Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hope, futures restored

Graduation day at U of W for survivors of Haitian quake devastation

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The Haitian Class of 2013 graduated from the University of Winnipeg Friday.

When an earthquake killed close to 300,000 people in Haiti three years ago, the U of W rallied to help. It brought five students whose educations had been literally shaken to a halt to Winnipeg to complete their studies. One is still studying and four graduated Friday in an emotional convocation ceremony held especially for them.

"Education is the greatest gift you can give to a country," said Jean Widny Pervil after receiving his bachelor of business administration degree. The 27-year-old's studies in Port-au-Prince and plans for the future ground to a halt on Jan. 12, 2010.

"The world held its breath to watch the devastation unfold in Haiti," said Lloyd Axworthy, president of the university and Canada's former foreign affairs minister. He set up the Haitian Students Task Force in response to that devastation.

"The suffering seemed unbearable," said Axworthy, who'd visited Haiti many times before the quake.

For, Pervil, it nearly was.

"You wake up in the morning asking 'Why am I still alive?' when all your friends passed away,' " he said in an interview after the ceremony.

He recalled attending classes in Port-au-Prince on the day of the quake. Pervil left his faculty building and was in a classroom on the second floor of another building when the earthquake struck. It withstood the quake but when Pervil went back to his faculty building, it had collapsed, killing his dean, many professors and students.

On top of his shock and grief, Pervil said he had lost hope for the future. His education came to a halt. His university was gone. His country, which was already struggling to get back up, was knocked down once again.

Within months of the quake, things started looking up for Pervil when he was presented with an opportunity.

Studying in Winnipeg.

He'd never heard of the place but jumped at a chance to compete with many other university students for one of five coveted scholarships to go "overseas" and continue studying at the University of Winnipeg, he said. There was an exam, and their grade point average, course of study and plans for the future were taken into consideration, said Pervil, who made the cut. He hopes to further his education, then return to Haiti and join a university faculty.

"All our human resources are gone," he said. "We're good assets," Pervil said with a nod to the other three grads, Samy Archille, Helena Lafleur and Jaquet Duval. The fifth student, Vanessa Laurent, is expected to graduate in the coming months.

They had their cost of living, tuition, as well as post-traumatic stress counselling provided by the university, said Pervil.

The "holistic approach" the university took to helping them is what Haiti needs to rebuild, he said. "I want to work with my community and get back on track," said Pervil.

In Winnipeg, the whole community pitched in and supported the Haitian visitors, said Axworthy. Students held fundraisers, faculty and staff took the Haitians under their wing and so did expat Haitians in Winnipeg, he said.

In return, the students from Haiti have been "great teachers," said Neil Besner, U of W vice-president of research, recruitment and international.

"Your achievements are an inspiration to others," he said in addressing the grads.

"I've been here 25 years and attended a lot of convocations," Besner said after the tearful but joyous ceremony. "This is one of the most moving ones."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2013 B1

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