haiti, International Aid, and NGOs. The book highlights the social progression and hardships of Haitians after the devastating earthquake.
“It’s a massive void based on omission of relevant information for students,” said Schuller. “There are so many missing educational programs.” Schuller attributed the educational obstacles CUNY students face to the lack of research projects that allow students to travel abroad.
“Seeing a country in need of help on TV or in a textbook as opposed to actually going there and seeing the internal problems are completely different experiences,” he said.
Some of the Haitian-American students who participated in the project said going to Haiti humbled them.
“I only saw Haiti on television,” said Nelzy. “I was sheltered as a child, and my family is from the rich area. But when I came to Haiti and see what those poor people went through, I realized that could have been me.”
Schuller and the students recalled their shock at witnessing negative behavior towards the residents in the camps by some of the relief workers.
“They treated people like animals,” said Noël. “When they were supposed to be protecting the people from danger, they looked away because they know they’re still going to get paid for doing nothing. The only thing that separated me from the people in the camps and them from the people in the camps is where they were born.”
Ulcena said broadcast media does not provide an accurate representation of the political division in Haiti.
“To be born in America, I thought I represented truth and a superhero,” said Ulcena. “I thought I was going to go to Haiti and save the day because that’s what Americans do in poor countries. It was like those commercials when they beg for money and show the poor parts only. They don’t show the rich that don’t help the poor, and they’re often living life and on the side of America because they benefit. But that was only on television. It’s what they want you to see.”
In a survey of 14 students who attended the discussion, nine believed that Haitian-Americans are subjected to people thinking they live in poverty solely because of their nationality. The latter believe the rich help the poor.
Schuller advises students involved in research groups to obtain information from multiple sources.
“If you don’t have the opportunity like these students did, then take it into your own hands to learn more,” he said. “You can’t rely on the TV, or just one magazine, or one person’s experience to even begin to understand the complete experience. It’s more than just an earthquake, it’s racial segregation. It’s poverty.”
Killing with Kindness: Haiti, International Aid, and NGOs not only illustrates the effects of poverty, but it also explores the psychological effects internalized racism has caused. The book also goes into the vernacular associated with Creole people and the history preceding it.
Ulcena urges undergraduate students to participate in research groups before they graduate.
“I learned more about this country than any class could teach me,” she said. “The earthquake was just one of their problems. Not only did I get offered scholarships and get invited to academic events after, but going to Haiti showed all of us how it was to be in their shoes. That’s when you really learn.”