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Michelle Obama, Jill Biden Visit Haitian Quake Survivor Camp

First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the wife of the U.S. vice president, April 13 visited a Port-au-Prince earthquake survivor settlement run by theEpiscopal Diocese of Haiti.

The two women walked to College Ste. Pierre, a wrecked diocesan high school, as part of their one-day surprise tour of the Haitian capital.

U.S. Embassy personnel told the Rev. Lauren Stanley, Episcopal Church-appointed missionary in Haiti and liaison to Bishop of Haiti Jean Zaché Duracin in the U.S., that Obama and Biden visited the site because they wanted to see an actual survivor camp where Haitians were helping Haitians recover in the quake's aftermath. Stanley said the embassy personnel told her that they knew such work was being facilitated by the diocese.

Obama and Biden arrived at College Ste. Pierre about 12:30 p.m. and were greeted by head of school the Rev. Lucas Rigal; Joseph Harry Anglade, College Ste. Pierre academic director; and the Rev. Canon Oge Beauvoir, dean of the diocese's nearby seminary and executive director of its Bureau of Anglican Education of Haiti. The men, whom Stanley said learned 90 minutes before Obama and Biden arrived that they would be visiting, briefed the two women on the situation at the camp.

According to the media pool report, sounds of saws could be heard in the background where workers are helping to rebuild classrooms.

Obama and Biden talked with some of the people living in the camp and with some of the people building the new classrooms. Stanley said the two later spoke at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince and praised the efforts of schools such as College Ste. Pierre to re-open.

As many as 200 students may have died at the school during the Jan. 12 magnitude-7 earthquake, according to Stanley, who said that university students were taking tests at the high school when the quake hit.

The College Ste. Pierre settlement began the night of the quake and has held as many as 3,000 survivors, including some diocesan personnel. It is one of many such camps the diocese is now managing throughout Haiti.

Abagail Nelson, Episcopal Relief & Development senior vice president for programs, told the Episcopal Church's Executive Council in February that her agency and the diocese believe that between 25,000 and 30,000 survivors are living in more than 60 settlements connected to the diocese.

Before arriving at College Ste. Pierre, Obama and Biden had first toured the devastated capital in a U.S. Army helicopter, according to press reports. Their helicopter then landed on the lawn of the destroyed presidential palace in downtown Port-au-Prince, where the two met with Haitian President René Préval and his wife, Elisabeth Delatour Preval.

According to the media pool report, they then went through the Camps de Mars, the city's central square that now houses a huge survivors' settlement, on their way to visit a children's art-therapy center set up behind Le Musee d'Art Haitien.

Children do art therapy in green buses that were donated by the first lady of the Dominican Republic and are decorated with balloons in the red, white and blue colors of the Haitian flag. Dozens of children sang their greetings to Biden and Obama, who danced with them. The two women joined some children in one of the buses, where Obama later said she drew a red fish at the request of the children.

Plas Timoun or "The Children's Place" was developed by Mrs. Preval Philippe Dodard, an internationally respected Haitian graphic artist and painter, and a group of psychologists, educators and politicians, according to the pool report.

The White House kept the women's visit secret for security reasons until they arrived in the Haitian capital at about 4:40 a.m. local time. The visit was meant to "underscore to the Haitian people and the Haitian government the enduring U.S. commitment to help recover and rebuild, especially as we enter the rainy and hurricane seasons," the White House said

The White House said Obama and Biden also thanked "the women and men across the whole of the U.S. government for their extraordinary efforts in Haiti during the past three months and reach[ed] out to the U.N. and international relief communities in recognition of the truly global effort underway to help Haiti."

Their visit came in conjunction with Obama's three-day trip to Mexico City where, in her first solo diplomatic venture, she is to meet children, tour an anthropology museum and dine at Los Pinos, the president's residence.

Duracin was not present for the visit because he had left earlier in the day for a previously scheduled trip to south Florida. His wife is recuperating there from injuries she suffered when their home collapsed during the quake.

 

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service and editor of Episcopal News Monthly.

Episcopal Life Online 
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