from the haitian diaspora
By Richard Casimir
Erasmus’ saying, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a man”, rightfully explains that we are the product of our environment. However, the meaning this message conveys seems to minimize the fundamental role our genetic identity plays in our development. Indeed, our personal and collective life experience reveal that we are rather the product of the interaction between the natural and the cultural. This accidental debate leads me opportunely to the theme of my redaction: the life journey of my cousin Ulrick Gaillard, founder, president, and CEO of the Batey Relief Alliance (BRA).
Ulrick is my maternal first cousin. Despite our family ties, we met for the first time when I was already 7 years old and he, 8 years old. It was on the playground at Holy Trinity School, an institution that is affiliated with the Diocese of the Episcopal Church in Haiti. I found him to be a jovial, bright, and enterprising boy at the time. He was one of those kids who spontaneously invites you to play, the very moment he meets you.
Still, his personality hid other beguiling qualities, yet unknown to me. His company was always pleasant and stimulating. His natural demeanor conveyed a burning desire to do something new, audacious, and intriguing. In hindsight, I reckon that his adventurous nature and my prying disposition were the perfect match for our shared friendship.
We hung out a lot at the time, because our parents worked in proximity to one another: my mother was a seamstress at the school, and his father, a former businessman, worked as an official at the cathedral of the diocese, which was located in the same enclosure. During that time, we engaged in many daring adventures, becoming accomplices in the commission of countless innocent mischiefs and other childhood indiscretions.
Our brotherly friendship was further strengthened when Ulrick’s parents arranged for him to come and live with my family during the school year, because of the proximity of my house to our school. Since then, I have gotten to know my cousin even better. He was a meticulous boy, dotted with an acute sense of pragmatism. Remarkably, he already knew how to prioritize his life during his formative years. While attending to his academic obligations, he engaged in various curricular activities to gratify the impulses of his restive nature. He was concurrently a sports enthusiast who enjoyed playing soccer, basketball, and table tennis, as well as a promising young musician.
Ulrick’s adventurous spirit probably explains why he was so profoundly skeptical and inquisitive. He questioned almost everything and everyone with unparalleled candor; norms and ideas; the views of his companions and his superiors, alike. However, he did not do so out of disrespect, but to satisfy his inquisitive mind, struggling to understand and digest the life lessons to which he was exposed. Admittedly, his defiant attitude got him into a lot of trouble at times, but he always came out of it ever more dignified and prouder. Deep down, I admired his courage, his indomitable nature, and his strong sense of initiative.
Probably, the shared experience that gave us the greatest pleasure was our participation in the school’s music program. Ulrick had signed up to learn to play the cello, and I, the violin. Therein started a friendly competition between us, which oddly enough, inspired us to excel at our respective instruments. But right from the start, it was obvious that Ulrick possessed an extraordinary musical talent, which was far above all the other students. While it generally took a beginner four to five years to learn to play an intermediate-level piece, it took him just 3 years to learn to play a concerto. His success was due not only to his great passion for music, but also to his great sense of pride. This was reflected in his solemn allure which he still displays today: head up and square shoulders.
When Ulrick’s parents sent him to the University of North Carolina to study music in 1983, I was convinced that a great musical career awaited him. But this enterprising man wanted to explore the world in other ways as he later set his sights on a new direction: a legal career. To that end, he moved to New York in pursuit of that goal. Initially in 1992, he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Baruch College, City University of New York. In 1996, he earned his Juris Doctor degree from Roger Williams Law School in Rhode Island. And later in the years, he completed global leadership studies through the Executive Program at the Harvard JFK School of Government. It appeared at this juncture that Ulrick had found his true calling.
Soon, his sense of citizenship and civic duty arose, prompting him to engage in social activism and volunteering, prior to completing his university studies. He worked as a Legislative aide and community organizer in some of the most underprivileged neighborhoods in Brooklyn, his place of residence. There, he advocated for the social and economic rights of the urban poor and disenfranchised minorities.
Fresh out of college, his political convictions led him to expand his humanitarian endeavor on a larger scale, founding in 1997 the Batey Relief Alliance (BRA). The organization’s stated goal was to address the socio-economic conditions and health needs of families affected by poverty, disease and hunger in the Americas and the Caribbean. Initially, BRA’s work will focus on the humanitarian problem in the sugar cane plantations in the Dominican Republic, known as “bateyes“, where thousands of Haitians work as braceros in subhuman conditions. Ulrick enlisted in this effort the help of wealthy donors, multinational companies, the U.S. and Canadian governments, international aid groups, faith-based institutions, and the medical community, attracted by the noble character of his vision.
Eventually, Ulrick molded the Batey Relief Alliance into a competitive NGO, helping it to raise over 130 million euros over the span of a quarter of a century. This sum would be used over the years to implement social programs designed to improve the quality of life of over 5 million people living in Peru, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. That is why, in 2014, Ulrick Gaillard was appointed as the principal representative of the Batey Relief Alliance (BRA) to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
BRA’s many achievements in the bateyes include notably: the construction of two modern hospitals, equipped with ambulances for emergency services, the implementation of various health programs to combat infectious diseases and malnutrition, providing access to food and clean drinking water to people at risk. Under Ulrick’s leadership, BRA has also introduced other community initiatives, which offered women the opportunity to learn a trade or open a small business to become financially self-reliant and escape the cycle of poverty.
Moreover, in remembrance of his unfulfilled musical dream, he helped launch a small music program for children in the bateyes, to share with them the joy and spiritual escape this beautiful art had given him in his childhood.
Twenty years ago, when I wanted to organize a benefit concert for Haiti, Ulrick was the first person I called to help me in this endeavor. He graciously accepted, lending me his aplomb, his practical vision, and his human relations skills to make this event an unforgettable experience. Thanks to his help, the concert had generated the participation of many professional musicians and gained the support of eminent American personalities, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Because of his uncanny sense of initiative and his tenacity in pursuit of his true calling, in 25 years, Ulrick has accomplished an extraordinary task. He has undoubtedly found a spiritual satisfaction for helping make the lives of his less fortunate compatriots more dignified in lending them a voice to be heard and a light to be seen.
Deservedly, in recognition of his philanthropic endeavors, Ulrick was awarded in 2013 the Rotary’s International Paul Harris Humanitarian Award. Moreover, in 2018, he was granted the position of Affiliate Professor in the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota. And, in 2011, he accepted an invitation from former president Bill Clinton to join the Clinton Global Initiative as a member.
My cousin is admittedly the sum of his experiences, but above all, he is the product of his personality, character, and individuality. To this day, I recognize in him this 8-year-old kid I met in the playground at Holy Trinity School, who, way back then, felt called upon to do something new, daring, and bold, something bigger than himself. He succeeded!
Undeniably, Ulrick Gaillard is a modern-day hero from our diaspora to emulate. People of his faith, conviction, audacity, and self-sacrifice, rekindle in me, despite everything, the belief that “Haiti will arise again!”
Richard Casimir. Date: 5/8/23
Diploma: Professional Studies
in violin, Temple University,
Philadelphia, Pa.Violin teacher, orchestra director Sacred Heart School, Pamplona, Spain