By Kris Kitto - 01/26/10 11:00 AM EST
Cleve Mesidor was driving around Washington when she first heard about the earthquake in Haiti. She immediately called her mother in Queens, N.Y.
“How bad is it?” she asked.
It had been 28 years since Mesidor, 36, and her family left Haiti for the United States. In that time, she had learned English in New York’s public schools; earned a master’s degree at Howard University; worked at CNN’s Washington bureau; decamped to Florida, Louisiana and Minnesota to join Democratic gubernatorial campaigns; and, most recently, run press operations for Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Betty McCollum (D-Minn.).
But as the magnitude-7.0 earthquake’s devastation unfolded, one thought ran through her mind.
“Every time I watch the news, it’s so hard … because that could’ve been me,” says Mesidor, sitting in a red velvet chair in the Haitian Embassy. “I’m no different from them. I just had parents who came here.”
One difference, however, has become clear: Mesidor has a special mix of political communications experience, on-the-ground knowledge and raw energy to help her native country through one of its bleakest episodes.
By the time Mesidor got back to her Southeast Washington home on the night of the earthquake, she had a voice mail from Pierre Laviolette, the Haitian Embassy’s first secretary and alternate representative.
“We’re going to have a meeting at 10 tomorrow morning,” he said. “We need you to be here.”
Mesidor left McCollum’s office on Jan. 4 and had a monthlong break before her Feb. 4 start date as a public affairs director with the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration.
“My plan was going to be to spend this time relaxing,” she says.
Instead, she has been working 16-hour days on a volunteer basis. She showed no signs of fatigue one afternoon last week as she bobbed and weaved through the packs of volunteers in the embassy’s foyer, poked her head into the makeshift command center and jogged up the wraparound staircase in pursuit of the ambassador.
She has become known for unending enthusiasm and abiding loyalty in her 10 years in Washington, both in her professional life and her community. Both her personal relationships and her involvement in the Greater Washington Haiti Relief Committee, which formed in 2008 in response to the several hurricanes that decimated the island country, led her to fill a key role doing media relations in the earthquake’s aftermath.
“Whatever they have for me over at the [Economic Development Administration] will be nothing compared to this,” she jokes.
Not much can compare, although Mesidor draws parallels to Hurricane Katrina. She had lived in Louisiana for a year during her work on former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s (D) campaign and used the contacts she made to find volunteer opportunities during relief efforts there.
“If you’re going to Haiti right now, you should be a doctor, you should be a member of the military,” she says.
Mesidor also is likely to stay busy in Haiti’s Washington embassy. The ambassador, Raymond Joseph, told her last week he wants her “attached” to him upon realizing he had received 35 voice mails on his two cell phones after leaving them alone for a short period of time.
Mesidor’s cousin Elcie Beaudouin was in Haiti for a visit from her Long Island, N.Y., home when the earthquake hit. Mesidor and her family had to wait 48 hours before learning of Beaudouin’s safety. The whereabouts of Mesidor’s sister-in-law’s mother were also unknown. Mesidor helped re-establish contact with the relative when she asked one of her Southeast D.C. neighbors, also Haitian, to use his network in the town where Mesidor’s relative lived to track her down. They found her alive.
Such connections illustrate Haiti’s role in her life.
“I think for young Haitian-Americans, you’re very connected to the plight of your homeland, but it becomes real for you when there’s someone you know, you touch,” she says. She has done her part by constructing for herself a wide network of Haitian-Americans that runs from her neighbor to White House political director Patrick Gaspard, with whom she worked at the 2004 presidential campaign organization America Coming Together.
Mesidor’s parents, whom she describes as very political, decided to leave Haiti for fear of their future.
“Political families tend to feel the political strife” in a country like Haiti that has been racked by revolutions, civil wars, coup d’etats, political unrest, abject poverty and natural disasters, she says.
Mesidor arrived in New York as an 8-year-old girl and quickly began assimilating. One of her first stateside memories is being given cheese doodles.
“I remember thinking, ‘What is this?’ ” she recalls, laughing. “Because in Haiti, if someone gives you plantain chips, you know they came from plantains. I asked so many people what [cheese doodles] were made of. You can’t just have something that originated from nowhere. That was my introduction to processed foods.”
Her parents, both educators in Haiti, became factory workers in New York, but her father continued to set high education standards for Mesidor and her two siblings. The family also maintained their political involvement and spirit of activism, with her father periodically returning to their hometown of Lazile, Haiti, to help raise money for new schools and hospitals.
After her loss in the 2007 D.C. City Council race, she decided she wanted to work for a member of Congress to get the perspective it provides “not just on the legislative process, or about how policy works, but about how Washington works,” she says.
Of Mesidor, McCollum said: “She’s very enthusiastic. She was a press secretary totally committed to public service. It was no surprise to me to hear her lending her skills to the embassy.”
That commitment is part of her makeup, Mesidor says.
“The Haitian people are resilient because of the fighting spirit they inherited from their forefathers who endured a 15-year revolution to become the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere,” she says. “Because political conflicts have been a constant in Haiti since its inception in 1804, the never-give-up mindset has been passed along from generation to generation.”
Mesidor sees no end to her involvement in Haiti’s future. In the short term, she hopes she and her cousins can create a database of their vast family so that they can more easily track everyone should another such disaster affect them. She also wants to pursue any opportunities in her new position in President Barack Obama’s administration to continue working on Haiti relief.
“When there’s a drive, I want to be there; when there’s a phone bank, I want to be there; when there’s a vigil, I want to be there,” she says.
But on its most basic level, the Haiti earthquake has reminded her to take stock of the blessings in her own life.
“It actually has made me much more grateful in terms of the sacrifices my parents made in bringing us here.”