163 Haitian students receive welcome in Senegal

AP News
Posted: Oct 14, 2010 12:20 PM
163 Haitian students receive welcome in Senegal

More than 160 Haitian students who left their earthquake-shattered country to take up Senegal's offer of free housing and scholarships were embraced by its president amid questions of how the poor African country can devote resources to foreigners.

The young men and women arrived in a chartered jet late Wednesday and were given T-shirts to wear that said: "Thank You President Abdoulaye Wade."

They are the first batch of arrivals as part of a grand scheme that began when Wade saw images of the devastated Caribbean nation following the January quake. He was moved to help, arguing that Haitians are the sons and daughters of Africa because their ancestors were taken from the continent as slaves.

His plan was criticized at home because Senegal's GDP is only marginally higher than Haiti's and the country is beset by rising unemployment and spiraling food prices. Thousands of Senegalese risk their lives every year trying to reach Europe on flimsy boats in a dire bid for a better life, much as people in Haiti have braved the high seas trying to reach Florida.

Editorials described it as another of the aging president's grandiose projects intended to cement his reputation as an international leader, rather than addressing the needs of his citizens.

"It's true that Senegal is not that much better off than Haiti," said Peterson Paul, a 22-year-old sociology undergraduate student who lost his house in the Jan. 12 quake and was living under a tarp when he learned of Wade's offer. "But our educational system was rocked by the earthquake. It's in a precarious state. I think it will be better for me here ... and I had no idea that they would do all of this for us."

Wade was especially criticized at home when he went so far as to say that he would be willing to hand over a region of Senegal if a large number of Haitians were to agree to relocate here. The project has since been scaled back and the students will receive free housing _ not land.

The 163 students will also be offered scholarships in a nation where the campus of Senegal's largest university is frequently paralyzed by strikes because scholarships are paid late.

The students were greeted upon arrival in Dakar by dancers and traditional praise singers. Dozens of Senegalese students also held up signs that said: "Welcome to the home of your ancestors." They were led onto tour buses that drove them through the neighborhood of Almadies, the westernmost point of Africa which juts out into the Atlantic.

The bus climbed a hill overlooking the ocean, and let them out at the feet of an enormous statue pointing West in the direction where they had come from.

"Your ancestors left here by physical force," Wade told the students. "You have returned through moral force ... When the slaves embarked on the ships, this is the last piece of African earth they saw ... Dear students, it is on this point of land that sticks out farthest into the Atlantic that we have chosen to receive you," he said. "You are neither strangers nor refugees. You are members of our family."

Masses of people crowded on the tiered staircase leading to the 160-foot (50-meter)-high bronze statue. They banged djembe drums and clapped when the students arrived.

Their welcome was broadcast to seven neighboring African nations, and the president of the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau was there to greet them, as was the prime minister of Niger.

The mammoth statue depicting a man, woman and family rising out of the ground was another one of Wade's pan-African projects: It cost $27 million and was billed as the world's largest statue. It is supposed to symbolize Africa's renaissance.

Like the relocation of the Haitians, it got mixed reviews locally and it has become more a symbol of wasteful government spending.

"This is a historic day," said airport security guard Abdou Salam, who leaned against the peeling blue wall of the airport's VIP room in the hours before the chartered jet landed. "But it's a little weird. We're chartering a plane and giving them free scholarships, and yet we know that our own students can sometimes go six months without seeing their payments."

Last year, students angry at not receiving their scholarships seized municipal buses as they entered the campus of Cheikh Anta Diop University in downtown Dakar. They blocked roads and were beaten back by police. The university's dorms are so overcrowded that rooms made for two often house four or more, forcing students to sleep in spoons on twin-sized beds.

Others say that Senegal's poverty _ where nearly half the working age population is out of work and where even those that do have jobs bring home around $130 a month _ is in fact the reason it should be helping Haiti.

"We are giving the rest of the world a lesson in humanity. Senegal has shown that it's in the hearts of the poor that you can find the gift of generosity," said historian Iba Der Thiam, currently vice president of the National Assembly. "A country that is neither rich nor developed has agreed to share the little it has with its brothers."