Mercyhurst canceled the Haiti Service Learning trip Jan. 2 due to civil unrest in the country.
Domestic unrest related to public’s displeasure with the government on Dec. 17 led the trip leaders, under advice from lawyers and other experts living in the country, as well as university administration, to cancel the trip for students’ safety.
Mercyhurst’s travel policy states that a group cannot travel to a country that has a travel warning from the U.S. State Department. An ongoing travel warning existed a year ago due to a lack of infrastructure and slow emergency vehicle response times. Mercyhurst administration was willing to allow travel only under caution.
Ground reports from Haiti said travel was very slow or impossible in parts of the capital Port-au-Prince and that protesters had thoroughfares blocked off. Tensions escalated with “violent anti-government street protests becoming increasingly common,” according to the New York Times.
The leaders wanted to give the students a second option to replace the cancelled trip. Thomas Cook, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Public Health, and his wife Emily met with Colin Hurley, Director of Community Engagement, and Heidi Hosey, Ph.D., Dean of International Education, to salvage the trip and were able to recover 80 percent of the airline costs and most of the other expenses.
Cook and his wife had connections through friends and co-workers in Puerto Rico and moved the trip there. Students and faculty said they were disappointed about having to switch locations at the last minute but it was necessary under the circumstances, Hurley said.
“Initially, I was disappointed because I had been planning for this trip for almost a year and wanted to bring a positive impact to the people of Gros Morne,” said Erin Cox, a Public Health major. “After learning more about the protest and civil unrest taking place in Haiti, I was somewhat relieved because I did not want my classmates or myself to be put in a difficult or dangerous situation.”
Hurley said learning opportunities will be spread out in Puerto Rico rather than focusing on one town. Plans were made by the leaders before classes started to visit several hospitals with guest speakers from the Department of Health. Cook said the students will learn how the Department of Health handles disease control and how it compares to the U.S.’s approach.
Haiti is still a location that the university will support, according to Hurley.
“We hope to continue to participate as tensions ease,” Hurley said. “We stand in solidarity with the people.”
Since taking office in 2011, President Michel Martelly had not held any type of elections. The country experienced heightened anti-government protests in December 2014. Protesters called for new elections and for Martelly and Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe to resign. They are also protesting political corruption, poverty and Martelly’s autocratic rule.
Hurley encouraged people to watch the Haiti elections January 12.
“We need to keep our eyes on it and be with them,” he said.
An electoral law did not pass by the January 12 deadline. Parliament has dissolved without an election. Protestors accuse Martelly of creating the crisis to force out opposition within the government.