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An Interview with Mildred Aristide

Mildred Aristide is an attorney, who as former First Lady of Haiti, headed the country’s National AIDS Commission and authored a book on the root causes of child domestic service.  Since her family’s return home from forced exile in 2011, Ms. Aristide and her husband, former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (known throughout Haiti as Titide) have focused their efforts on developing the University of the Aristide Foundation. 

The work to build UNIFA, has taken place in the midst of growing repression within the country. Long overdue elections have not taken place. Police and UN troops using live ammunition, chemical agents and clubs have attacked demonstrators protesting against the Martelly government. President Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, has been threatened repeatedly with arrest, with heavily armed police surrounding the Aristides’ home.

Yet UNIFA has persevered.  In this new interview, Ms. Aristide details progress made by this groundbreaking university over the last few years. Forged in the fight for democracy and inclusion, UNIFA is a true example of popular education in action.

Haiti Solidarity: First of all, thank you so much for your time. It is an honor for us at Haiti Solidarity to be conducting this interview. 

Looking back four years ago, to March 18, 2011, the date of your family’s return from exile in South Africa, what do you remember about that moment?

Ms. Aristide: Without a doubt, our accompaniment home from the airport to the front door of the house – where we sat in the car for 15 minutes until a passage could be cleared through the crowd to get inside! It is a moment and a feeling that I’ll never forget. The four of us like to refer to it as a ‘tsunami of love.

Q: Why was reopening UNIFA the central priority of President Aristide’s work upon your return to Haiti? Why is UNIFA so essential to the movement for real democracy in Haiti? 

Ms. Aristide: Let me start with some background. Titide created the Aristide Foundation University (UNIFA) in 2001. It was an extension of the Haiti-Cuba cooperation in health care. Instead of sending Haitian students to med school in Cuba we would train more doctors and health professionals in the country. We broke ground on the campus in 2002. By 2003 the first phase of construction was completed; approximately 247 medical students began classes. Early February 2004, the university teaching hospital, Hopital Universitaire de la Paix, opened. Then there was the coup d’etat. While Titide and I were forced from our home and the country, UNIFA students were forced from the campus. University classrooms and dorm rooms were transformed into military barracks by soldiers of the multi-national force deployed to Haiti. Remarkably, most of the students made their way to Cuba and completed their training. When the earthquake struck on January 12, 2010, some of these young doctors staffed emergency clinics at the Foundation auditorium; two are part of our staff at UNIFA.

In the month before we returned to Haiti, Titide wrote: “A year on [from the earthquake], young people and students look to the Foundation’s University to return to its educational vocation and help fill the gaping national hole left on the day the earth shook in Haiti … I will return to Haiti to the field I know best and love: education.” Education has always been at the center of his life work – as teacher/priest, creating Lafanmi Selavi (center for street children), his writings, social justice activism, tenure as Haiti’s first democratically elected president, his scholarship in South Africa. And today, he brings all of that to UNIFA.

Right now, in the moment that Haiti is living, the university is essential. Haiti vitally needs a safe space where young people can come together, think country and construct a future under very difficult circumstances. A place where they can learn from and interact with national and international professionals. An institution that will address national issues and seek viable solutions to national problems. Dreams of working, prospering and changing Haiti – not chasing after a foreign visa or a job with a foreign NGO. This is UNIFA’s commitment.

Q: Could you describe the growth of UNIFA over the past four years, and the impact it has made in Haiti in this period?

Ms. Aristide: UNIFA’s first admissions exam in 2011 drew over 1,000 applicants – when we could only accept 126 students for that first class! One hundred and twenty six is a tiny fraction of the approximately 50,000 students who complete high school every year in Haiti; it speaks to the urgent need for access to quality university education in Haiti. Last year it was reported that there are about 30,000 Haitians attending university in the Dominican Republic at a cost of 80-90 million dollars a year. So an immediate – albeit limited – impact that UNIFA has had is to offer Haitian parents more options in the education of their daughters and sons.

Every year, we work to expand those options. Since beginning with the medical school, we have added a school of nursing, law and this past September, in partnership with Stony Brook University in NY, Haiti’s first school of physical therapy. Our student population stands at approximately 1,200. We grew from a handful of instructors to over 65 instructors across the 4 different schools. Our Haitian instructors are complemented by a visiting instructors’ program. American and Haitian-American professionals who spend up to a week teaching on campus. Last year we had the privilege of welcoming Jeffrey Brand, former dean of the University of San Francisco Law School. As well as Dr. Henri Ford, Haitian-American chief of pediatric orthopedics at LA Children’s Hospital. Our 3rd and 4th year medical students are enrolled in clinical training at area hospitals, plus the Mirbalais Hospital established by Partners in Health. Third year nursing students as well.

In terms of student services, we now have a fully functioning cafeteria for students and staff, we have increased our broadband width – although it’s still not enough – and are actively working with our partners at Rosalind Franklin University of Medical Sciences (Illinois) to have access to their online library and human anatomy program. The partial renovation of the residential campus has meant that we have been able to lodge visiting instructors. And this year 10 students are residing on campus.

Q: Can you discuss the health care issues facing Haiti right now – and UNIFA’s role in helping to meet those challenges?

Ms. Aristide: Of course cholera remains a very serious public health crisis. At the end of 2014, several reports indicated spikes in the number of infections and deaths attributable to cholera across different parts of the country. I wouldn’t be surprised if we passed 9,000 deaths already. That, added to chronic infectious diseases like AIDS and TB, makes for a very difficult health outlook. All this against the backdrop of a hugely insufficient number of physicians for the population. Existing and new hospitals built since the earthquake function well below 100% levels because of staff shortage. The clinical support that responded to the earthquake has left. Haiti counts only a handful of trained physical therapists, when the need for therapy skyrocketed after the earthquake. The capital’s General Hospital does not have a properly functioning morgue. There is an urgent need for Haitian trained health care providers, nurses, technicians, pharmacists, and administrators – at every level. Education and training in the health sciences must be a priority in any viable national health plan.

Q: In Haiti, university education has traditionally been the province of the elite. How has UNIFA begun to break this mold?

Ms. Aristide: When UNIFA opened in 2001, government support allowed us to be tuition free.  When we reopened in September 2011 (without government financial support) it was clear that we would not be able to survive without tuition.  The current tuition at UNIFA  (less than 1,500 USD a year) is less then what other private universities charge.  So that is already broadening access.   Still we know that for Haiti, in these most difficult economic times, that tuition is still a lot.  And the solution may be making more need-based scholarships available; to do that we have to raise more money.    Beyond the economic factor, there is a psychological and social barrier that UNIFA is committed to overcoming: The notion that only some people can be doctors or can go to university.  And in fact the student body at UNIFA is representative of a broader spectrum of Haitian society than you might see at other Haitian Universities.   Students and their families know that UNIFA’s doors are open to all.   Both the Foundation and UNIFA are built on this guiding principle: “Tout moun se moun”.  Every person is a human being.  Every young person should be able to go to university, every person has the right to health care.   #BlackLivesMatter.

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Mildred Aristide. Photo: UNIFA.

Q: One of the impressive features of the University is its gender balance.  Each of the schools – law, medical, nursing and physical therapy – has at least 50% women students. Could you discuss the significance of this for Haiti and how this has been achieved?

Ms. Aristide: Another social barrier to tear down: That the university is the domain of men.  We start the year with a 50-50-gender balance (except in nursing where the pool of applicants is overwhelming feminine) and we have no difficulty finding qualified female candidates.   One thing we have seen though is that there is a certain amount of attrition along the way, and attrition among female students is slightly higher, which means that the balance is not always maintained.  So here is something we are looking at, asking what additional barriers to completing their studies do female students face?  How can we as a University address that?   Our commitment is always for gender parity.

Q: In the past period, there has been a growth in repressive measures against political expression in Haiti, including threats to arrest President Aristide. How has this impacted you and your family? How has it impacted UNIFA?   

Ms. Aristide: Unsettling, but not surprising. Sadly, the absence of the rule of law means that anything is possible; anything can be said. Human rights are routinely violated, like what happened to Titide. There is a Creole expression: The dogs bark, the caravan rolls by. In August, as the political machine spewed its lies, here is what he was doing: Preparing for a 4th year at UNIFA; registering students; overseeing construction of the school of physical therapy (which is now 95% complete); working with the new dean of the medical school; assessing completion of the second 3-week international social medicine summer class. Committed as he has been all his life to working with the people of Haiti.

There are people that are visibly surprised when they visit our campus. They see students in white lab coats bustling to and from class. They stare at these young women and men sitting on benches, studying, eating lunch, hanging out, checking their email. An eyebrow is raised when they see a well-known practicing physician or lawyer step into class. Normal, everyday events for us, yet UNIFA has to push back against false perceptions. The wheel is turning. I like to tell visitors that they are standing on sacred ground. This is not hyperbole. The stakes and the country’s needs are too high. UNIFA cannot be a pawn in political fighting. There should be no attempt to use or manipulate our students to serve political ends. UNIFA is a national project that is slowly revealing itself to be a national institution in the service of the country.

We have 3 goals: (1) to prepare doctors to care for the poorest of the poor (2) to increase the number of doctors practicing in rural areas and (3) to break down long tradition of exclusion of the poor majority in Haiti from access to higher education.

Q: What are some of UNIFA’s goals for the next few years? How would you like to see the University’s reach expand?

Ms. Aristide: There are no lesser priorities, but in my book, these are five top priorities: First, UNIFA’s own teaching hospital. Second, a sizeable endowment that can allow us to lower or better yet eliminate tuition. Third, a school of science (biology, chemistry, math and engineering). Fourth, complete renovation of the residential campus so that we can accommodate students from all across the country. And fifth, a stand-alone library.

Q: We know that UNIFA has done all of this work with such limited resources. What are the ways in which people and organizations outside of Haiti can help further UNIFA’s work? How can people with ties to universities and medical institutions help? 

Ms. Aristide: Well, the most straightforward cooperation is financial. While a portion of the budget comes from student tuition, we depend on international and national support for the rest. We also encourage donations/contributions of teaching material, like anatomical models and charts, laboratory equipment, etc. I recently came across an article online titled “Learning surgery in Haiti”. A group of surgeons and 2 American med students came “to Haiti” (no hospital or medical school is mentioned) for 5 days and performed 46 surgeries. This was a wonderful and most likely life-saving event for the 46 patients treated. According to the article, the students had “opportunities unavailable to them back home.” To perform the surgeries, “the team shipped 18, 50-pound boxes of instruments and materials.” Now, imagine if that group had gone one step further and partnered with a Haitian medical school to train Haitian students too. That is the kind of engaged cooperation and support that UNIFA seeks to strengthen.

This interview was conducted by a team from Haiti Solidarity.

 

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