One Year Later, Remembering Nancy Dorsinville

PIH honors the legacy of a Haitian American changemaker, friend

Posted on Apr 14, 2022

Nancy Dorsinville

United Nations policy advisor, grassroots activist, and scholar were just a few of the roles Nancy Dorsinville held throughout her life. But to those who knew her personally, she was family.

“We were all in it, doing the work,” says Didi Bertrand, PIH’s senior adviser on community health and strategist for adolescent youth’s health, gender, and development. “She was a soul sister.”

Whenever she traveled to Haiti from the United States each month, Dorsinville would have two suitcases full of candy, clothes, sanitary items, cash and other things to give away.

For Bertrand’s father, those gifts were socks. For Natacha Jean—then a young patient with tuberculosis—chocolate, lollipops, and toys.

“I miss her so, so much,” says Jean. “She was like a mom to me.”

Dorsinville passed away in her sleep on April 11, 2021, just days after her 65th birthday. A year later, her legacy lives on at Partners In Health and beyond—a testament to the countless lives she touched in Haiti and around the world.

‘She took me under her wings’

A Haitian American, Dorsinville grew up in the U.S.  with her parents, a Haitian diplomat and teacher. She eventually came to split her time among New York City, where she studied at Columbia University, Boston, and Haiti. She was a founding member of Zanmi Beni, a PIH-supported home for over 60 children and young adults, and The Women and Girls Initiative, a grassroots initiative focused on psychosocial support, education, and leadership development and empowerment for young women and girls in Haiti and Rwanda. She was also a program associate with Zanmi Lasante, PIH’s sister organization in Haiti, where she supported the women’s health and HIV/AIDS programs.

Additionally, she served as a senior policy advisor to the UN in Haiti, both before and after the 2010 earthquake. As an anthropologist, she worked closely with PIH Co-founder Dr. Paul Farmer in Haiti, contributing to his book Haiti After the Earthquake, and continued to work alongside him at Harvard University.

Bertrand met her after coming to Boston with Farmer, who she had met in the Central Plateau, where Zanmi Lasante started, and then married. It was Bertrand’s first time in the U.S.

“She took me under her wings,” says Bertrand. “As social science students in universities in France, we shared common interests on matters surrounding gender, women and girl’s rights and female empowerment. She was a mentor and a dear friend. She really guided me on that personal level.”

Their shared passion for global health equity would take them both back to Haiti, where they advocated for the expansion of HIV treatment for people living in poverty, alongside Farmer and other PIH leaders, leading to the HIV Equity Initiative in 1998—one of the first programs to provide free, comprehensive HIV/AIDS treatment in Haiti, establishing a global standard for what was possible in impoverished nations.

An advocate, a friend

The work, for Dorsinville, was never just about policy—it was always about people.

Emilio Travieso, a Jesuit priest, remembers how Dorsinville “became a neighbor” to anyone who was sick or oppressed.

“She quickly became a sister to me,” he says.

The two met while Travieso was a student at Harvard, getting to know the Haitian community in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He lived in Eliot House, where Farmer was a resident tutor and had patients from Haiti staying in his apartment there. Dorsinville, he remembers, would often come to visit those patients and encouraged him to do the same. The two quickly connected over their shared Catholic faith and calling to serve the poor.

From Cambridge to Port-au-Prince, he remembers Dorsinville was always ready to help if he needed anything.

“But mostly, she was just a part of my life,” he says. “Someone I could count on to always be there.”

As she traveled between the U.S. and Haiti, her schedule packed full of meetings and conferences, Dorsinville was somehow always there for others—in their proudest moments and their darkest hours. No celebration was too trivial, and no wound too raw.

“I was really sad, really depressed,” says Jean, who met Dorsinville in 2001, when she was 19 and newly diagnosed with tuberculosis at PIH’s clinic in Cange. “I felt like it was the end of my life.”

The diagnosis was terrifying; but Dorsinville knew how to put her at ease—spending hours talking with her, bringing her on trips around Haiti, and giving her candy, along with a reminder to take her pills.

“We connected very fast,” Jean recalls.

‘Nancy knew everyone’

Connection came naturally to Dorsinville. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which displaced more than 2 million people, Dorsinville used her relationships in the UN, Haitian government, and the global health field to support the public health response and rebuilding efforts.

“Nancy knew everyone—from presidents, prime ministers, ministers,” says Bertrand. “She could navigate the system from top to bottom. She used her family connections to make things happen, and people trusted her.”

Days after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake, Dorsinville went with Loune Viaud, then-co-executive director of Zanmi Lasante, to the general hospital in Port-au-Prince, where they found a group of children living in a rundown ward. Many of the children were disabled, orphaned, or had been abused. Dorsinville and Viaud knew they had to do something, so they partnered with local organizations to build Zanmi Beni (“Blessed Friends” in Haitian Creole), a home that provides food, shelter, education, and medical care for more than 60 orphaned and displaced children.

“There was no one like Nancy,” says Viaud, who is now vice chancellor of the University of Global Health Equity in Haiti and PIH’s chief gender and social equity officer. “She had this way about her and could speak to anyone, community health workers to presidents, without missing a beat.”

Dorsinville also co-founded, along with Bertrand, The Women and Girls Initiative—a grassroots initiative to support young women and girls in Haiti, Rwanda, and beyond—after spending hours visiting young women and girls on the brink of survival in settlement camps after the earthquake.

“She always advocated for the marginalized,” Bertrand says.

That advocacy earned her respect—and recognition. At an awards ceremony in 2010, Farmer recognized her accompaniment, courage, and “stubbornness on behalf of the poor.”

“Nancy has worked tirelessly to redress the disparity between our society’s vast resources and the great needs of our near neighbor,” Farmer said at the time. “As comfortable—and as skilled—discussing democracy in Haiti with Noam Chomsky at MIT as she is recording the story of a farmer in rural Haiti, Nancy is a true and gifted servant of the poor.”

That service continued throughout her life, as Dorsinville supported several women-led, grassroots organizations in Haiti, training staff and helping them fundraise, aware that they lacked the level of support and attention that international nonprofits received. She also engaged with leaders beyond the global health space, including Catholic priests and nuns—a reflection of her own faith.

“When I ended up becoming a Jesuit priest, we would joke that Nancy still knew more Jesuits than I did,” says Travieso. “Her spirituality, genuine and deep, was a light for many of us.”

He notes that she was born on Easter Sunday and passed away on Divine Mercy Sunday, both considered holy days by practicing Catholics.

“That her life was punctuated in this way, to me, is somehow just right,” he says. “I miss her sorely, but I still feel her presence, even today.”

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