04/26/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

As New Leaders Emerge From the Camps in Haiti, Will Their Voices be Heard?


Stephan Durogene, left, and Jennifer Banessa Destine, second fom the right, stand with other members of the camp committee at Delmas 62. Photo by Kenny Rae/Oxfam America

An estimated 230,000 lives lost; huge swaths of the capital destroyed; more than one million people homeless. Where in the sea of turmoil left by the January earthquake does Haiti begin to right itself?

What are the first steps?

Whenever I asked those questions during my recent field visit there, the answer was often a long sigh. So much in Haiti--its infrastructure, its educational system, its job markets--demanded attention before this disaster. Now the need is hyper acute. Where in the world do you start?

One answer seems clear to me: Reconstruction starts with the Haitian people--like the committee of young leaders who emerged at Delmas 62 to help the hundreds of people camped in the yard of a private compound. They needed food and water, shelter and medical care. And they needed to be organized. It was through the efforts of twenty-somethings like Stephan Durogene, Jennifer Banessa Destine, and a handful of others that sorely needed assistance began to flow over the tumbled walls into the makeshift camp.

"Stephan, since the first time I met him, has always shown good potential," says Ulrich Bien-Aime, a retired school teacher who was living in his sister's house in the compound when the quake hit and has known Durogene since he was a high school student. "He believes in doing well, doing good, doing what's right."

In the month since the quake leveled much of Port-au-Prince, the opinion of Haitian civil society has gone largely unheard. But at the end of February, a coalition of civil groups is planning to hold a conference on reconstruction. Wouldn't it be a perfect opportunity for new leaders, rising to the myriad challenges in the camps, to have their voices heard? Encouraging their participation in the decision-making that lies ahead can only make for a stronger Haiti.

Already, some of these leaders have shown enormous personal strength. When the buildings at Ruben Leconte University crashed around him, Durogene, an engineering major, helped pull students from the wreckage before heading off to find his parents and siblings. They were safe--and deeply relieved to see him. They had heard the university had collapsed, and feared that he had died in the rubble. But when they urged him to move with them to a safer part of the city, Durogene refused. He saw the need at Delmas 62 and decided that's where he had to stay.

"I didn't know I had this in me," he said, sitting still for a rare moment in a patch of hot shade at the camp. It was about 10 days after the disaster struck. "It's during the earthquake I realized I can be a good leader."

Together with Destine and a few other young adults, Durogene formed a committee to begin lobbying for aid for families who had taken refuge inside a once-private compound at Delmas 62. By day, 300 people were squeezed together under a few tarps and ropes draped with bed sheets. But at night, the numbers soared to 1,000.

"I just wanted to help people out," said Durogene, who knew that aid organizations would be flooding into the city and could provide assistance. "People don't know where to go, so I decided to go forward."
The small committee visited every aid group it could reach, including Oxfam, whose office was about half a mile from the camp.

"I explained to them there are injuries. They don't have water. They don't have anything to eat," recalled Durogene. Sometimes, the committee went back to make its case a second time.

The persistence of the committee members paid off.

First they got water delivered to the site. Then, when it started to rain, they appealed for tarps, and got some of those, too. Deliveries of kitchen supplies--pots for cooking, utensils for eating--followed from Oxfam, with the committee organizing an orderly distribution the following day. And soon, Oxfam was also digging latrines at the site and setting up a more permanent water supply in the form of a large collapsible bladder.

"I always have a head on my shoulders and come with bright ideas," said a matter-of-fact Destine, 29, about the role she plays as the only woman on the committee. And because she's a clear-thinker (and studied management for four years at university), the others embrace her ideas--like the one about recording the names of each head of household and the numbers in each family so the committee can keep track of how many people are in the camp.

During the evenings, the committee also works to keep order in the camp.

"At night, when everybody is back and ready to go to sleep, I take the megaphone and explain this is a private yard, and this is how we're supposed to behave," said Durogene.

Occasionally, the stress everyone is living under boils over and both Durogene and Destine have found themselves on the receiving end of a barrage of vitriol.

"Sometimes I find people cursing me," said Durogene who speaks--always--with a quiet, calm voice, a voice that most in the camp seem to respect," but I stay strong.....I didn't know it was so hard, so difficult. But I'll stay until everything is stable."

Commitment is at his core.

Bien-Aime, the retired school teacher, told me that Durogene was close--for the second time--to achieving his dream of becoming an engineer when the quake hit. A bullet shattered his university hopes the first time.

"One afternoon he was standing on a corner with friends when Aristide was going down," said Bien-Aime. "Soldiers were shooting." A bullet grazed Durogene's head, destroying the vision in his right eye, and setting him back in his studies.

But he didn't give up, said Ulrich.

Durogene is 27 now. He had just one project left to complete before the degree was his. Then, his world crashed.

"There is no building. No university. No staff," said Ulrich.

Durogene said he's not sure what will come next with his schooling or even with job prospects--which are nothing if not extremely challenging in Haiti. But of this he is certain: His commitment to the camp and the people it's sheltering is paramount.

"I cannot go out and look for a job now," he said. "I want to be sure the structures are in place in here."

The camp is just a beginning. As Haiti starts the long, arduous process of rebuilding itself, the social solidarity born from this tragedy, and all the potential of people forever shaped by it, can become the rocks from which mountains of good may rise.