UC Irvine was alive with activism in the weeks that followed the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated Haiti on Jan. 12. The disaster galvanized UCI students and faculty into support.
The CIA World Factbook notes Haiti as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, with 80 percent of its population below the poverty line. The earthquake had the most disastrous effect on the capital of Port-au-Prince. Among other issues, the city was overcrowded due to mass migration from the countryside, where agriculture is at the mercy of frequent natural disasters.
According to government officials, the death count has reached 150,000 around Port-au-Prince alone. The earthquake leveled every major government building.
Students responded with myriad activities. On Ring Road, clubs selling Korean barbecue and rubber wristbands had signs that promised all proceeds would go to Haiti. The Red Cross club at UCI tried selling soup in the rain before they settled on boba tea.
“People haven’t even been buying it,” fourth-year criminology major and co-president of the Red Cross at UCI Jennifer Mizutani said. “They’ve just been dropping in money. One girl just dropped in a fifty and walked away.”
Pi Kappa Alpha spearheaded Greek fundraising the week of Jan. 18 by setting up buckets for spontaneous donations and selling rubber wristbands in high-traffic areas.
“On the first day we still had a lot of people walking by our booth, dropping off change and buying wristbands despite the rain,” Pi Kappa Alpha Philanthropic Chair Nick Marfori said. “Actually, our booth was blown down [and] we had to move into the Student Center, which was even better.”
By the end of the week, the fraternity raised $845 dollars for the nonprofit organization, Food for the Hungry. Most of the money came from their on-the-spot computer stations, which were set up to send immediate online donations.
Technology and social media proved venues for instant activism as well as fundraiser networking. Vice Chancellor Manuel Gomez promoted donating to the Red Cross via text message in a campus-wide e-mail on Jan. 15. On Facebook, event invitations for fundraisers circulated quickly.
Chen Li, professor of computer science at UCI, created a web portal to help search for missing people with his team of six graduate students. Their result, the Family Reunification Portal (http://fr.ics.uci.edu/haiti/), is a user-friendly interface that searches and compiles human data from sources such as the American Red Cross and CNN iReport. Li has high ambitions for the project.
“We are talking to some people from Google to explore the possibility to use our search engine on their main page,” Li said. “That would be huge. I heard from them that they receive about 70 search queries every second [for missing Haitians].”
Professor Amy Wilentz of the literary journalism department and author of “The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier,” is currently volunteering in Haiti. Since the earthquake, she has written several articles for publications such as The Los Angeles Times and Condé Nast. Her pieces examine international relationships and reflect on her experiences in Haiti.
“With a huge humanitarian effort from their friends, they will rebuild the country — for the better,” Wilentz wrote in The Los Angeles Times. “So many Haitians, including the president, have nowhere to sleep, but they will sleep and get up again tomorrow to face the troubles.”
At UCI, students and faculty offered their own hope for Haiti at a vigil held in the Cross Cultural Center on Jan. 21. Later that day, a rally was held in coordination with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium.
“[The vigil] was really a way to gather, to unite the campus, and for many that could not donate money it was their way of giving,” Darlene Esparza, director of the Center for Service in Action, said. “People who had seen so many devastating things on the news … could show their own support.”
In addition to Professor Li, the vigil featured speakers such as Vice Chancellor Gomez and campus services like the Interfaith Center and the Counseling Center.
“Let us recognize Haiti not as some remote island far, far away,” Gomez said, encouraging those who had gathered to take action.
Fundraising plans continue as time goes on. On Saturday, Physicians for Human Rights hosted an arm-wrestling competition to raise money for Partners in Health. On Feb. 10, UNICEF at UCI is collaborating with Open Jam to host a benefit concert, through which they plan to raise at least $2,000.
“As students, we’re united in a way that a lot of people aren’t,” fourth-year Japanese major and UNICEF club officer Kim Hoang said. “It’s important to use that power, because it’s people who [we] are going to help over there.”