Alum’s nonprofit funds higher ed in Haiti

By
Senior Staff Writer

Conor Bohan ’92 left Haiti on Jan. 10 — just two days before an earthquake struck 10 miles from Port-au-Prince, home to the scholarship organization that Bohan founded in 1997.

As soon as he heard about the quake on the radio, he tried to contact his friends in Haiti without success, Bohan said in a phone interview with The Herald from Port-au-Prince last week. 

All the phone lines were down, Bohan said. He wasn’t able to reach anyone in Haiti until the next morning, when a staff member of the Haitian Education and Leadership Program — the biggest scholarship organization in Haiti — reported to him via Skype that several students in his program were injured.

Returning to Haiti

Bohan booked a flight for the next day to the Dominican Republic because Haiti’s airports were closed. Bohan landed in Santo Domingo, where a taxi, arranged by a Dominican friend, was waiting to drive him to the Haitian border. He spent the night in the small border town of Jimani, in the home of a local family.

“Before I left New York, I had put out a request on Facebook for a place to stay (by the border), as all the hotels were booked,” Bohan said. He received a phone call from a friend of a friend, who put him in touch with the family that hosted him.

Early the next morning he and the friend that accompanied him from New York rented a local taxi, loaded up on fuel and bottled water and drove to Port-au-Prince.

The extent of the disaster wasn’t immediately evident as they crossed the border, Bohan said. “The border areas were virtually untouched but as we got closer and closer to the capital, the damage became greater and greater.”

The devastation is “indescribable,” he said, pausing before attempting to illustrate the aftermath of Haiti’s worst earthquake in 200 years. “The only image I can think of is the European cities after World War II. That’s the only image that comes to mind.”

Bohan on Brown

Bohan graduated from Brown with a degree in history, which proved to be “perfectly useless” during his job search, he said.

After two years of working at beach and ski resorts in Europe, Bohan decided he wanted to volunteer in Africa. After a rejection from the Red Cross — which he remembers as “a low point” in his life — he found a position teaching in Haiti.

“My career path was not standard. A place like Brown encourages that kind of exploration,” he said. “Brown gives you the tools to do anything you want to pursue.”

At the end of his first week as a secondary school teacher, a student asked to borrow $30 from Bohan to register for secretarial school. Bohan thought it was strange that the top student in her class wasn’t setting her sights higher, and as it turned out, the student’s dream was to study medicine but couldn’t afford it.

“I told her I would rather raise more money so she could go to medical school, rather than go to a mediocre secretarial school,” he said.

Bohan supported the student, Isemonde Joseph, a native of the Cite Soleil slum in Port-au-Prince, out of his own pocket at first. He later secured support from his parents and several Brown classmates, including the organization’s founding board member Genevieve Lynch ’91, who is currently the president of the Pluralism Fund, a coalition of philanthropists that conducts grant work concerning Iran and Pakistan.

Joseph earned her medical degree in 2005 with a starting salary of $14,500, Bohan said, several times Haiti’s gross domestic product per capita of $480 a year.

As he saw the impact of education on Joseph’s life, Bohan began matching sponsors — many of whom are Brown alums — with some of Haiti’s top students, which inspired him to establish a scholarship organization.

HELP recruits the top high school students in the country and supports them with tuition, books, living stipends and housing to attend an internationally accredited university — a total value of $5,000 per student, according to a press release. HELP scholars also benefit from access to the organization’s computer center, career services and intensive English language courses.

“We try to fill in all of the gaps,” Boran said.

One-hundred percent of HELP’s former students are employed with a starting salary 20 times that of the average salary in Haiti, the release stated.

“There are so few university graduates, so employers are willing to pay top dollars for them,” Bohan said. One percent of Haitians enroll in university, and 85 percent of Haitians with university degrees emigrate, draining Haiti’s professional class from the impoverished country.

“My experience at Haiti has made me appreciate every opportunity I’ve received at every level, and made me realize I’m no more deserving,” Bohan said.

“When you’re at a place like Brown, you don’t get to appreciate exactly how valuable your education is until you get to see people who are just as intelligent and hardworking as you are, who have never had the opportunity to pursue what they want to do.”
 
Short-term recovery

Bohan ran the daily operations of HELP in Haiti from 1997 to 2008, before moving to Brooklyn to spearhead the organization’s fundraising, marketing and outreach initiatives. But last year alone, Bohan traveled to Haiti six times.  

When he arrived in Haiti after the earthquake, Bohan set out to locate the 108 students and eight staff members of HELP. It took Bohan two weeks to confirm the deaths of two HELP students.

Marc-Erline Dezulma, a second-year HELP student studying engineering, perished when her entire apartment building in the capital city crumbled, according to Bohan. Evenson Jean, also a second-year HELP student, passed away when his classroom building collapsed, Bohan said. He did not have classes in the afternoon when the quake struck, but was there to study for his finals.

“It is doubly tragic that Evenson paid the ultimate price for his determination to succeed,” Bohan said.

Every other HELP student and staffer was located. “Those who had to be operated on for broken bones are recovering well,” he said.

Bohan’s next undertaking is to integrate HELP students into the relief effort, making the most of their talents and skills. “We need to give the most ambitious students in Haiti the tools to transform their country.”

Many HELP scholars have headed back to their hometowns in rural areas — contributing to what Bohan called “one of the greatest reverse migrations in Haiti’s history” — and are serving their local communities. Twenty students staying at HELP’s student house in the capital and seven commuting students are working to get the organization’s temporary office up and running, Bohan said.

“Electrical engineering students wired the house to run off a small generator and inverter,” Bohan said, “while an alumni accountant worked with computer science students to retrieve the accounts from a rescued hard drive.”

Long-term goals

As HELP students and staff are rebuilding their temporary headquarters, Bohan already has a long-term vision for rebuilding Haiti’s education system, which historically has been “severely” underserved.

Even Haiti’s eight internationally accredited universities “are extremely under-resourced,” Bohan said. “None of the universities have decent libraries, computer labs or career services.”

The three main universities in Haiti’s capital were “almost totally destroyed,” Education Minister of Haiti Joel Jean-Pierre told Reuters, but schools must resume, somehow. “Even in wartime, schools must function.” Classes may continue “in tents or the open-air,” Jean-Pierre said.

UNESCO is mobilizing “support for temporary emergency educational facilities and for reconstruction,” Director-General Iris Bokova said in a statement. “I also urge academia to show solidarity. Universities in the region and beyond should make every effort to
take in Haitian students.”

Brown continues to look for opportunities to support the relief and recovery efforts in Haiti by raising funds to support relief efforts, supporting affiliated medical school faculty who are providing direct emergency relief and raising awareness through educational undertakings such as Friday’s teach-in. At this point there have been no steps taken to enroll displaced Haitian students, according to Marisa Quinn, vice president for public affairs and University relations. 

But several universities abroad have expressed interest in temporarily accepting Haitian students — what Bohan hopes will be the beginning of a long relationship.

“Bringing a handful of Haitian students to the U.S. is not a long-term solution,” he said. “We need to build a system that gives tens of thousands of students an education so they can rebuild their country, but build it better.”

Bohan, noting that Haiti has few trained architects and engineers, said that the infrastructural damage could have been mitigated by better urban planning.

“A lot of the damage has been compounded by the lack of education in Haiti,” he said. “There was no urban planning, no inspection of construction sites and techniques.”