Coping with Disaster at Home: Meet Chris Laurent

Chris Laurent, a senior who came to America from Haiti when he was 15, speaks at the NJIT vigil.

NJIT, one of the most diverse campuses in the nation, has dozens of Haitian students, all of whose lives were uprooted by the earthquake. Yet all of them are coping.

Consider, for instance, Chris Laurent (class of 2010), a senior here.  He was born in Marlique, Haiti, and came to the U.S. when he was 15.  His family settled in Asbury Park, where he attended public schools.  He did well in his math and science classes and loved hands-on building projects.  

When Chris was a boy, more than anything else, he loved to build. He'd spend endless hours in his backyard building mud huts. Or tree houses.  A friend of his parents worked as a civil engineer. Chris would visit that engineer and stare wonderingly at his drawings.  He knew then that one day he'd be a civil engineer.

Later, when he was a senior at Asbury Park High, Chris's teachers suggested he apply to NJIT, a school with a prominent civil engineering department. He got in. Now, four years later, Chris is a last-semester senior, majoring in civil engineering

Chris was on winter break when the earthquake struck.  He was in his apartment playing Farmville on Facebook when a friend called to tell him the news: an earthquake had flattened Port-au-Prince. Chris looked at Yahoo news and saw the graphic images -- people caught in the rubble. His heart sank. "I was too shocked to cry," Chris recalled. "I immediately thought to myself, 'How is my family doing?'"

In this interview, Chris talks about how his family fared in the wake of the earthquake and what it's like to see his homeland razed.  He also discusses what he's been doing to help Haiti.

So was your family okay?
I called but could not get through to my grandmother or uncles and cousins. Growing up, I was really close to my grandma. Dark thoughts entered my mind. I'm due to graduate in May and I want my grandmother to see me walk.  I thought to myself, now she won't see me get my diploma.  

How or when did you eventually get through to someone in Haiti?
Ten hours later, a Haitian friend who lives in Florida called to tell me my cousin, who was missing at first, was found.  She had been in her sister's house, which collapsed, but the rubble did not envelop her. Some hours later I was able to call a cousin in Haiti, who told me my family members were okay.  My father's cousin was in a hotel that collapsed; she hurt her leg and they took her to the Dominican Republic for care. But she is okay.

Are you involved with the Haitian community at NJIT?
I'm the President of the Haitian Student Association at NJIT. We have about 50 Haitian students. I'm also the liaison to the outside Haitian community here at NJIT. That means if NJIT wants to reach out to Haitian groups, I make the contact.  I'm also a member of Engineers without Borders at NJIT, which is working on a great water purification project in a Haitian village called Milot.

How have those groups responded to the earthquake?
We immediately met with the staff at NJIT and decided to raise money for UNICEF.  We held a vigil, at which I spoke. We are planning to host a Haitian art exhibit and ask for donations that we'll send to Haiti. Engineers Without Borders is meeting to see how we can expand our work in Haiti. We hope to return to Haiti in the spring to continue our work.  The Haitian Student Association at NJIT also met with other student groups to help raise money for Haiti.

Has NJIT done much to help Haiti?
Oh yes and that makes me feel so grateful and proud to be a student here. It was the NJIT staff that immediately organized a university-wide fund-raiser. They also quickly organized the vigil, which was so touching. And the NJIT staff is continuing to meet to see what else students, faculty and staff can do to help Haiti. Bless them for that.

You are studying to be a civil engineer, so you understand earthquakes and foundations of buildings.  Do you think you might do some engineering work in Haiti?
After I graduate in May, if Haiti needs engineers, I will go. I have thought about working down there for a year or so to help rebuild the country's infrastructure.

Is there anything you'd like Americans to know about Haiti and its people?
What is often forgotten in the news stories about Haiti is that we have a rich history. Toussaint Louverture was a slave who after he was freed studied the art of war in Europe. He returned to Haiti and defeated the British colonists, and later the Spanish and the French, from whom Haiti gained its independence in 1804.  Also forgotten is that when the French fought with the Americans against the English in the War of Independence, it wasn't the French who actually did the fighting. It was Haitian slaves who fought to help America liberate itself from the yoke of Britain.

Do you think Haiti will rebuild and come out of this catastrophe in good shape?
The Haitian people need better political leaders and a better justice system.  That has been holding the people down for decades. So I hope Haiti can reform its political and justice system, as well as its infrastructure and building codes. The Haitian people are a strong and intelligent people.  We will rise from this catastrophe. We will prevail.

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)