Jean-Phillip Brignol ’10 is like any other political science major preparing for graduation. But in the past 10 days, he has been dealing with a very unusual circumstance: an earthquake that has left some of his greater family out of touch and outside their homes. Though Brignol wasn’t born in Haiti — and he admits he’s by no means a native speaker of Creole — he nonetheless identifies himself as a Haitian, representative of the enormous Haitian diaspora that is now grappling with the reality of helping distant family members to survive a major natural disaster. Yesterday evening, Brignol spoke with scene about his experiences in Haiti, his memories of the country and the impact the earthquake has had on him and his family.
Q. Do you currently have any family in Haiti?
A. My grandmothers are there, my great grandmother and uncles are also there. We haven’t lost anyone in our family. I know people from other families and friends who have.
Q. Do you have family in Port-au-Prince?
A. No, my family lives in Delmas.
Q. How did you hear of the earthquake?
A. Yes I was here. Last Saturday, my aunt texted me.
Q. Have you ever been to Haiti?
A. Several times, actually. I was born in Chicago, but I lived in Haiti when I was younger with my grandmother for several years. My parents were in America though.
Q. What do you remember of your childhood in Haiti?
A. Well, I remember being in classes, especially in showcases. I was in a talent show of sorts in a class, and I remember my parents showing me my grade sheets, I guess, like report cards.
Q. So you lived a very normal life in Haiti?
A. Yeah. It was good.
Q. Have you been back recently?
A. We went back for winter break. We were there for two weeks. I left Saturday and they left Sunday before the earthquake. We had done something similar the year before.
Q. What was Haiti like during those two weeks?
A. For my parents, it was like vacation because my dad doesn’t have to answer calls from work, and they get to see friends. It’s where they’re from, where they were born. And I remember food and my grandmother… the people there.
Q. It sounds like life in Haiti is very normal. Does anything stand out from your memories?
A. It’s one of those things: Because you come from America, there are different standards. I remember before it was a little less secure. This year it was much more secure than before. But for me I could definitely see people who were not as well off not doing so well.
Q. What exactly did you see?
A. I mean, the difference is very clear. There are people on the streets, not begging, but they have their own little shops, their own little things that they’re selling, and you can see the stark differences between people who have stuff and live in a gated place and people who don’t.
Q. Do you know of anyone in such a situation?
A. People who your family knows, people who know your family. They know my parents are coming from America, so sometimes they come over to ask for help, but I don’t speak Creole – I understand a little and I’ve been approached occasionally on the street.
Q. Do you know of any place that is like Haiti? Can you compare it to any other country or city you’ve visited?
A. I wouldn’t say it’s very comparable. I don’t know — it’s very mountainous. Some of the roads are very good, some are very bad. I did my senior project on Haitian immigrants. I know that people are not just sitting around in poverty. They’re trying to make money.
Q. How would you characterize life in Haiti?
A. It’s possible to have an average life. But some people may need someone helping, someone from America. But there are people, like politicians, who are very well off who are able to manipulate the system and do well. But in general, I’d say people can lead a happy life in Haiti.
Q. How has your family been affected by the earthquake?
A. My mother’s mother is sleeping in a tent now because the house is not safe. It hasn’t been completely destroyed, but it’s not completely safe either.
Q. Has there been a lot of damage to the house?
A. I think inside the house things have definitely been broken. They said the walls on the inside are not really there – some of the walls have fallen down. The outside is intact though. There may be some cracks and things like that. I don’t know about my dad’s mom and great grandmother.
Q. But your family is OK?
A. It’s more a day-to-day assessment. There’s always a rush to call everybody. The other day there was a 6.1-magnitude earthquake, I think. But we assume that they’re in the same place. I mean, I haven’t gotten an update on the situation, but I haven’t heard anything negative.
Q. Has this impacted your first couple of weeks of your last semester at Yale?
A. Well, I can’t say that they haven’t. I definitely haven’t been focused. I think at least at this point I’m just trying to help organize stuff.
Q. Do you know how other Haitian students are fairing?
A. It has definitely affected all of us, all the Haitian students, in different ways. I know Dean George reached out to me, some of my professors wrote to say, “We’re with you.” The resources at Yale, they’ve been helpful. But I think it’s still going to be a great semester, I just don’t know about my graduation and if these people are going to be coming to my graduation.
Q. Do you have any plans to return to Haiti in the foreseeable future?
A. We’re trying to see if we can organize a trip with Yale students. If possible, I would definitely go. My parents are doctors, so they may go to help with relief efforts. But yeah, hopefully.