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Ambassador to Haiti speaks at Walsh Jesuit

By John Published: September 13, 2010

By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer

CUYAHOGA FALLS: It's time for American diplomatic efforts in Haiti eight months after an earthquake killed 230,000 people and left more than a million homeless to pivot from humanitarian assistance to reconstruction.

That was what U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Kenneth Merten told the students of his alma mater, Walsh Jesuit High School, during an assembly Friday.

''Our goal is to become very active, not only in housing and infrastructure areas over the coming months, but to work to help the Haitians redevelop their agricultural sector, to develop the electrical sector,'' Merten said.

''The electricity situation in Haiti is dire. Most people have no access to electricity and many of those people who do get somewhere on the order of three to four hours of electricity a day.''

Merten, who considers Hudson his hometown, graduated from Walsh Jesuit in 1979 and joined the diplomatic corps in 1987. He had studied French and German and envisioned a glamorous European assignment.

But instead of landing a job in Paris, he was dispatched to Port-au-Prince, beginning a career in the Foreign Service that eventually would make him an expert on Haiti and President Obama's pick for ambassador.

Merten was in the embassy when the earthquake, referred to by locals as ''The Thing,'' devastated the capital on Jan. 12.

The embassy staff worked 20-hour days in the aftermath and slept under their desks, in the hallways or in tents outside.

''Several of our colleagues had been killed,'' Merten said. ''Over a third of us lost our homes. And everyone had a family member, friend or colleague who either died or was injured.''

The embassy helped more than 16,000 American citizens return to the United States ''the biggest such evacuation since World War II, maybe ever,'' Merten said.

The embassy worked with the U.S. military, the United Nations and the Haitian government to coordinate the delivery of emergency aide.

''Our conference room hosted hundreds of emergency surgeries, including four amputations,'' Merten said.

The situation in Haiti has improved, although about 1.3 million people still are considered homeless and are living at least part of the time in tents or makeshift structures, Merten said.

He said about 50,000 people 10,000 families have been moved into houses.

''It's a slow process for a number of reasons,'' Merten said. ''Many of these people who are living in tents were living in substandard conditions before the earthquake. One of the goals that we're trying to help the Haitian people and the Haitian government reach is to build back better, so people don't find themselves living in what were effectively sort of one-room concrete shacks that collapsed on top of people when the earthquake hit.''

The food situation has stabilized for most people, although there is still food assistance for vulnerable people such as senior citizens and pregnant and nursing mothers, he said.

''Frankly, medical care is better than what it was before the earthquake because you have a lot of doctors, a lot of medical care, in the country.''

This was the second time this year Merten had spoken with Walsh students.

Just weeks after the earthquake, Merten spoke from the U.S. embassy via Skype, an Internet telephone service, to Walsh juniors and seniors who gathered in the school library.

One of the Haitian students with the ambassador for the conversation told the Walsh students she was worried she might not graduate because many academic records had been lost in the wreckage.

During that Skype conversation, Merten offered to visit the school.

A new student group, Project Speak Out, took him up on the offer, arranging Friday's visit.

The group was founded last year to bring Immaculee Ilibagiza, a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, to campus for a talk last spring, said Derek Switaj, Project Speak Out president and a Walsh senior.

Over the summer, Switaj persuaded the administration to allow Project Speak Out to carry on for students to have a say in all the speakers who come to campus.

''So now all the speakers who come to Walsh will go through Project Speak Out,'' said Switaj, who is 17 and lives in Kent. ''We actually put on all the fundraisers and events that actually help to get the costs in and get the speakers here.''

Last year, Walsh students raised $5,000 for Haiti to build a new school.

''Ambassador Merten was generous enough to do this for no fee,'' Switaj said.

Merten took questions for about a half hour from students. One student, following up on the Skype conversation earlier this year, wanted to know how the Haitian students were doing with their lost records.

''Since we spoke, the situation in education has improved significantly,'' Merten said. ''A lot of schools have reopened. As people have dug through the rubble in many of these school sites, they have found records.''

He said most students returned to classes in mid-April, and almost all were back in June, some in makeshift buildings.

John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or Read the education blog at



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