January 31, 2010

Haiti and Cornell: A Long and Continuing Relationship

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It has been nearly three weeks since the devastating earthquake struck Haiti, and we continue to be moved by the unfathomable devastation, by the loss of life and the dislocation of so many. We are also inspired by the resilience of the Haitian people in the face of extraordinary suffering and by the outpouring of sympathy, concern and support that has come from the international community and from so many on Cornell’s campuses, not only in Ithaca and New York City, but also in Qatar and at Weill Bugando in Tanzania.

Last week brought numerous activities, including at least two faculty-led discussions of the earthquake, its social implications and ways to respond. In addition the Cornell Glee Club put on a benefit concert and Sage Chapel held a moving service organized by the Haitian Students Association and a variety of other campus groups. This Saturday (Feb. 6) there will be a salsa dance benefit for Haiti, sponsored by Cornell’s Sabor Latino Dance Ensemble and Salsa Libre Dance Club. And many other groups, from Big Red Relief to Cornell Hillel, are planning awareness and fundraising events throughout the semester. Haiti remains very much on our minds and in our hearts.

Haiti’s plight is especially poignant for those of us at Cornell because we have had a strong and close relationship with the people of Haiti for more than three decades, especially through the work of the Haitian Group for the Study of Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Opportunistic Infections (GHESKIO), founded by Dr. Jean Pape, a 1975 graduate of the Weill Cornell Medical College (WCMC) and now a professor of medicine at WCMC. GHESKIO was one of the first institutions in the world to fight HIV/AIDS. Since 1982 GHESKIO’s doors have been continuously open, without so much as charging patients a fee. Faculty and students from WCMC have been working at and with GHESKIO since the day it opened. GHESKIO’s facilities were heavily damaged in the earthquake. Four of its staff members were killed; a dozen were injured; a score more have not yet reported to work. But GHESKIO is continuing its HIV/AIDS work while providing emergency medical and surgical care, and humanitarian assistance, to some 5,000 Haitians camped on its premises.

There will be three phases in responding to Haiti’s agony. The first, which is foremost in our minds at the moment, is the provision of immediate, emergency relief in the form of food, water, fuel, medical care and other essentials to relieve human suffering and sustain life. The need for such relief remains great despite the outpouring of support from nations and individuals around the globe. The second phase, which has already started, is the enormous humanitarian effort of caring for orphans, the homeless and others dislocated by the earthquake. The third phase, which will be the work of months and years, will be the rebuilding of Haiti and its infrastructure. Cornell Professor Ken Hover, of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has already been on the ground in Port-au-Prince, working with WCMC and GHESKIO staff to determine the extent of damage to its facilities and other structures, but the work of rebuilding will take time and substantial resources.

Cornell has considerable experience in all of these areas, but particularly in the third. When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, our campus was quick to respond with immediate assistance. Moreover, with leadership from the Department of City and Regional Planning and other groups on campus, Cornell faculty, staff and students have played a significant role in the rebuilding of the Ninth Ward and other areas that had suffered severe damage from the hurricane.

Using our response to Katrina as one model, and our long relationship with Haiti as motivation, I believe Cornell has a responsibility to mount a coordinated effort of replanning and rebuilding in Haiti, focused on the longer-term needs of the country, which will endure long after the immediate crisis has abated. Toward that end, I have appointed Alice Pell, vice provost for international relations and professor of animal science, and Dr. Warren D. Johnson, the B.H. Kean Professor of Tropical Medicine at WCMC, who has directed Cornell’s research and training program in Haiti since 1980, to head a faculty steering group to plan a Cornell response: The Cornell-Haiti Project. The group will be named very soon, and the planning has already begun.

At this very formative stage it is too early to give specific details of the effort; partners need to be identified, funding must be put in place; an overall strategy developed and coordinated with others. But after three decades on the ground in Haiti, Cornell will continue work with the people of Haiti to find the path forward. At this stage, I encourage you to continue your support for GHESKIO and other relief efforts, to support those at Cornell personally affected by the tragedy and to share your ideas concerning Cornell’s longer-term role with Alice Pell, Warren Johnson and me.

As Elizabeth Fox ’09, who had just started working as nutrition training coordinator for GHESKIO a few days before the earthquake, wrote in the Cornell Daily Sun last week, “Men anpil, chay pa lou; ansam nou kapab.” [With many hands, the burden is light; together we can.]

David J. Skorton is president of Cornell University. He may be reached at david.skorton@cornell.edu. From David appears monthly this semester.

Original Author: David J. Skorton