NEW YORK - For hours after the January 12 earthquake in Haiti, the offices of New York City lawmaker Mathieu Eugene - the city's only Haitian-American politician - were flooded with people worried about relatives or seeking help. Lights blazing into the early morning hours, the staff finally left at 3 a.m., barely able to absorb their shock and devastation.
Eugene, who had ten family members unaccounted for in those early days, worked around the clock for days, and then weeks, coordinating legal assistance, medical care and other social services for his constituents in New York, and his "brothers and sisters" in Haiti. It will take an international coalition to rebuild his home country, he repeated often.
This week, Eugene is taking his message to Israel, where he is part of a delegation of New York City lawmakers visiting Israel through February 26 with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. The opportunity, extended to Eugene before the earthquake, took on added meaning after Israel sent doctors and search teams to Haiti in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.
"They came from the other part of the world, to help people they don't even know. This is remarkable. Me as a Haitian, I think I should I go over there to say, 'Guys, thank you because you have helped my brothers and sisters,'" Eugene said in a lilting French and Creole accent.
But Eugene hopes to garner support for long-term rebuilding projects in Haiti as well.
"Haiti will need a lot of assistance, and I know that Israel has the opportunity, the resources, the technology and also the experience of dealing with tragedy," he said. "The rebuilding of Haiti is going to take a long time. We are going to need a big coalition."
Eugene, who is married with two children, moved to New York in 1978. In 2007, he won an historic election to become the first Haitian-American member of the New York City Council, representing District 40, a district that includes Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Jewish enclaves in Brooklyn.
"We are making history," he told The New York
Times at the time. "I'm so happy and delighted. This is a new era."
Born in 1954 and raised in Haiti - "my beautiful, beloved Haiti," he said - Eugene was the 14th of 17 children. Seeking a better life, he attended medical school in Belgium, and later moved to Mexico to practice internal medicine.
"We wanted to be somebody," said Eugene, who speaks French, Creole, Spanish and English. "We wanted to succeed." He said he was reluctant to run for office, but agreed when he realized he would have access to more resources to help his constituents.
"As a society, we have a moral obligation to improve the quality of life of people," he said.
On January 12, Eugene was on his way to a meeting when his wife called with news of the earthquake and told him to get in front of a TV immediately. Officials estimated that 230,000 people died, and 300,000 were injured, in the 7.0-magnitude quake.
"When I saw the images, it was," he sighed, "unbelievable."
Eugene and his wife have family in Haiti, and he lost a cousin in the earthquake.
"The tragedy affected every single Haitian family in the diaspora," he said. "Honestly, the entire Haitian people, the Haitian community in Haiti, is traumatized physically and mentally."
Officials estimate that there are about 200,000 Haitian-born individuals living in the New York area, and more throughout the rest of the United States. In the days and weeks after the earthquake, many Haitians in the diaspora clamored for information about relatives there, and quickly mobilized to provide any assistance they could.
These days, Eugene is in contact with friends and relatives in Haiti. His staff in New York has been offering counseling and other services, including helping people apply for humanitarian immigration status. They have also been coordinating medical care for Haitians who managed to get to New York.
The handful of Haitian-American elected officials in the US convened a conference call last week to strategize and discuss ways to further help Haiti as the rainy season approaches, bringing with it new concerns about disease and the lack of shelter for hundreds of thousands of displaced people. "The destruction in Haiti is of epic proportion," Eugene said.
But, in a nod to the long-term needs of Haitians, Eugene said he hopes to win support from governmental or private-sector entities that can help in Haiti's rebuilding. "It is my moral obligation to use all opportunities to help my Haitian brothers and sisters. I've got to use everything in my power to alleviate the suffering of my Haitian brothers and sisters," he said.
Eugene peppers his stories with praise for God and keeps two Bibles on his desk.
"I was born Catholic and I'm still a Catholic," he says. "I believe in God."
In Israel, he hopes to see a place he studied in the Bible: the Red Sea.
"I want to see where Jesus was born, and so many places," he said.
The plight of his countrymen will not be far from his mind, however.
going to Israel, I may get some resources to help Haiti, to help my
other brothers and sisters," he said. "God gave me the opportunity to
be in a position [from where] people will listen to my voice."