Nazanin Shares her Experience Working in Haiti

Nazanin Mehregan (pictured here with Haiti planning team – front row, center) has been an Urban Designer at Architecture for Humanity’s Haiti Rebuilding Center (RBC) for the past 17 months. On Friday, May 9, she spent her last day in Haiti, despite her colleagues’ tearful begging and occasional insults (we’re sad, okay?).

Below she describes her experience working in Haiti.


When did you first come to Haiti?

I came here in 2012, and did an internship with RBC for three months as part of my masters program in Spain. After the internship, I had to go back to Spain to finish my thesis. I came back in January 2013, and have been here since then.


What made you decide to come back to Haiti?

It was very interesting during my internship to see how the office worked, in terms of methodologies and work in the field. The project Villa Rosa, which we were working on at that time, was also very exciting for me because it was my subject of interest.


What was Villa Rosa?

Villa Rosa was an upgrading of an informal settlement, and it was great because it was a comprehensive project and included so many different themes. I really liked the way we worked, separating the project into diagnostic and strategy planning phases. This was a brand-new experience for me, not only because I came from a conventional architecture background, but also because when I studied Urban Development, I never actually got experience in informal settlements, slum upgrading, or working on different themes like accessibility and basic services such as water and sanitation.


So, would you say it was more your experience or passion that made you pursue Urban Planning?

It was passion.

I started as an architect and gradually got more involved in larger scale projects and programs. Soon I felt that I needed to know more about Planning, because in Architecture you’re mostly focused on a single scale, and you don’t see how this can expand to a larger-scale framework. Even while I was getting my bachelors degree, I was always interested in sociology and how people interact with spaces; I used to read articles about how people transform the space and the way they use it, and this happens more in the public sphere than in private spaces.


And so how did you come to work at RBC?

Well, even though my internship here was only three months long, I got involved with Villa Rosa because it was related to the subject of my thesis.

Everything fit together.  I was working on community participation and stakeholder cooperation as the subject of my thesis, and that was actually a very important element in the Villa Rosa project. When I went back to Spain, I thought, if I want to work in this field of international cooperation, Haiti would be a very good place to learn and also to contribute.  So I came back to RBC, and have been involved in 4 projects since then: Villa Rosa being one of them, Simon Pele, Ile a Vache, and Grand Ravine.


What was your most difficult project?

The first phase of Ile a Vache, which was a participatory and technical diagnostic of the island.

We had to go to the field to map it, because there was no base data available. We had to start from scratch, and had to undertake really comprehensive mapping, looking at rural settlements and studying how these settlements were established (what their history is, and what the risks and the attributes of each individual community were). This island being a commune itself, is composed of 26 sub-communal sections, each one having completely different characteristics. I got to know the island pretty well, having walked the entire area.

And it was this that made Ile a Vache the most difficult project for me. Ile a Vache is 15 kilometers long and 4 kilometers wide, and I had to walk through all the schools, all the churches, all the clinics in these communities (which was a lot), and track all the settlement patterns. Physically, it was tough – because there are no cars on the island, people either get around by foot or by donkey. At the same time, it was a very nice and unique experience to see and feel people’s everyday-life activities and challenges in rural Haiti. 


What would you say was your most enjoyable project?

I would say it was Grand Ravine.  Because first of all, I was highly involved in the project from the beginning, and got to see it through to the end. Secondly, because again, it was a comprehensive planning project which I really enjoy. The team went out and did the mapping, and then we worked with the community platform to gather information and data about their needs, priority projects, and problems. After this diagnostic, in the strategic planning stage, we again involved the community in how they envision their neighborhood, what they would see as strategies for development, where they would start, etc.  Finally, the community’s input was complimented by our technical strategies, designs and solutions. Community participation is done through so many different tools, including walkabouts, community focus group discussions, and community charettes.

There were some community sessions where we involved the platform members, who are the leaders of the community, and there were some where we included larger numbers of people, up to 60. Grand Ravine is also divided to 19 sub-communities, so we had to make sure that in each session, there were representatives from the entire neighborhood. Likewise, diversity of age and gender of the participants were important in these sessions.

I think community participation is the most important element that you need for these types of projects.  Otherwise, as an outsider, you wouldn’t even know what the problem is, or what the priority is…it’s just left to your own interpretation.

What was the priority in Grand Ravine?

We did a couple of different sessions in order to find out.

Number one was accessibility. Environmental risks were also a high priority, because since it’s a watershed, all water drains at the lowest point of Grand Ravine. When we were investigating this problem, we asked the community members to identify which locations, pathways or stairs, were the most problematic. We also included technical observations and assessments, so that we could compliment what the community had identified as problem areas.


Speaking of, have you ever had an interaction with a community member that was particularly memorable?

Yeah, there are a lot of these actually. One time when I was in Ile a Vache, we were walking around, mapping, moving back and forth through the main market area, and at the end of the day, one of the community members approached us. He had a small shop there, where people were sitting down outside with their drinks and playing dominoes. I don’t understand creole, but my coworker translated for me.  The owner of the shop offered me a drink and said, “From your face, I can tell you are going to do good for us.” It was really sweet.

Another thing I remember is from when I did my internship here.  I got to design a few of the Fiches de Projets (Project Sheets), and when I came back I went to Villa Rosa to see that a Fiche de Projet that I had designed had actually been implemented. I wasn’t expecting it, so I was so incredibly happy. Previously the area was a waste dump inside a ravine, and it was completely blocked. Now it’s a public space with different activities. It was so nice to see children playing there.


What, in your opinion, does Haiti need most to improve its circumstances?

I think the first thing is coordination of work, and cooperation among the different actors in Haiti: you have NGOs, the government, humanitarian and relief organizations, etc…and there’s still a long way for them to coordinate the work that’s being done in the country.

Also important is a need for guidelines and operational frameworks, so that each organization doesn’t work in isolation. A comprehensive master plan for the city could be a first step.  I believe it’s moving in the right direction though. During the last two or three years, there have been some governmental bodies established to improve coordination among these projects. Currently all the projects need to be approved, and there still needs to be a structure to let the practitioners know what standards they need to meet to gain approval, and how: what the process is of an upgrading project; where you start and where you end; and what it has to include.

There are also some informal, and sometimes formal gatherings between organizations to share experiences and best practices, but I think it needs to be institutionalized.  There still needs to be a strong structure around it to be functional.


What will you miss most about working here?

My team members – everyone is so great.  I’m really going to miss them. We have so much good synergy going on, so the projects were not only great but successful. Also I will miss such participatory projects.  Working with the community from the bottom up was a great achievement for me.


So what’s your next move?

For now, a long vacation.  And who knows, I might come back to Haiti again. I might miss it in a week.


(interview conducted by Ariel Graham)


Haiti Rebuilding Center

The Haiti Rebuilding Center run by Architecture for Humanity, is the headquarters for long-term reconstruction projects in Haiti. The Rebuilding Center is a one-stop shop for design and construction services, professional training, consumer awareness, professional referrals and construction bid opportunities.