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The Long Journey of Creole’s Jean-Robert Philippe - 2002-10-25


From the slums of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to the Voice of America building on the National Mall in Washington is a distance that cannot be measured in mere kilometers. Jean-Robert Philippe of VOA's Creole Service is one of the few who traversed that distance.

Today Jean-Robert Philippe, a well-known broadcaster in VOA’s Creole Service, holds a master’s degree in Public Health and Business Administration. He lives the suburban life of a typical Washington-area professional. But growing up the son of a single mother in Papa Doc Duvalier’s lush but poverty-stricken Haiti, Jean-Robert knew what it was like to be hungry.

“My mother always told me, 'If you’re hungry, and you go to a person’s house and this person gives you something to eat, say “No”, don’t let this person understand your problem at home. Just say, "Oh, sorry, I already ate", or "I’m not hungry", though inside yourself you know that you’re really starving.'”

Although Jean-Robert Philippe lived with his mother, his father -- who had another family -- took some responsibility for his upbringing. He made sure Jean-Robert started school, even though in return the boy had to be a domestic servant to the teacher, an uncle who lived in a remote area of Haiti. He remained with this uncle for four years.

“And during those four years I never heard either from my father or from my mother. We had no electricity, no running water, you have to walk about three hours to go to the major city if you have to go buy food or whatever else you need, like matches, gas… People in this remote area, most of them maybe had never seen a car in their life."

When he was fifteen, Jean-Robert returned to the capital, determined to continue his education. Disregarding his mother’s advice to become a carpenter, he earned money by tutoring rich kids, and finally finished high school at age twenty-six.

Although by this time he had a wife and children to support, Jean-Robert enrolled in Haiti University’s Faculty of Human Sciences, the only college that he could enter without having a powerful “sponsor.” He selected mass communications as his principal area of study. Meanwhile, he worked part-time in a radio station, for free, to gain experience. He continued to do so after graduation, while holding down a variety of other jobs. When the dictator Papa Doc Duvalier fled Haiti in 1986, all the journalists who had supported his regime were discredited and fired, and the few who remained -- including trainees like Jean- Robert Philippe-- had to step into the jobs they left.

“That was the first time I went outside with a tape recorder to record a demonstration in the street -- not against Duvalier, because he had already left, but in favor of democracy, in favor of freedom of expression. And I had to interview a person for the first time, and do a live interview on the air –- and I was so happy.”

Jean-Robert Philippe was hired by Haiti’s Radio National. He also began to write articles for newspapers. In 1990 he was selected for an exchange program for journalists sponsored by the U-S Agency for International Development, and spent six weeks at Jackson State University, in the southern state of Mississippi. As part of the program he visited the Voice of America in Washington, and while here, was invited to contribute stories to VOA when he returned to Haiti. Meanwhile, a military coup had taken place there, and when Jean-Robert came home he found that the military was taking severe measures to suppress opposition.

“Sometimes you can find bodies on the street. It just became a part of life. Every day you can find two-three-four bodies. And if it’s not you, you can say, ‘Well, I’m blessed today.’ When you go to bed, you wake up in the morning and you say, ‘I’m blessed, I’m alive.’”

As Jean-Robert Philippe sent reports to the Voice of America on what was happening in his country and VOA broadcast his reports back to Haiti, he became a hunted man. To continue his work, he had to move from place to place under assumed names. Eventually this life became too much of a strain, and with his wife’s blessing, Jean-Robert made his way to the United States. He returned to Jackson , Mississippi, and worked for several months as a cook. But in early 1993 he was hired by the Creole Service of the Voice of America to work full-time in Washington. He says he was proud to join an organization that meant so much to the people of his native country.

“I think the Voice of America has played a great role, particularly during crises in Haiti. Crises, when other radio stations they cannot really provide news, and chiefly local news. It’s very difficult when you live in a country where you don’t know what’s going on around you. And VOA has that connection, between the people and the newsmakers.”

Jean-Robert Philippe was eventually able to bring his wife and children to Washington. He also enrolled in college again, and received a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and a dual master’s degree in Public Health and Business Administration. He says his goal is to help young people in his native Haiti –- as he puts it, “to give to others what maybe I didn’t have the opportunity to have”.

English Feature #7-36861 Broadcast October 28, 2002