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Exhibit opens eyes to the Haitian experience

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 11:24 a.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, Feb. 3, 2014 7:26 p.m. CDT
(Doug Oleson – doleson@shawmedi)
Annan Lomo (left) and Jan Sebon of Rockford perform traditional Haitian music at the opening reception for the "Fragments: Haiti Four Years After the Earthquake" exhibit.
(Doug Oleson – doleson@shawmedi)
Ellie Bowers, 13, of Sycamore checks out the block home at the "Fragments: Haiti Four Years After the Earthquake" exhibit. The eighth-grader said she is going on a one-week church mission trip to help build homes in Haiti this summer.
(Doug Oleson – doleson@shawmedi)
Northern Illinois University graduate students, from left, Molly Fitzpatrick, Anna Kordek and Alexx Salazar check out one of the tents in the Haiti exhibit.

DeKALB – Standing in the far corner of The Anthropology Museum at Northern Illinois University is a gray, 6-foot by 8-foot cinder block home. Inside is a mattress, covered by a single sheet and a multi-colored blanket, a small bamboo table, a blue plastic bowl, and little else.

“There is no running water and no privacy,” museum director Jennifer Kirker-Priest said. She added that the shelter’s solid appearance is deceiving because it’s still vulnerable to the elements.

But an identical shelter in Haiti has been the home of a family of five for four years. Although more durable than a tent, where many Haitians live, Kirker-Priest said the cinder-block structure was never intended to last that long.

The house is part of a new exhibit, “Fragments: Haiti Four Years After the Earthquake,” which runs in the museum inside Cole Hall through the end of May.

Told through the eyes of five survivors, each representing a different segment of the Haitian population, the exhibit chronicles the everyday life of Haitian people after the devasting earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010.

Rated the fifth-worst natural disaster in history, the earthquake took an estimated 316,000 lives – one-sixth the population of the entire country, or the equivalent of 50 milion in America. It left 1.5 million people homeless and created 10 million cubic meters of rubbish.  

The exhibit also includes two different tents like those many Haitians still live in, plus a short documentary and numerous photos and artifacts, including a community-shared toilet with a sign announcing that “11,000 people have used this before you.”

The exhibit also explores what happened to the billions of dollars in aid that poured into the country after the disaster. It asks daunting questions: What did the world learn from this, and how can it be used to assist other disaster areas?

In his opening remarks at the exhibit’s grand opening last Friday, NIU President Doug Baker said American hearts still go out to the Haitian people.

“We not only learn from the tragedy, but from the strengths of the people,” he said.

Other speakers at the reception were Haitian Consul Gen. Lesly  Conde, Judge Lionel Jean-Baptiste, co-founder of the Haitian Congress, and Elsie Hernandez, director of the Haitian-American Museum of Chicago.

The exhibit was a collorbative effort between Kirker-Priest, library curator Laura McDowell Hopper and NIU professor Mark Schuller, who has been studying Haitian culture for 10 years.

“There are so many stories to tell,” Kirker-Priest said. “We wanted to do this in a non-academic way.”

Schuller said a “tangible, hands-on exhibit” can move people in a way that even a good documentary can’t.

“You can sit in a tent and try to imagine what life is like for them for four years,” he said. “I thought this would be a good opporuntiy to galvanize the community to get involved.”

“It’s really amazing,” said Ellie Bowers, 13, of Sycamore. Ellie, an eighth-grader, said she wanted to check out the exhibit because she is going on a week-long church mission trip to Haiti this summer.

“To have something about Haiti in this community is good,” said Haitian musican Jan Sebon, who entertained the large crowd with authentic Haitian music. “It motivates people to get involved. Not only Haiti, but the whole world needs help.”

“This definitely sends the message,” NIU graduate student Anna Kordek said, noting that the exhibit is well laid-out and easy to read. “It gives you a visual.”

“This is a great way of raising awareness,” NIU graduate student Alexx Salazar added.

Graduate student Molly Fitzpatrick said she wasn’t aware of what tent cities are like, and that seeing the exhibit made her truly appreciate everything she has.

Which is another point to the exhibit.

”This is a positive story,” Kirker-Priest said. “I hope it inspires people.”

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