Featured Faculty: Petros Vamvakas
Petros Vamvakas is an Associate Professor of Political Science. View his story.
It is August 2010, already more than seven months since the catastrophic 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck just outside Portau- Prince, killing an estimated 316,000 people at a rate of nearly 10,000 per second. Yet, Haiti appears every bit a country still reeling from the aftereffects. Water is scarce and difficult to access. Jobs are nowhere to be found. Sanitation issues run rampant. Families are torn apart and there are more orphaned children in Haiti than ever before.
Despite the fact that some people have fled the city, it is far from desolate, and issues of overcrowding remain. Inscribed on the side of a collapsed home in spray paint remains a simple yet powerful cry for aid, "We Need Help;" seemingly written to no one in particular and everyone imaginable at the same time. Meanwhile, natives work day and night in their effort to rebuild, literally stone by stone.
Seeing this on television was hard enough, but now, experiencing it firsthand, Dr. Free is overwhelmed. Driving two-to-three hours at a time around the city and surrounding areas, she cannot escape the destruction. Just a few days into her weeklong trip, she posts a blog entry reflecting upon what she has seen. I couldn't help but start to wonder, 'Will things ever change for Haiti? If things could change in Haiti, how?' And that was true before the earthquake, let alone now.
Remarkably, despite everything, a glimmer of hope exists within the Haitians, whose resilience is nothing short of inspirational. They believe they will rebuild their country. In Dr. Free and her colleagues, who have traveled to Port-au-Prince on a mission and vision trip, they have allies to help them achieve their goal.
This is Dr. Free's third voyage to Haiti, her first since the natural disaster, and on this occasion she leads a team of doctors and physical therapists to the nation's capital and largest city to volunteer at King's Hospital. As a representative of her church, Dr. Free spends her time touring disaster sites with members of World Relief, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to responding directly to the world's "most complex humanitarian crises" through collaboration with local churches. The group's mission is to assess where funds donated by U.S. churches can be best utilized, specifically seeking communities hit the hardest by the January 12, 2010 earthquake. Dr. Free's congregation is making a 10-year commitment to partner with World Relief to help Haiti's recovery through rebuilding churches and communities, developing agro-business and creating jobs.
A sociologist specializing in crime and justice, Dr. Free remains personally committed to improving the issues of poverty, injustice and victimization that exist in Haiti and other parts of the world. When she leaves the island, she does so with a heavy heart. Her travel companions express a resounding feeling of accomplishment, having spent the last few days working with patients, some still suffering from injuries endured during the earthquake. For Dr. Free, the sense of achievement isn't as tangible and for now is hard to see - it will be months, maybe years, until the rebuilding developments are accomplished.
By touring sites she is laying the groundwork for aid to eventually come from U.S. churches, support that could carry with it long-term gains, but after spending the last five days speaking with people who lost loved ones, such as a pastor who in the span of a few hours lost 82 of his 600 parishioners, including his wife and three of his four children, she isn't ready to rejoice. Not yet. When Dr. Free returns to the U.S., her time in Haiti is far from forgotten. Almost immediately, she finds new ways to bring her experiences into the classroom. In her "Introduction to Sociology" course, she establishes a section on global inequality and international relations, focusing specifically on Haiti. She has her students read the book, On That Day Everybody Ate by Margaret Trost, the founder and director of the What If? Foundation, which funds thousands of meals a week for Haitian children. Dr. Free utilizes Trost as an example of "an ordinary person doing something extraordinary" and tries to convey to her students the importance of doing their part, whether that means personally traveling to Haiti, supporting worthy causes or molding their education to support public policy and issues of social injustice.
"My job as a professor is to make them aware of the circumstances that exist, but it is up to them to decide what their part is," she said. "My goal is to share my experiences with them, to raise their awareness and compassion for other people - whether here in Boston, in Port-au-Prince, or anywhere in between."
Dr. Free, herself, returned to Haiti in August 2011 for a nine-day stay, once again leading a team of doctors, surgeons and physical therapists to assist at the hospital. In addition, volunteers, many of whom were teachers, came along to orchestrate teacher-training workshops and volunteer at an orphanage within the same community of people the group visited the year before. Dr. Free was encouraged to see the progress made since her last visit, albeit relative. She found fewer families living underneath the blue tarps and instead in shelters and cement-block homes. Buildings formerly in ruin had been leveled and some were being rebuilt. A banana farm she scouted a year before in Cite Soleil, one of the poorest and most dangerous places in the world, had been purchased by World Relief to create jobs and stimulate the local economy. Slowly, Haiti appeared to be moving forward.
Yet, there is still so much work to be done. Some people say Haiti is returning to "normal," but Dr. Free and others suggest it is a "new normal" - a post-earthquake-and- inconceivable-amount-of-loss normal. Yet Haitians are doing things Dr. Free says they do best - being strong, resilient and even joyful in the face of great adversity.
Dr. Free remains committed to Haiti and its people and plans to return again in the summer 2012 with the hope of establishing longer-term projects in which she can become more involved. She also has plans in process for some research there in the future. "I fell in love with the people of Haiti, their resilience and strength years ago," she said. "They are rebuilding and recovering, but you can feel the impact the trauma has had on the city and the people. You can see the pain in their faces, especially the children. It's still a city in recovery."
She is starting to open her mind to the idea that these trips are slowly helping the recovery process, that significant steps are being taken to aid a country needing to heal in more ways than one. "When you travel to Haiti, you see so much poverty and desperation and it is easy to feel overwhelmed," she said. "But you have to remind yourself that every bit of support and encouragement helps."
Petros Vamvakas is an Associate Professor of Political Science. View his story.
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