Friday, May 21, 2010
Classmate Spotlight: Jessica Desvarieux
Jessica Desvarieux is living in a world very different from the one we all knew at Wellesley. Since the devastating earthquake in January, Jessica Desvarieux has been living in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, covering the devastating aftermath and recovery in the small nation for TIME Magazine. At the time of the earthquake, Jessica was living in the US, working as an on-air reporter for the Regional News Network, a cable network in her home state of New York. She has a rich background as a reporter, having graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism with a Masters in Broadcast Journalsim. She then moved to Egypt where she worked as a freelance reporter for the Associated Press, before moving back to New York.
When the devastating Earthquake hit Haiti in January, Jessica was eager to head down to her mother country to cover the tragedy that affected not only her family, but touched nearly every family in Haiti. Soon after the earthquake, Jessica made her way to Haiti, by way of the Dominican Republic and has been covering the rebuilding and recovery of the country since then, while also taking a bit of time outside of work to give back to the devastated communities around her. Jessica agreed to answer a few questions for the newsletter. You can also read some of Jessica’s stories from TIME magazine here and here.
How did you end up covering and living in Haiti?
When the 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti, I was getting ready to go on-air for the nightly cable show I used to report for in the New York area. "Breaking news: Earthquake Hits Haiti" read the caption on the news program. The first thought that came to mind was my 78-year-old grandmother who lives in Haiti. Using the family call tree, I just started dialing all of my close relatives to see if they knew anything more about my grandmother and the situation in Haiti. A couple days passed and information was trickling in back to the U.S. We were finally able to locate my grandmother who was indeed safe, but the pictures coming from Haiti revealed that she was quite fortunate. Each night I would watch images of bodies being picked up by backhoes and dropped in dumpsters, mothers crying and caring lifeless children, and miraculous rescues. These images haunted me not only because of their severity but I knew I should be there. I wanted to contribute to telling the story which would be a major turning point in Haiti's history. After a couple days of making arrangements, I packed, booked a flight to Dominican Republic since commercial flights were suspended, and headed to Haiti.
Were you or your family touched personally by the earthquake?
There were no deaths in my immediate family, but I lost my 27-year-old cousin Regine. She was an American citizen and decided to move back to Haiti because she loved the country. My family had constant faith that she would survive. There was so much confusion and misinformation coming out of Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake, and at times we heard she was alive. She texted her sister when she was underneath the rubble, but rescue workers were unable to reach her. Regine's death exemplifies how Haiti's lack of infrastructure caused so much unnecessary loss of life - 300,000 by the Haitian government's count. But her life represents a possibility for a better Haiti - the return of the Haitian diaspora to improve the country.
More than 3 months since the earthquake, how has Haiti changed? Is progress being made in rebuilding?
Progress is minimal and happening slowly in Haiti. Haitians have returned to a certain level of normalcy: merchants selling goods on the side of the road and many children are back in school. But there are still piles of rubble and debris all over the city and small projects of rubble removal have only begun to scratch the surface. The international community hasn’t responded to Haiti’s reconstruction with the same level of urgency as the rescue operations. Hurricane season is imminent and we are currently in the rainy season. With more than one million people homeless, there is no doubt that shelter should be a major priority. Aid comes down in trickles in Haiti, but when it rains it pours.
What has been the biggest struggle in covering the stories and news coverage out of Haiti?
As part of the nature of news, Haiti has migrated from the front pages of newspapers to a sporadic news story. The drama and the initial shock and awe of the earthquake have faded so it’s a challenge to continue to make the story interesting and relevant to an American audience. But with that said, there were a number of post-earthquake stories about the missionaries who were charged with kidnapping 33 Haitian children. Because it involved Americans, it was instantaneously popular. I struggled with the immense amount of media attention given to this one story. Staking out the courthouse for half a day just to get a snapshot of the missionaries being escorted by Haitian police made me wonder about all of the untold stories of the millions who were homeless, hungry and right outside the courthouse gate. Finally, it’s a challenge understanding and conveying the scope of the disaster. Port-au-Prince is extremely centralized and media attention has largely focused on the capital. But there are cities outside the capital like Leogone with 80% of its buildings completely destroyed.
What do you do outside of work to make time for yourself?
Time for myself often comes second, but I try to keep working on projects that keep me fulfilled. I am in the process of establishing an education program called Adopt-a-School. Adopt-a-School was founded on the principle that education systems can be interconnected to form global communities. Schools in the United States can choose a school to adopt in order to form a bond as a brother or sister school. Donating supplies and having teachers and students volunteer their time can solidify this bond. Often times after a natural disaster, there is an outpouring of support and many people want to see their funds go directly to the people. I thought this program would be a great way to do just that. Also, I try to go the beach on occasion and get out of Port-au-Prince as much as possible to really see the true natural beauty of Haiti.
What, in your opinion have been the most effective organizations in Haiti since the earthquake?
Partners in Health does a lot of great work outside of Port-au-Prince. ADRA ( Adventist Development and Relief Agency), one of the first organizations putting up temporary shelters. KOFAVIV – Haitian run organization composed of female rape victims with the mission to help raped women receive medical and psychological attention. Even though their office is a pile of rubble now, they are still operating under a tent. They go from tent city to tent city since insecurity is a reality for many women including themselves. This organization is completely grassroots run by Haitian female volunteers.