Remembering Sonia and Our Obligations to Haiti

By all rights she should have been a nobody. But instead, Sonia Pierre, the Dominican born daughter of Haitian migrants was, at the time of her premature death this week at the age 48, an internationally respected, award winning advocate for the civil and social rights of Haitian Dominicans and a leading grassroots responder to the continuing needs of Haitians in the aftermath of the devastating January 2010 earthquake. She was both practical and a bit of a dreamer. As we approach the second anniversary of that earthquake, when it seems that much of the world has forgotten the promises it made in response to that natural disaster, we can all learn something from Sonia, and in doing so, honor her memory and our commitments to Haiti.

Sonia was only 13 when she led fellow Haitian migrants in a march for the rights of sugar cane cutters in the Dominican Republic. When she was just 28, she founded Movimiento De Mujeres Dominico Haitiana (MUDHA) to defend the rights of marginalized Haitian migrant women and their children, securing citizenship rights, education and health services for Haitian Dominicans living in poor communities on the outskirts of the sugar industry in the DR. And though MUDHA’s community is quite poor, and MUDHA’s annual operating budget is modest, under Sonia’s leadership, MUDHA was among the first responders to the 2010 earthquake as it coordinated relief caravans with medical support and personal hygiene supplies to Haiti, focusing primarily on the needs of women neglected by large-scale relief operations.

Soon after the earthquake, Sonia said, “I think that this earthquake could serve as an opportunity for Haiti. Every time I speak I like to frame the issue around ‘construction,’ because ‘reconstruction’ would imply leaving [Haiti] where it was before the earthquake. And I want to dream.” So Sonia and MUDHA stayed in Haiti to try to realize these dreams.

In Port au Prince, soon after the earthquake, Sonia met the director of an orphanage in rural Leogane that had been destroyed in the earthquake and whose children were at risk from traffikers, MUDHA was able to nimbly move their operations to Leogane to work with and protect the children as well as oversee a rural tent camp of 175 people rendered homeless in the quake. She and her colleagues slept in tents and on floors themselves as they listened to the needs and concerns of women from the camp. She stressed the need for them to learn skills and start small income generating enterprises so that they could earn money. At the time of her death from a heart attack, MUDHA was helping the women from the camps do just that. They were nearing completion of construction of a permanent school for the orphans, conducting leadership training and community organizing skills in the camp to make it safer, forming a partnership with local police and providing the community health services and psycho-social counseling. The camp was shrinking as MUDHA was able to move some families into transitional housing.

I met Sonia when I traveled to Haiti last month with a group from American Jewish World Service, which has supported the work of MUDHA for the last 8 years. Hearing Sonia speak of that work, watching her literally roll up her sleeves to teach and work alongside young women from the tent camp, it wasn’t hard to understand why, AJWS was such a fan of her work and why she received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 2006 and the 2010 International Women of Courage Award, given by the U.S. Department of State.

Immediately after the earthquake, there were approximately 10,000 NGO’s all seeking a place in the “rebuilding” of Haiti. They all wanted a piece of the $2.5 billion in aid promised by the US, and much more from other countries. Many of these organizations were not worth the paper their organizing documents were written on. Today, perhaps 500 NGO’s are left. Little progress has been made. Many still live in tent camps. You can still see rubble in the streets and the shells of ruined homes still take up space. After direct and immediate humanitarian aid was doled out, only a small fraction of the promised US and other foreign aid was spent. To be sure, there were reasons why money didn’t flow into Haiti. There was much corruption and the government of Haiti was broken (40% of the government ministries were destroyed). There lacked a clear vision or cohesive plan of how to rebuild. No one seemed to be looking to solutions suggested by Haitians themselves. Now, I fear the US and the rest of the world, mired in the world financial crisis have lost the will to help Haiti.

But MUDHA and other grassroots groups with strong roots in Haiti are still there. They are making a difference in the lives they touch, innovating and finding ways to accompany their client base out of poverty. They are listening to what their communities say they need Supporting these grassroots organizations can help change Haiti. It probably won’t be enough. Efforts on the ground in Haiti must be combined with advocacy in the US and other benefactor nations to ensure that foreign aid to Haiti doesn’t undermine Haiti’s puts Haitians first and doesn’t take forms that inadvertently hurt Haiti’s own development efforts (as when, for instance, US surplus rice supplies arrived in Haiti the same week that Haitian farmers harvested the Haitian rice crops).

Sonia again: “I want to dream as a daughter of a daughter of this land, of my parents who originated from this land, and we’re here to contribute with our support. I have many dreams for Haiti, dreams that we can make a reality with much will and with support we can receive for the community and other support that we could receive; we are betting on these dreams.”

As we come up on the second anniversary of the devastating Haiti earthquake of January 2010, we need to be investing in others like Sonia to ensure that her dreams do not die with her.

Sonia Pierre, 1963 – 2011