Denisha Demeritte’s family in the Bahamas lost power when Hurricane Dorian hit. Her father sent her a video recorded as he walked through the neighborhood with water rising to his knees.
It could be worse: Demeritte is from Nassau, which was not hit as hard as elsewhere. But she still mourns the losses in her homeland.
“The hurricane is impacting me and my family because it’s still the Bahamas at the end of the day,” said Demeritte, a 21-year-old senior at the College of St. Benedict. “We’re one country, united in love and service, so when it hurts one, it hurts all.”
She is among 68 Bahamian students attending St. Ben’s and its affiliated institution, St. John’s University — a group that is banding together to raise money, donate supplies and support one another as they worry about their loved ones. The liberal arts colleges near St. Cloud have long had strong ties to the Bahamas, home to 1,200 alumni and where campus leaders visit to recruit students.
On Sunday, the students will attend a special prayer service and eat a traditional Bahamian dinner together in recognition of the devastation from the hurricane that killed at least 23 people and left thousands of homes underwater. Many are from the national capital of Nassau on the island of New Providence, which was not heavily affected like the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama.
“It’s more difficult as a student being 1,700 miles away and knowing that you can’t just get in the car or get on a plane that fast and go to the island or go to your family’s house and just be with them,” said Kistacia Thompson, a 21-year-old senior from Nassau.
She has relatives and friends in Abaco and Grand Bahama who were evacuated, but she hasn’t been able to reach them by phone.
“It’s super heartbreaking to have to be this far and the only thing you can do is share a Facebook post in hopes that someone will respond,” Thompson said.
Benedictine priest Chrysostom Schreiner, leader of St. John’s in the 1880s, began building a Catholic community in the Bahamas, eventually suggesting to locals that they attend the university in Minnesota. Benedictine sisters and monks did work on the islands for decades.
“This relationship crosses generations and is one of the longest partnerships that we’ve had in our institution’s history right now,” said St. Ben’s President Mary Dana Hinton. “We are all being impacted by the hurricane and its devastation in the Bahamas because it impacts people that we love and care deeply about.”
The colleges have developed a relationship with the Ministry of Education in the Bahamas that enables them to recruit there, according to Hinton. She said campus leaders try to visit annually and met with the prime minister in the spring.
Hinton noted that many graduates return to the Bahamas and assume leadership roles. The president of the University of the Bahamas is a St. John’s alum and the provost graduated from St. Ben’s. Others work in major accounting firms in the Bahamas.
“Our goal is to try to help our students navigate all of the emotions around being so far away, to navigate the strain of thinking about what has been lost, to navigate the unknowns of what the recovery effort might look like,” Hinton said.
The college students’ fundraising efforts through globalgiving.org have brought in more than $12,000 in the last several days. The community is also trying to solicit donations of needed items on campus.
Owyn Ferguson has aunts, uncles and cousins in Grand Bahama “who essentially lost everything in their home,” he said.
“It’s really disheartening,” said Ferguson, a 20-year-old senior. “It’s really easy to feel helpless … just being disconnected and also having to carry the weight of school and those obligations itself is challenging.”
Demeritte said people in the Bahamas had been through so many hurricanes but had never seen something like this.
“We are physically here in Minnesota, but our minds and our hearts and our emotions are in the Bahamas,” Demeritte said. “That’s where we would like to be … it’s difficult for us to go to class or complete homework assignments and function as if nothing has ever happened and this is a regular day.”
How to help
Students from the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University are collecting financial donations to aid the Bahamas online at globalgiving.org/fundraisers/32143/.