Spring 2010 Issue

Letters for Haiti

Initially wary of the assignment, this young Miami Herald staffer and Barry alumna found solace writing about her family’s experience in the wake of the Haitian earthquake

By Richard A. Webster

Nadege Charles ’09 poses for a picture with her grandfather, Achimel Broger, in Gros-Morne, Haiti, in December of 2009.Charles shares a photo she took in December 2009 of a rooster in her grandmother’s backyard.

The first time Nadege Charles ’09 visited Haiti she was 9 years old and hated every minute of it. There was no electricity, which meant no TV.

“I wasn’t too excited to be there,” she said, laughing. “I suppose the most interesting part as a kid were the animals. Growing up in the concrete jungle of Miami you don’t see hogs and donkeys. So I suppose that was a saving grace.”

Charles visited her parents’ homeland three more times as she grew older, and with each trip she developed a stronger appreciation for the culture and resiliency of the people.

“The more I went, the more I saw a sense of hope in Haiti. It was rebuilding slowly from the hurricanes last year and the year before,” said Charles, whose family immigrated to Miami in the early ’80s. “Security wasn’t as tight as it should be, but it was improving. To see all of that go away with the earthquake is definitely disheartening.”

Charles was on her way to cover a city council meeting for The Miami Herald when she first heard of the disaster. After receiving a text message from a friend, she called her sister who confirmed the news.

“The gravity of the situation didn’t hit until the first images came out on CNN,” she said. “Haiti had been obliterated. That’s what it seemed like.”

Immediately after the earthquake the Herald assembled a team of 10 veteran reporters and photographers to fly to the small island nation and cover the aftermath.

Charles had only been with the paper for seven months at the time of the earthquake. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English, she was hired as a news clerk, answering phones and writing news briefs, eventually working her way up to a full-time staff writer position in January.

Being a novice reporter, she was not a part of the paper’s on-the-ground coverage. But her editors did ask her if she would write a series of columns describing what she and her family were going through in the weeks following the tragedy.

Charles was hesitant. She worried she was too overcome with emotion to be able to piece together her thoughts in a coherent manner. At the time she had dozens of family members in Port-au-Prince still unaccounted for.

But in the end she agreed, hoping that her words would humanize the tragedy.

“You can look at the television and not get the same intimate perspective as when someone is writing about it,” she said. “And for me, personally, it was therapeutic. It allowed me to eulogize a lot of family members I won’t ever see again. But at least know I have their names in print and something I can hold. As a journalist I know there is power in the written word.”

One family member Charles was forced to eulogize in the series of four columns that ran from January 14 – 20 was her cousin, Mirkerlange Deus. Deus was “entombed beneath IGC University in Canape Vert, a community (west of Port-au-Prince) dotted with flimsy shantytowns before the earthquake and now leveled,” Charles wrote. “She was 25.”

The worst part is that Charles was supposed to meet Deus for the first time during her last trip to Haiti in December, but the sudden death of her grandmother prevented the two from connecting.

During such low moments Charles found herself questioning her faith. In her column on January 20 she writes about accompanying her mother to Sunday mass at Notre Dame D’Haiti in Miami. The pastor tells his congregation in the face of such tragedy it is natural to question God. But he also speaks to the strength of the Haitian people who have suffered so much for so long. And at one point, Charles writes that it feels as if he is speaking directly to her and the responsibility she bears as a journalist:

‘You must be the voice of your brothers and sisters who are suffering,’ he said.

Charles then recounts how her mother, through her unwavering faith, gave her strength.

Every morning since the earthquake, my mother has been attending Mass before going to work. She said it’s the only way to cope. ‘God is good,’ she told me. ‘He’s going to do His work. We have to do ours.’

Through her columns, Charles hoped to put to rest what she sees as common misconceptions people in the United States often have about Haiti and Haitians. “All you ever hear about Haiti is that it’s the poorest country. But there is a vibrant culture that’s [rarely] spoken about and it comes from this great resiliency of the people,” she said. “You think it would be a depressed population, because the people have endured so much for so long. But that’s not the case. There’s a wonderful spirit that’s hard to find anywhere else, and that is what I want people to think of when they think of Haiti.”

Richard Webster is a staff writer for New Orleans CityBusiness, covering crime and health care.