Recently, I got to chat with 2008 American Idol finalist and Haitian native Joanne Borgella about what she’s doing to help out her home country after the devastating earthquake that hit only a few weeks ago.
Borgella will sing the Haitian national anthem at an event entitled “United for Haiti,” which takes place Wednesday February 17 at Nikki Beach (New York) and will also feature Reverend Al Sharpton, Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer, Deputy Borough President Rose Pierre-Louis and 500 young professionals who will come together to fundraise for the relief effort. Proceeds will directly benefit the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund and the Haitian American Alliance of New York.
What was your experience living in Haiti?
Joanne: I grew in Haiti and moved there when I was 13. I first grew up in Long Island, New York and then my father, an ex-presidential candidate of Haiti, Dr. Joel Borgella, wanted to move back home in the 90’s so I spent the majority of my high school there. It’s probably the best 5 years of my life. It’s just such a different way of life. It really hit home when things happened because I went to high school there. I have so many friends and family, and we lost some friends and loved ones so it’s been very tough.
When’s the last time you were there?
Probably a year and a half ago for my best friend’s wedding. Actually my family, we started 20 years ago, the first French Haitian radio station that was worldwide and connecting people to Haiti so the culture’s in my life. Obviously, I lived there as well, but my family’s just very involved with the country.
When and where were you when you found out about the earthquake?
I was actually getting ready for this even that I had to go to. I was in the dressing room and my mother called me and she was just like, “Oh my god. There’s been an earthquake. 7.0.” I’m like, “7.0? Are you kidding?” You here about little earthquakes, so when they told me what it was, I freaked out. I literally threw my clothing back on. I started praying. I called my mom because the phone got disconnected. I called her back and I was like, “Wait, I don’t get what’s going on. What do you mean? What’s happening?” She was just like, “Look, there’s been an earthquake and apparently the country’s crazy right now.”
Did you contact your family and friends?
I get on my Blackberry Messenger and I BBM’ed my best friend who’s like my sister. I got no response. I BBM’ed my other friend and was like, “Oh my god. Are you OK?” and he was like, “Words can’t even describe what we’re going through. We’re just trying to keep shelter. We can’t really talk. We’ll talk later.” And the thing is, a lot of people didn’t know that Blackberry was working at that time and I was communicating with my best friend and cousins via BBM.
What was it like waiting to hear about your loved ones?
My mother’s sister, it took 28 hours and we didn’t know where she was. And my uncle. It was just like holding breath. It was crazy. I didn’t sleep. I finally made it back home probably like 45 minutes after hearing about what was going on and I just got down and prayed on my knees. It was just unbelievable. The death toll is just outrageous. The crazy thing is we’ll never know how many people died because there are bodies that they just stacked up and buried. It’s a very unfortunate situation.
Were they OK?
We finally heard from my aunt and uncle. It was tough. I have a great aunt out there and she’s doing well. You never know. We had a good friend of ours that passed away that we went to high school with, which is sad because you still want to have hope because they are still randomly finding people after a month. You want to think, “Well maybe she might be the next person.”
The thing is, it’s such a beautiful country and no one will ever see it because all you see is the destruction. But I lived there and it was the best years of my life. It really gave me the core and the structure that I have.
Do you want to go back?
Definitely. I mean, my father’s going back. Three of my uncles are actually there once it happened. I think CNN did stories on them. My father’s going in a few weeks to help and I want to go, but they won’t let me go. It’s like if you’re not a trained doctor or nurse, what can you do but get sick or get hurt? There are a lot of things going on at night now with drug trafficking and women are getting raped. It’s crazy. People are hungry. It’s not an environment you want to just go into if you’re not fully aware of it.
So what’s the best way for people to help out the cause?
Quite honestly, donations are amazing. The money is going to the country and is really making a difference so I think that and there are so many children in Haiti that we need more of the food and clothing for the kids. Half the population is under 21 I believe so we have to focus on sending the children food. There are a lot of newborn babies. When it first happened they said about 7,000 babies were going to be born in the destruction so it’s like they need food and clothing and water. I feel like people definitely need to give a good amount of stuff for the children.
Do you think Haiti will continue to stay relevant in people’s minds over time?
It really is beautiful to see how everyone has come together for Haiti. I was in Long Island at a random mall and there were signs. There wasn’t a basket like “Where’s this money going to go?” Just signs saying, “Please remember to donate to Haiti.” SO I feel like it’s not going to be forgotten because we have a very very long road ahead of us. You would think we need to rebuild Haiti but really Haiti just needs to be built.
How do you feel about all the celebrity outpouring of support?
I think it’s beautiful. I was so happy at the Golden Globes when everyone was taking the time to speak out about it. And there are so many people that don’t even ask for recognition. It’s not even about that.
Well, thank you for your time and good luck at the fundraiser.
Tickets for the event are still available online at http://unitedforhaiti.eventbrite.com/ for $100 (VIP) and $25 (Gen Admission). Prices at the door at $125 and $35, respectively.