By Juliana Reyes
Freshman Ralph Alexis is full of hope. He’s overflowing with ideas and vision for the future. His current fixation is the runway show he wants to organize next year, which won't be just some students strutting through Gummere Basement with a DJ spinning in the back.
Ralph is thinking bigger. Live music – drums, he says, and dramatic lights. He wants the models to wear original designs by students from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He’s already met with Student Activities Coordinator Jason McGraw, who, Ralph says, loves the idea. After speaking nonstop about his plans, he pauses and sits back.
It’s the first time he’s called me this but it seems like the most natural thing in the world. It's what it’s like to be around Ralph: his subdued nature makes you feel calm and at ease. But his spirit is loud, like the black nail polish on his fingers, the vintage necklaces around his neck, and the bright pink T-shirt under his pinstriped black vest. His smile is unmistakeable.
But speaking about Haiti, where Ralph was born and lived until he was nine, turns his face grave. This Christmas Ralph returned to Haiti for the first time in ten years. About a week before he was meant to leave for Philadelphia, the devastating earthquake struck his home country. Unable to leave from the airport in Haiti because he didn’t have an American passport, Ralph found his way back to Haverford with the help of a kind stranger.
During the chaos of the earthquake, Ralph couldn’t contact his brother, senior Ruben Alexis, who was at Haverford at the time. Ralph says a lot of people thought he was dead because they didn’t hear from him for two days. A worried family friend told a reporter about the Alexis brothers, and on Jan. 17, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article entitled 'One brother in Phila., one in Haiti, and no word.'
Four days later, Ralph had been found and the Inquirer published a follow-up piece. Media offers poured in and Ralph was overwhelmed. CNN wanted to interview him but he denied.
But at that time Ralph didn’t want to talk to the press anymore. Everything was too fresh in his mind, he says. He told me he wasn’t ready to do an interview, but maybe later in the semester. Last week Ralph decided it was time to talk.
He talks about the lack of excitement about Bryn Mawr’s Haiti Week in April and how people keep saying that things are getting back to normal in Haiti.
“It’s a warzone,” he says. “No matter how many pictures I’ve seen it still feels like a dream. So many dead bodies. The stench everywhere.”
He says he’s almost scared to go back, like he’s not in the right state of mind to do so. But Ralph still feels that magnetic pull for his country.
He misses the food, the culture, the language. He remembers how after only a few weeks in Haiti, his Creole was better than his English.
But Ralph won’t give up on Haiti, no matter how much it haunts him. He talks about his brother’s plans to organize a community service trip to Haiti with Sons of Africa, an African American affinity group at Haverford, to help their aunt with the school she’s opening. And Ralph, who says it’s been difficult for him to take on a leadership role for the Haiti effort because he’s so close to the situation, has dreams for Haiti as well. He hopes to one day turn the country into a big tourist attraction.
“Maybe I’ll start it with fashion. Haiti Fashion Week,” he says, his face lighting up. “I want to find the beauty in [Haiti], make it fierce. I think Haiti could be fierce.”
He smiles broadly now, his excitement restored. And so maybe Ralph isn’t getting back to normal but somewhere different. He hopes that people can see the earthquake as an opportunity to turn Haiti’s fate around.