Some headed to Chile for spring break

Ari Bermann, a second-year master’s in business administration student from Chile, was attending Shabbat dinner the day the 8.8-magnitude earthquake hit the country and only heard of it when his father called from Santiago to report the news. After relaying the information to family members and checking Facebook to verify that others in Chile were safe, he began to think of ways to help.

Bermann decided to return to Chile for spring break, despite travel warnings from the U.S. Department of State.

“Aftershocks are still going on. I’m going to stay one week and see what I can do,” he said.

While in Chile, Bermann plans to attend a wedding and volunteer with Un Techo para Chile, a volunteer organization building temporary housing for displaced Chileans.

Upon his return to USC, Bermann plans to hold a fundraiser for building efforts and encourages other Trojans to get involved.

“If students want to go down there, that would be amazing,” he said. “I’m sure the help will be needed for a long time.”

Most students, however, do not have plans to visit Chile or Haiti; some because they are assured of  the safety of their friends and loved ones, others because they don’t want to get in the way of relief operations.

Oscar Viel, a Chilean in Marshall’s International MBA program, also had family affected by the earthquake. Because all are safe, he has decided to wait to return as scheduled at the end of his program in July. Still, he does not minimize the extent of the impact.

“Building is the most urgent need,” he said. “In the next two to three months, it will be winter, and it rains quite a lot. It will be very critical to build houses.”

Tirsa St. Fort, a junior majoring in business administration who has family in Haiti, recalled her initial reaction to the Jan. 12 earthquake.

“I had a speechless reaction — just didn’t know what to say,” she said.

Though she reports that her extended family on the island escaped unharmed, most are still in dire straits, and her immediate family in Boston is considering traveling to Haiti in a month’s time to deliver clothes and other resources.

St. Fort suggested that anyone looking to aid the relief efforts consider donating to a non-governmental organization and think carefully before traveling.

“Everyone right now is trying to survive, so going down on your own wouldn’t make much sense,” she said.

Groups of students from universities such as Penn State and the University of Maryland are traveling down for alternative break trips in the affected countries, but Melissa Gaeke, director of the USC Volunteer Center, said the university does not have any organized trips to Haiti or Chile.

Though the USC Institute for Global Health is currently assembling a team to travel to Haiti, there do not appear to be any plans to include students on such a trip. Gaeke noted that the university cannot send students to locations under travel restrictions.

“My office is bound by travel warnings — we are not able to organize trips if there’s a travel warning,” she said.

Indeed, the notifications on the U.S. Department of State website are fairly dire. The Haiti travel warning “strongly urges U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Haiti … The Embassy’s ability to provide emergency consular services is limited.”

As for Chile, the warnings are only slightly less ominous. The department “strongly urges U.S. citizens to avoid tourism and non-essential travel to Chile.”

Still, for students driven to volunteer, Gaeke offered the following advice: Link up with a trusted organization, make sure you have confidence in and clear assurances from the organization and be certain to obtain travel insurance.

She also noted that the skills required for rescue and medical help (as in Haiti) are different from those needed for rebuilding (as in Chile). In general, she said skilled workers are considered much more valuable than unskilled volunteers.

“You have to think of a country’s capacity and the framework in which they can take advantage of your skills,” Gaeke said.