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Wyclef Jean urges SJU students to help Haiti

One of Haiti’s most beloved sons came to St. John’s University last Thursday evening to tell his story, discuss his foundation and implore students to volunteer in the devastated country this summer.

“It’s important that you physically find a way to go to Haiti. Physically. Beyond money and relief they want to physically see you, speak to you,” he told a packed house at the school’s Carnesecca Arena. “Start setting up these little trips. Revolution always starts with the youth.”

The Fugees member turned successful solo musician was born in the island nation and lived there until he was 9, when he said his family moved to Brooklyn’s Marlboro Projects, where he was introduced to hip-hop.

When he left his village in Haiti, where he said he was so poor he ate red dirt when his grandparents did not have money for food, he vowed to return one day and help the destitute townspeople.

That day came with the wild success of his music career, which has blossomed into his appointment as the country’s goodwill ambassador and the founding of the Yéle Haiti Foundation in 1998, which has had a prominent role in recovery efforts since a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Haiti in January. The foundation raised more than $1 million in a day shortly after the attacks, according to Jean.

Ahd Zubadi, a freshman at the college, said he believes in Jean’s efforts through Yéle Haiti.

“What he’s doing, it’s for a good cause, it’s something great,” he said. “It’s pretty sad, the earthquake devastated a lot of people, and a lot of people are trying to help out like Wyclef, which is a good thing.”

But Yéle Haiti has come under scrutiny since the earthquake cast a spotlight on it and the country it serves to help. ABC News and The Smoking Gun Web site investigated the foundation’s finances and reported that despite existing for more than a decade, it did not file any tax returns until August 2009 and that hundreds of thousands of dollars of donations to the group were funneled to commercial holdings in which Jean has a stake.

Jean addressed the allegations, saying he is being unfairly targeted because he does not fit the profile of the average foundation founder.

“For a rapper ... to decide I just want to start a foundation and make it an NGO [non-governmental organization] ... it’s threatening to some that in 24 hours I can raise $1 million,” he said.

Overall, the night was a hit with attendees, particularly a group of Haitians staked out near the front of the bleachers who yelled out Creole at different points in the evening and whom Jean addressed in Creole at one point. He also slap-boxed with a student, cracked jokes and brought three students up for a freestyle rap battle.

But much of the night was serious in tone, as the issue at hand is gravely important to Jean. Asked during a question-and-answer session with students how long he thinks it will take to rebuild Haiti, he was less than optimistic, saying reconstruction will cost at least $14 billion and drag on for decades.

“Haiti can be done in 25 years. Yes, this is realistic,” he said. “The reason why it will take so long is we need real schools, real hope, real infrastructure.”

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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