Feb. 3, 2010
 |  An e-Newsbrief from the Philadelphia Bar Association  | 
Vol. 11, No. 10
Attorney Thomas Griffin (center) is surrounded by children during a trip to Haiti.

Philadelphia Lawyer Promotes
Human Rights for Victims
of Earthquake in Haiti

Images of decimated buildings and people scouring for lost loved ones lie in stark contrast to the amusements and luxury of "the happiest place on Earth." Yet Haiti and Walt Disney World are just 500 miles apart. It is a disparity Thomas Griffin (left), who has been visiting Haiti since 2000 to document human rights abuses and promote public health, finds difficult to fathom.

"I witnessed a 10-year-old boy die of starvation right in front of me," Griffin said. "He weighed 20 pounds."

Griffin, a partner at the Old City law firm of Morley Surin & Griffin, P.C., has been to Haiti more than 20 times. In 2007, he cofounded Lamp for Haiti, a medical clinic located in Cite Soleil, Port-au-Prince's largest slum. He is the legal director for the clinic, which serves about 200 people a week and survives on donations and a meager operating budget. "Lamp" is a rough acronym for Libete Ak Medesin Pou Ayiti, Creole words meaning "liberty and health for Haiti."

"I lived and worked in Haiti for 10 days [in 2000]," Griffin said. "I got hooked on fighting for the country and wanted to do something."

Griffin has written scholarly articles on human rights in Haiti as well as spoken on the subject at several prestigious venues, including the Parliament of Canada. He teaches a course at Drexel University and had planned to take eight students to Haiti for a profile on women's rights before the earthquake struck. His passion for social justice is unwavering. But he was not prepared for the devastation he witnessed when he visited the country at the end of January to help earthquake victims and examine the condition of his clinic.

"Imagine if the damage done to [New Orleans'] 9th Ward from Hurricane Katrina was instead 48 states," Griffin said. "That's what Haitians face."

In Haiti, Griffin joined the clinic's medical director, Jim Morgan, and its Haitian-born manager Mimi Dominique. After spending a night at Dominique's home, Griffin made his way to the clinic through the rubble and debris. Thankfully, only its perimeter wall had been damaged. A story in The Philadelphia Inquirer chronicled the rest of Griffin's time there as he provided support to those being treated for injuries. (Click here for the Inquirer’s article on Griffin)

Griffin says donations to Haiti are vital but just as important are attorneys volunteering to walk through the survival camps and ensure human rights are being upheld. Lawyers are also needed to help hold relief organizations accountable for their monetary intake and ensure funding is being distributed to all Haitians.

"These groups don't get questioned as often as they should," Griffin said. "Billions and billions [of dollars] have gone into Haiti for years to build mansions for the rich while poor people were getting nothing. What's to stop that from happening again unless they are being watched."

For more information on how to help, Griffin refers attorneys to the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), and particularly a new initiative, the Lawyer Earthquake Response Network (LERN). LERN's goal is to create a network of lawyers to develop a long-term legal response rooted in human rights principles to mitigate Haiti's susceptibility to the next earthquake, hurricane or other stress.

"Many Haitians are still saying they have not heard from anyone," Griffin said. "We need people to represent the majority living in poverty who have no voice."

For a list of donation resources to support humanitarian relief efforts currently underway in Haiti, visit the Philadelphia Bar Association Web site by clicking here. Thomas Griffin can be reached at griffin@msgimmigration.com.