Hilary DuBose ’05 will never forget the sight that greeted her when she walked outside the airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in August 2011.
“There was this giant tent camp of people,” she recalls, who had been displaced following the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that devastated the Caribbean nation on January 12, 2010. “Thousands and thousands of tents were set up in an open public space. To see so many people still living in camps, a year and a half after the earthquake, was really shocking.”
DuBose came to Haiti to help direct post-earthquake relief projects for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the latest chapter in a career distinguished by humanitarian and social justice initiatives, both domestically and abroad. After graduating with a degree in gender and women’s studies at Hollins, DuBose worked with refugee families and started a farmer’s market in Portland, Oregon, and provided nutrition and food literacy education to low-income youth in Philadelphia. Helping people from all over the world sparked an interest in serving overseas, and after completing her master’s degree in international development and food security in Italy, she joined the United Nations World Food Program in Rome, where she worked with HIV and tuberculosis programs.
Managing CRS’s camp closure project in Haiti was DuBose’s first job “in the field” where she could directly impact and observe the recovery process. “At the peak after the earthquake, there were 1.5 million people living in these camps, an almost incomprehensible figure,” she says. “That number has steadily gone down in the last two years. Right now we’re still at about 369,000 displaced people. It’s a great improvement but we want to do better.”
DuBose says camp residents face an almost unbearable existence every day. “Can you imagine living in a tent for two and a half years? The conditions are horrible. The tents are pieced together with these scraps of tarp, metal and wood, whatever people can find. The floor is just dirt. The rains come right through. When it’s hot – and it’s hot every day – the sun just burns. It’s so hot in the tents that a baby’s skin will actually blister. There are security issues, too. You can’t keep predators out of the tents. Women especially are facing a lot of sexual violence.”
The program DuBose managed has closed four camps and moved over 5,000 residents into significantly better housing through one of three options: a one-year rental subsidy, repair of a damaged home, or building a temporary house that will last between three and five years. Camp residents choose the option that is the best fit for their family’s situation.
DuBose is quick to emphasize, however, that overcoming the ordeal of a catastrophic event requires more than just a roof over one’s head. She has been actively involved with CRS in its efforts to provide life skills training to those who are preparing to leave the camps.
“You just can’t go into a camp and say, ‘Hey guys, it’s time for you to leave,’ because change is scary, even if it’s good change and even if you’ve been living in this high-stress situation for two and a half years. There’s a lot of psychological trauma and they’ve lost some of the living and coping skills they had before the earthquake. So, we work with them on improving communication with family members, conflict resolution, personal and financial responsibility, and planning for the future.”
DuBose remembers one woman in particular who was transformed by the education she received.
“She was initially very angry with CRS because she felt we should have come sooner. She didn’t trust us to help her and her family and was very vocal against the program. We got her to start attending these classes and she became our most enthusiastic participant. It’s been incredible to watch her go through this journey. I visit her now in this safe home that she’s so proud of – she’s operating a coffee business out of it and has started a little garden. She told me that because of the training, ‘I feel more love for my family, we’ve reduced our conflicts, and now I know how to save money so we’re planning ahead.’
“When we go back and ask people what’s the number one thing they liked about our program, they don’t just mention the house they got. They say, ‘My life is better now with my family. My husband and I have reconciled. My sisters and I have stopped fighting.’ We’re really proud of that work.”
Recently, DuBose returned to Hollins to deliver a presentation entitled “Living What You Believe,” where she shared her experience and advice with students who want to pursue jobs in the NGO or multilateral sectors.
“I want students to know, if they have an interest in social justice and working to alleviate poverty and hunger, this could be a career for them. They can create positive social change and still support themselves doing it. They can lead a good life that way. I really wasn’t aware of that myself until I got on this path, so I want to make sure people are thinking about it as an option. It’s rewarding personally and ethically.”
(Photo Credit: Nate Jayne)