The view from gabion 1 

The View from Gabion

The View from Gabion 1

The View from Gabion 2 Girl red shirt

February 15, 2010

Gabion was transformed, early on after the earthquake, from a soccer stadium to an IDP (internally displaced peoples) camp. When I think of “camps,” images of miles and miles of refugees, dirt, makeshift housing, and generally unsanitary conditions come to mind. I’ve been conditioned to associate camps with terrible living conditions. Gabion is definitely not terrible. It’s not ideal – none of the people there want to live there – but it’s clean and relatively well managed. There is an organized food program, that Hope for Haiti has helped with support from Kids Against Hunger, and there’s a water supply on the premises. Really, it’s the heat more than anything else that makes life in Gabion hard. That, and the pain brought to the camp from Port au Prince. The IDPs living in Gabion are the minority of people who have traveled to the south who don’t have any family or friends to help support them. They’ve got nowhere else to go. And while there’s “only” around 150 people living there, they’re perhaps the loneliest people in Les Cayes. No family. No friends. No familiar surroundings to find comfort in. During the day, the heat makes staying in the tents unbearable, and people shrink next to the tiny slivers of shade. I’ve been trying to record as many stories from Gabion as I can, trying to preserve them, so that we don’t forget what they went through, what they’re still going through.

I first met Sophia a week ago. She was staying in a tent with a husband, wife, and 2 infants. She did not know any of them, had merely been grouped with them into a tent. Sophia is 13. When she was very little, she was “entered” into the Restavek system by her parents, which is often the equivalent of indentured servitude. The parents give her away to a family, and are promised that the child will receive an education in exchange. Instead, these children are usually put to work. Sophia was no exception. For as long as she can remember, Sophia lived with a family that was not hers, that did not treat her as family, and worked in the streets of Port au Prince selling corn. She told me that occasionally she would get to go to school, but then her adopted family would stop paying her tuition, and she would get kicked out. This pattern followed for many years, until the earthquake struck, killing her adopted family, and making this child a woman overnight-without family, without a home, without many options. She walked the streets aimlessly until finding a bus, and got in without even asking where it was going. She didn’t care. It was going far away from there. Sophia is still a young girl, and seems to be at peace with her situation. She isn’t agitated as she tells me this story, simply stating the facts as if she were in a history class. I’ve tried to have her moved from Gabion to an orphanage, as girls her age are perhaps the most vulnerable in camp environments to sexual abuse. Bureaucracy is Sophia’s enemy at the moment, but the government here, particularly the local mayoral office, is showing signs of life. A few days later I bump into Sophia again as I’m dropping off medical supplies for the two doctors who treat minor injuries at Gabion (more serious cases are triaged to one of the two major hospitals in town). She is happy to see me. She has met other children her age to play with in the camp, which is good. She asks me if I can carry her.

“Carry you? What, on my shoulders? Where?” I assume, stupidly, that she wants to goof around.

“Out of here,” she states plainly. “Can you carry me on your shoulders out of here?” We both know the answer to the question, but Sophia wanted to ask me anyway, and there are no hard feelings when I tell her that I can’t. What I can do is write about her story, and check in on her from time to time, and keep pushing on that immovable object called bureaucracy.

By Lee Cohen

As the quake hits the countryside... 

As the quake hits the countryside…

February 3, 2010

“My name is Maxime Myrtil,” the young man penned delicately in my yellow notepad.

“24 years old.”

Halfway through his last year of high school, Maxime had been studying in Port-au-Prince when the earthquake struck. Fortunately, he told me, he escaped his crumbling school building unharmed and was able to make the uncertain trip back to the southern countryside where he grew up. Today, standing before me outside his mother’s home in the rural community of Ravine Sable, Maxime explained the dilemma that many internally displaced persons (IDPs) are facing throughout Haiti’s southern peninsula: will I stay, or will I go?

Or better yet: must we stay? Can we ever go?

These are the kind of questions my colleague, Lee Cohen, and I were looking for when we went to investigate households like Maxime’s. We’ve spent the past weeks in Cayes, immersed in the immediate problems of the city: overcrowded hospitals, shortages of medicine, bottlenecks of supplies in Port-au-Prince. But we knew it was time to start learning about the countless other pieces of this fractious puzzle – to learn where all the IDPs from Port-au-Prince were going, and how we might be able to help them. Although the earthquake didn’t hit Les Cayes directly, we needed to know how its tremors were being felt in the communities we’re used to working in regularly. Traveling about an hour from Cayes’ urban center, we sampled families in two towns where our partners, the community leaders, expressed concern for the swelling local population.

“Y’ap vini an vag,” school director, Rode Petit-Frère, told me. “They’re coming in waves.” And they say there are more on the way.

Thus we learned that Ravine Sable’s small households are increasing by up to and sometimes over 50%. The home of Mrs. Alexilomme Petit-Frère took in 11 family members displaced from Port-au-Prince. Down the road, Maxime’s mother’s family of 7 suddenly became an extended family of 16. From each of these family’s unique stories, similar trends began to emerge.

Most evident is how the earthquake is directly reversing Haiti’s characteristically rapid rate of urbanization. Maxime and his brother Bony both grew up and went to primary school in Ravine Sable, but moved to Port-au-Prince once their age and studies outpaced the capacity of the local school system. Throughout all the years they were away, their mother paid their school tuitions and supported their lives in the city. But now Maxime, who wants to graduate and study computer science, is back in his hometown with no electricity, no running water, no cell phone service, and most significantly, no other choice.

A second trend revealed parents who had left children in the care of aunts, uncles, and grandparents in Ravine Sable to seek higher earnings in the capital. Their city lives disrupted, the choice I heard these parents discuss was unambiguous: try to make it in Port-au-Prince, or return to their roots, empty handed. But returning to the countryside they’d once left behind only compounds the new post-quake problems: not only does Ravine Sable have more mouths to feed and more people to house, but there is no longer a stream of income flowing from jobs in the city. Two strikes, not one. And the complexity marches on.

What struck me most were not these larger trends but rather the particular impacts such macro-level shifts have on real people. Pointed pangs of reality pressing firmly upon on individual lives – Like unbearably large time lags between meals, and shortages of water. Mrs. Alexilomme’s 15 -year-old daughter told me they had not yet eaten since the previous day. They were waiting, hoping, for the adults to return from the Wednesday market in Gwo Marin. It was afternoon.

To maintain perspective while absorbing these stories, I have to remind myself that they are only a sample of what’s happening in the South – thankfully, not every house is jam-packed with IDPs. People like 20-year-old Clergé Étoile help me do this. His home in Port-au-Prince destroyed, friends and classmates dead, he nonetheless remains focused on getting back to school and to finish the academic year. When contemplating his next move, this 10th grader’s answer came down to one thing: education. “I don’t want to lose this school year,” he tells me. “So wherever I can complete my studies, be it in Port or near Ravine Sable, that’s where I’ll go.”

As of today, I have not yet processed all Lee and I learned earlier this week. But so far, two things are abundantly clear: the problems we’re encountering, both in Les Cayes and the countryside, are complex and inter-related. There will be no quick fix. And yet we learned too that there are many Haitians more powerful than these problems – Haitians with the strength to fight back complexity, move forward despite uncertainty, and not compromise the integrity of their existence in the face of self-doubt, loss, or fear.

As I thumb through my yellow notepad, I wish I were able to write more fully about the other stories I see. Scribbles of survival. Songs of strength. His name was Maxime Myrtil. But another in my notepad is as inspiring as the next.

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