Dr. Claire-Marie Cyprien Is Making a difference in Haiti


Haitian Diaspora Sees an Opening

Source: The Wall Street Journal


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti—Five days after the earthquake devastated the Haitian capital, Claire-Marie Cyprien stepped into a terrifying scene at the General Hospital.

Young children and old men lay on thin, filthy mattresses. Some screamed, others were silent. The hospital’s Haitian staff was barely in evidence. Volunteers from France and the U.S. rushed from patient to patient.

The Haiti Comeback

Julie Platner for The Wall Street JournalDr. Claire-Marie Cyprien returned to Haiti to help treat earthquake victims.

One emaciated man, eyes closed, writhed on the blood- and feces-streaked floor wearing nothing but a thin towel at his waist. A team of French doctors attended to a toddler whose left leg had been amputated above the knee.

Swamped by the tide of suffering, Dr. Cyprien walked up to a French doctor and told him there should be more surgeries, faster. He bristled at the woman suddenly giving him orders. “Are you from here?” he asked.

“I’m from the United States,” said Dr. Cyprien, a 43-year-old anesthesiologist who three days earlier had dropped her practice in Orlando, Fla., to rush to Haiti, the land of her birth. “And I’m a doctor.”

The U.S. is readying for a mass of refugees fleeing the disaster. But a small, well-educated and determined group of Haitians including Dr. Cyprien is heading the other way, into the country from abroad.

Both Haitians and members of the international community say diaspora Haitians represent a reservoir of talent and money that could be put to work in the country’s reconstruction. The Organization of American States said it is organizing a meeting, likely for early March, to bring together Haitian diaspora groups in the U.S., Canada, France and the Dominican Republic to help Haiti.

For generations, Haiti’s chaos, corruption and poverty pushed out many of its most talented people. Haiti has a population of about nine million, but as many as two million more Haitians live abroad, about half a million of them in the U.S. The diaspora—Haitians refer to the émigrés as Haiti’s “Tenth Province”—sends about $2 billion a year home, a sum equal to about 30% of the country’s gross domestic product.

Despite the money, émigrés have often been regarded warily by those who stayed behind. Emigration may offer a way to climb up or break out of Haiti’s rigid class structure. But new wealth inspires jealousy, while distance from the motherland opens émigrés to accusations that they aren’t as “authentic” as those who never left.

Émigrés are sometimes considered “arrogant, insensitive, overbearing and pretentious people,” writes Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-American author. And many suspect their political ambitions. The 1987 constitution strips Haitians who take citizenship elsewhere of their Haitian citizenship, preventing them from running for office or voting.

“We diaspora, not too many people like us,” says Hilda Alcindor, a nurse who left Haiti for America and stayed 30 years before returning. “But we are needed.”

Officials here say that if Haiti is going to rebuild, the efforts of people like Dr. Cyprien will be crucial.

“The diaspora will play a key role rebuilding Haiti,” says Gérard Brun, who heads the country’s largest construction company and has been tapped by President René Préval to help plan the Port-au-Prince rebuilding effort.

For now, the exodus of talent stands to continue. Aside from the general destruction, Port-au-Prince’s devastated schools have little prospect of opening soon, and many in Haiti’s tiny middle class are likely to send their children abroad to study. That makes luring diaspora Haitians even more important, says Mr. Brun, who advocates a constitutional amendment to let them vote and run for office.

Even before January’s earthquake, economists who have been studying how to fix the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country have agreed the diaspora is one of Haiti’s most important assets. Émigrés “provide Haiti with a massive flow of remittances, a reservoir of skills and a powerful political lobby,” wrote Oxford University economist Paul Collier in a report to the United Nations secretary-general last year.

Dr. Cyprien sees the relationship to her former country in stark terms. “Haiti is a country that has been depleted of natural resources and whose human resources are outside the country,” she says.

Energetic and commanding, Dr. Cyprien was nevertheless momentarily stymied by the chaos around her that Sunday at the hospital. She couldn’t find a surgeon to work with. One of the two makeshift operating tables was occupied by a large man with a festering leg wound who hadn’t been prepped for surgery. “That leg smells like a dead body,” she confided, as she rushed out to find the man’s family so they could move him off the table and free it up for operations.

Worse was to come. Later in the afternoon, another patient appeared: Dr. Cyprien’s older sister, Marie Lourdes Borno, 56. Ms. Borno had escaped the Ministry of Education as the building collapsed around her, but both her hands had been badly injured. Days later, they developed gangrene. There was nothing to do but to amputate. Dr. Cyprien applied the anesthesia in the makeshift ward as her sister’s hands were cut off.

The evening of the operation, Dr. Cyprien’s usual energy had left her. “It was necessary and I did it,” she said.

That same day, 20 miles from the bedlam of the General Hospital in the outlying city of Léogâne, Ms. Alcindor, the nurse, was getting down to work. Elementary schools were crushed, hospitals flattened. In three days, more than 1,000 people had been buried in mass graves. Local police estimated there were another 10,000 dead buried among the ruins.

Ms. Alcindor had come to Léogâne from Miami in 2005 to become dean of the city’s U.S.-funded nursing college. Until international aid arrived five days after the quake in the form of two volunteer doctors, Ms. Alcindor and her battalion of nurses and nursing students had provided practically the only medical care.

The students’ performance, Ms. Alcindor said, vindicated a promise to return to Haiti she had made to her father years earlier. “There was a calling, coming back,” she said. “To give whatever I have left.”

Ms. Alcindor said she is in debt to the U.S., where she was educated and brought up her daughters. She had made a comfortable living working as an emergency-room nurse in Miami’s Mount Sinai Hospital, among others.

“I am here because of the knowledge I gained in the United States,” she said, standing amid a makeshift tent city in front of the nursing school.

But she also owed something to Haiti. “This is what I am saying to Haitian-Americans: They need to get organized and come back. This is their country,” she said. “The reconstruction of this country needs the skills of Haitian-Americans, Haitian-Canadians, Haitian-French. We need to redo the whole thing.”

Now back in Orlando, where she has taken her sister, Dr. Cyprien said she plans to return to Haiti as many times as she can to help out, especially as international interest inevitably wanes.

The daughter of a justice of the peace, Dr. Cyprien left Haiti for the U.S. as a teenager—the best decision her parents ever made, she said. She attended community college, worked her way through medical school and established a practice in Florida.

Although she owns several properties in the U.S., Dr. Cyprien still dreams about building her retirement home on a plot of land she has bought in Jacmel, an old coffee port and artists’ retreat that, with iron-grille houses imported from France in the 19th century, used to look like a bit of Paris misplaced on the Caribbean. All that is gone.

“I want Haiti to stabilize so I can build on it,” she says.


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