Monday, March 22, 2010

Day One: Training and Community Outreach in Little Haiti

Today was the first working day of what promises to be an incredible week in Miami, helping Haitians to apply for Temporary Protected Status.  The day began at nine in the morning at University of Miami's beautiful campus, where we met the attorneys and clinic students that will lead this week's effort to help Haitian apply for TPS.  Having spent the hours in the sun on Key Biscayne the day before, and some of us having come straight from red-eye flights, we were appreciative of the coffee and bagels that UM so kindly provided.  Our training consisted of a few hours learning about the TPS application forms and a lesson on legal ethics.  At one point in the session, we were asked to pair up with a UM student and get to know them so that we could introduce them to the group.  The purpose of the exercise, we later found, was to show us what it is like to have someone else speak for you.  The idea was to show us what it will be like for the Haitians to have someone else speak for them on such an important application form. 

After the training, we ventured over to Little Haiti to eat lunch at a place called Chef Nicole.  We enjoyed a phenomenal Creole meal and then commenced work spreading word of the TPS clinics.  UM had provided us with flyers listing the times and dates of the clinics and all the documentation that would be needed.  We basically set off in groups and told everyone we could about the effort and provided them with fliers so that they could share the news with their friends and family.  Virtually everyone that we encountered accepted our flyers and information open-mindedly and considerately, but a few people we met today will last in our memories forever.

Rachel, for instance, met an elderly and disabled homeless woman and asked her if she was aware of UM's TPS clinic.  The woman explained to Rachel that she was a U.S. citizen already, but went on to share the difficulties that she faced on a day-to-day basis.  She just had a stroke and consequently lost her vision in one eye.  She needed to go to the doctor but couldn't afford to.  Worse yet, she was afraid to go to sleep at night for fear of her few possessions being stolen and for fear of waking up without vision in her good eye.  The woman had lost a great number of her loves ones in the earthquake and she had no one to turn to for comfort.  Clearly the effects of the earthquake extend beyond what can be helped by the TPS clinic, but at least we are doing something.

Rachel also had an interesting experience with James.  They were passing a community center and stopped to tell a woman about the TPS clinic  The woman explained  that the president of the center was speaking that day, making a special appearance, and invited them inside to hear him talk.  Rachel and James went inside and were quickly invited to come up front and to tell the group about the TPS clinic.  The audience received the information warmly and promised to tell their friends and family about the it.  Like most of our group, Rachel and James realized that triggering community chatter about the clinic would be key to its success.

Others of us had more casually amazing moments.  For instance, I ventured into a school at one point told a school administrator about the TPS clinic.  I asked if I could leave a few flyers for the parents and she gladly agreed to spread around the word, and the flyers.  When I turned to leave, she said, "You all are doing a great thing; God will bless you. Receiving such praise from a woman who devotes her life to supporting her community was one of the most humbling highlights of my day.

There were also more challenging moments.  For instance, Gab encountered a gathering of men playing dominos and seized on the opportunity to get the word out about the TPS clinic.  His efforts were virtually ignored by the group, but Gab continued to feed them information.  Evidently Gab's persistence worked because the entire group ended up accepting fliers and telling Gab that they would inform their friends.

One of the most vivid memories in my mind from the day was walking past a group of young women in the midst of their being question by a few police officers.  I initially passed by the women, but one of the officers asked, "Hey, what are you advocating? When I told him, he said, "And why did you pass these girls up?" I felt slightly embarrassed, but I had just assumed that I should not interfere.  I gave the women flyers and told them about the clinic.  They received the information with more genuine interest than most people I had spoken with and the police officer asked for additional flyers to spread around.

Throughout the day, each of us realized that TPS is not as widely known among the Haitian community as we originally believed.  However, at the end of the day a man actually sought us out to seek help with a TPS application.  It was immeasurably rewarding to see that at least one man, in one community, will get a chance to apply for TPS as a result of our efforts.  I can only hope that the rest of the week will affirm that one group of students truly can change lives.

Ed. note: Katie Plichta is a first year law student at Stanford Law School.

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