Plan's Updated Blog from Haiti
Celebrating Haiti’s promising future one year after the quake
Posted by Plan Haiti's Jo-Ann Garnier-Lafontant
On January 12th at 4h53pm I was in my third-floor office at Plan Haiti, meeting with Guerdy the Human Resources Manager and talking about staff issues and projects for the New Year. Suddenly the ground seemed furious with us. I can still hear the sound of heavy concrete collapsing and people screaming. After I saw the toilet literally explode in front of us, I told Guerdy “We’re going to die.” I saw images of my family before me. I tried to call them, but I could not get through. I was terrified. My husband worked in a 6-story building and I could not reach him...
Between three violent aftershocks Guerdy and I managed to get out of the building and into the parking lot. I remember seeing several shoes my colleagues had lost in the stairs while running out of the office. I saw my other colleagues horrified, crying and trying desperately to communicate with their loved ones on their cell phones. I saw this little girl, maybe she was 12, who had come to hide in our parking lot. I had never seen her before... she smiled at me. She told me she lived in the neighborhood, that she escaped from her house and the rest of her family was still missing. She was wounded, the features of her face hidden behind dust.
Four hours later, my husband miraculously appeared in our parking lot, sweating and breathless. I had tears in my eyes when I saw him. He told me about the things he saw on his way to Plan's office and we started the journey home together. It was awful. We saw people either walking like zombies, screaming, crying, carrying injured people or dead bodies—or desperately looking for loved ones. When we got home, my mother, my 1-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son were in the street in front of our house...stunned and speechless. I grabbed them and held them so tight. I heard that my father and nieces were stuck downtown but they were okay. Now... what about the rest of the family, friends ... we could only wonder.
I remember the funerals of my aunt and my grandmother. My father had to remove his own mother from the rubble that had been her home, after six days of digging. We had gotten my aunt out of her collapsed home after two days of digging but she died on the way to the hospital—and then her body was lost among the other bodies and we never found her again.
I remember seeing so many people around Port-au-Prince queuing for burial ceremonies for their loved ones. I thought Haiti had died.
On the last day of 2010, I sat at a meeting at Plan's new office in Port-au-Prince. It was for the children’s and youth event we are planning for the anniversary of the earthquake. I was amazed at the change since last January. At the meeting we talked about celebrating life. We talked about a new beginning for Haiti and how the engagement of children and youth is essential to its success. I felt our excitement. I feel so proud to be a part of this.
According to what I have witnessed over the past year, Haiti’s promising future is guaranteed because of the potential inside its children and youth. After the earthquake, I saw how young people were so keen and motivated to support their peers. Now I see them mobilizing again to raise awareness about cholera and saving lives.
The earthquake devastated Haiti, but it also provided a chance for this country to be reborn. Children and youth immediately understood their role in this reshaping—they played a key part in the emergency response and they have told us from the beginning that they are ready to do whatever it takes to help reconstruct their country. We adults—and especially the decision makers among us—should listen to their insights and follow in their footsteps and do whatever it takes to fulfill our responsibilities to this country. In the near future, I think there should be a group of young advisors standing behind the President and each Minister.
Today I weep for my aunt, Gagaye (this is how we called her), and my grandmother, Nini, and so many other family members and friends whom I am missing, and also for those I did not know and who left us too soon. But today I also celebrate life. I celebrate the strength I see in the communities where Plan works. I understand the wise person who said “a country never dies…” I now know this is true more than ever because a country like Haiti can count on its children and youth to keep it alive.
The road to education
December 17, 2010: Posted by Plan USA's Heidi Reed
Last weekend Nelly Humbert and Caroline Grandjean from the French government’s humanitarian agency ‘Centre de Crise’ arrived to visit some of the semi-permanent schools that Plan has built in our 2 earthquake-affected programme areas in Haiti - Croix-des-Bouquets and Jacmel.
To date there are 76 school buildings that have been built between the 2 zones, part supported by Centre de Crise, through a major grant to Plan Haiti.
‘Semi-permanent’ is a confusing description at first. Why would an international non-governmental organisation like Plan build a school that isn’t going to last? It actually means that while Haiti’s Ministry of Education is finalising their major reconstruction plans for Haiti’s many earthquake-damaged schools, Plan is providing a sensible interim solution to get students out of inadequate temporary classrooms into ones that are even safer and more conducive to learning.
These semi-permanent classrooms - with Ministry-approved designs - are earthquake and hurricane resistant and could well last up to 15 years.
The Sisters showing the group the new classroom structures The first stop was the badly damaged school, Marie Reine Immaculée. To offer Ms Humbert and Grandjean a progressive experience so that they could appreciate the context and great need their agency had met, we were greeted by 2 Sisters, the directors of the school. They led us through the rubble-strewn courtyard and into a classroom that clearly demonstrated where the project had started.
We then travelled to a site farther out of town where the initial temporary schools tents were set up back in October. One of the Sisters showed us her office inside an old canvas tent that had been hard hit by the rainy season.
The next stop was the site of the new semi-permanent classrooms that were nearly finished. What struck me was not so much what the schools looked like on the land, but how calming and serene it felt to be among them.
There was no rubble in sight. Nothing tattered or worn from overexposure to the elements. Only solidly constructed wooden structures positioned together in a way that made sense. It was Sunday but a curious little boy who lived in the area appeared. It looked right to see him there.
Exploring the new
In February, I wrote a blog about the road to Jacmel and seeing children on the side of the road who were out of school and bored. This time, the road to Jacmel, had given me something new and different to consider: the milestones of change that - especially in Haiti - must be celebrated and honoured.
In Haiti, heroes are everywhere
December 13, 2010: Posted by Plan USA's Heidi Reed
Early today in Port-au-Prince while catching up with the news I read “Are Heroes Born, or Can They Be Made?” by Jonah Lehrer on WSJ.com and learned about the Heroic Imagination Project, a nonprofit recently started by Phil Zimbardo, a psychologist from Stanford University.
Working for Plan, a global nonprofit organization that focuses on fulfilling the rights of children in 48 developing countries—to health, education, economic security, water and sanitation, protection and participation—I found the article particularly relevant to our work.
What motivates humans to give to charities and be heroes for people they have never met?
According to Zimbardo’s scientific findings, most people are capable of extraordinary acts of courage, but that they are often inhibited by prejudices, faulty perceptions that someone else will give all of the help that is needed and the incorrect assumption that victims deserved what happened to them.
On my two visits to Haiti this year, I have seen the end result of such human tendencies living underneath tarpaulins and hot, humid tents. There are 1.3 million people in Haiti, who through no fault of their own, are homeless—and who, because of complicated land and legal issues, cannot get into secure homes fast enough for them or anyone to believe that all has gone right with the earthquake response.
Earthquakes, hurricanes and cholera epidemics trigger tremendous acts of heroism—even if small acts of courage were needed long beforehand to work out the many structural issues that could have prevented the tremendous loss of life in the first place. Zimbardo’s nonprofit teaches people how to become everyday heroes, by making them aware of why they guard themselves against helping, learning the art of empathy, studying the behavior of other heroes and then by rehearsing simple noble acts in the real world.
In Haiti, heroes are everywhere. They are riding the colorful tap-taps, walking long distances on the side of winding roads, holding up bags of fresh-baked bread and hoping for a sale. They are the children who are laughing and playing again. These are the people who survived what looked and felt like the end of the world and persevered.
Last week in Croix-des-Bouquets, I met a courageous young man named Pierre Cleevens. He is 24, fluent in French and Spanish, and since the earthquake living in one tent with seven older siblings. Somewhere in the rubble pile of his old life is his degree in classical studies, a certificate in communications and a diploma in Spanish. He said that he was the only one in his family with a great love of learning.
What would make a difference in Pierre’s life? I asked myself, feeling heartbroken and hopeful that things would be alright for him all at once. A job, so he can bring back food to his family tent—and a society that respects and recognizes his talents and doesn’t let them go to waste.
The day after the earthquake at Plan Haiti’s damaged offices, hundreds of the young people showed up in the courtyards to lend their physical strength and offer their input for the emergency response. They’d already seen firsthand the needs of their neighborhoods. And because of Plan’s leadership training programs prior to the earthquake, they mobilized themselves alongside Plan Haiti’s staff with pride and confidence. On foot, bicycles and motorcycles, over the next days and weeks they worked around the clock and delivered aid to where it was needed most.
Over the years, while a few in Haiti got materially wealthier, it’s my feeling that the rest of the population got richer in the qualities of determination, collaboration and mutual respect, which are now forged into Haiti’s national character. The acts of desperation and violence that dominate the international news broadcasts and perpetuate the perception that Haiti is merely a hopeless, dangerous place should not overshadow this fact and cause the global community to withdraw its empathy or support of Haiti’s future—the fabric of which is now being woven from all the many strands of heroism that are infinite and immeasurable.
Photo of Pierre Cleevens, age 24
Boosting water and sanitation in Haiti
December 7, 2010: Posted by Plan USA's Heidi Reed
Last Wednesday I travelled with 3 of my Plan colleagues to Parc Olympia, a camp in Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti, where Plan is responsible for the water and sanitation activities for the people who are still without permanent homes.
Plan has built bathrooms and showers with walls and doors. We’ve also installed 2 water tanks there. Just recently we distributed water buckets with spigots, soap, oral rehydration salts and information to hundreds of families about how to prevent cholera and treat it if necessary.
With me was Pierre Willems, our Belgian-born disaster risk reduction manager; Sheila Ramaswamy, a cholera consultant from Bangalore, India, and Saintil Brice, Plan Haiti’s education advisor, who I’d met one month after the earthquake on my first trip to Haiti.
Over the last 10 months, Saintil has attended countless meetings to help shape the Ministry of Education’s plan for Haiti’s future education system. He’s organised hundreds of trainings for educators so that they can better support their students learning and emotional needs after the earthquake.
Under his watch, Plan has built some 30 earthquake- and wind-resistant school structures out of wood and tin at public and private school sites (with 40 more being built) that will last the many years to come until the permanent schools can be constructed.
Cholera TV report
We were at Parc Olympia with a correspondent and cameraman from TVE, the largest media outlet in Spain. They’d come to Haiti to report on cholera and they wanted to see some of Plan’s water and sanitation activities and interview Spanish-speaking staff.
The crew captured footage of children singing inside one of Plan’s child-friendly spaces and captured some video of the truck with giant speakers mounted on top that Plan has been using to spread Ministry of Health-approved cholera-awareness messages throughout the neighbourhoods.
When the 4 of us were back in the car and on our way back to Port-au-Prince, I asked Saintil to tell me about his earthquake experience. He said that he’d been in the port town of Jacmel with some Plan Haiti colleagues for a training session.
When the earthquake hit, they were on the road heading back to Port-au-Prince. They were forced to turn around and go back to their hotel, which was so badly damaged they had no choice but to sleep outside on the ground for the next 4 days. The hotel owner fed them and gave them drinks.
With the money they had, Saintil and the others from Plan bought food and started distributing it to the people of Jacmel. He said while they were totally cut off from the world - no radio, TV or newspapers - they sang songs.
“What did you sing?” I asked. “Amazing Grace,” he said, among many others. I could just imagine him leading his team with songs.
That’s when - with all of Haiti’s great vibrancy, humanity, tap-taps, motorcycles, humanitarian aid worker vehicles, stray dogs and rubble all around - Pierre, Sheila, Saintil and I -brought together by an earthquake and cholera - sang Amazing Grace.
I couldn’t remember all the words of the third stanza, but Saintil knew them by heart, and he carried the song for us all the way to the end. The sound was sweet.
A song for good health at Camp Corail
November 29, 2010: Posted by Plan USA's Heidi Reed
On Wednesday this week I traveled with my Plan Haiti colleague Jo-Ann Garnier-Lafontant and our communications assistant Mackendy Jean Baptiste to meet a TV crew from Canada at one of the largest resettlement camps outside of Port-au-Prince. In a partnership between the government, the UN and other nonprofit charities, Plan is responsible for the camp’s health activities.
Driving into the camp, that has been the new home to about 10,000 people since the spring, UN vehicles passed by our truck. After we got out, in the center of the camp—not far from where Plan had recently setup a cholera treatment unit with cots and oral rehydration salts inside—UN officers from all over the world walked up to shake my hand and say hello. There we were in the middle of a hot, dry desert, meeting new people from faraway places, while little Haitian children wandered by and pulled on the officers’ legs for more Chiclets.
I heard the sound of hammers pounding in the distance. I was almost afraid to look. Was it real? Jo-Ann said it was the permanent housing going up for all the people that were living in all those hot and humid tents. It doesn’t get reported often enough, I thought, but changes are happening in Haiti—and I was glad Lisa Laflamme from CTV was coming.
While we waited, a slight young man appeared before us. He was soft spoken. He said that he was a creative artist and a poet. Before the earthquake, he was from Port-au-Prince, and now he lived at the camp near Croix-des-Bouquets with people he didn’t know. He recited an epic poem to us in French about life, love, suffering and joy. Jo-Ann asked him to write it down for her on a piece of paper and he did so, eagerly. In the camps, for most, there is so little to do.
In the distance, we heard little children singing. I followed the sound to one of the many Canadian HousAll units that was donated to Plan after the earthquake. That’s where inside I saw about 30 little children seated around brightly colored tables with Plan logos painted on them. It made me smile. So this is what Plan’s ECCD program looks like in real life, I thought. At development organizations like Plan, we often use acronyms to describe what we do. In this case, early childhood care for development.
Children under the age of five look nothing like acronyms sound. They smile a lot, tear up sometimes because they are suddenly scared, and look up at the world—no matter where it is—with big, amazed eyes. When we walked inside the school, the children were playing with moldable colored clay. Rolling it around on their tables. One little girl wrapped it around her wrist and tried to make it turn into a yellow bracelet.
A little boy noticed the travel-size bottle of hand sanitizer clipped onto my belt—my own small precautionary measure against the cholera bacteria. He asked if I’d put a drop of it into the palm of his hand. At first I wondered if I should. Would a four-year-old child know what to do? But I couldn’t hesitate for long. At least ten little palms were held out and waiting. As I dropped in the little clear-liquid pearls and told them to rub their hands together fast, I wondered what these four-year-olds knew about bacteria and staying healthy. I didn’t have time to ask. Instead I got mobbed with more hands. The room got noisy with laughter. Then I put the hand sanitizer away and asked the children if they would like to sing. They knew what to do: they clapped and sang a rousing song about washing their hands with soap.
Children's backpacks hold dreams in Haiti
November 22, 2010: Posted by Plan USA's Heidi Reed
I’m on my second trip to Haiti since the earthquake struck. Every morning on the way to the Plan office in Port-au-Prince I see what I didn’t see 9 months ago: radiant, happy children in uniforms tramping along to school.
Some children walk with their siblings, others hold their mother’s or father’s hand. Many of the girls wear clean, white frilly socks and dress shoes beside the lumbering traffic and cement walls covered in pink bougainvillea. Many have brand new backpacks almost larger than themselves.
My favorite backpack belongs to a little girl who lingered a little, hugging her fuzzy brown bear with a zipper and pot belly for a pocket, while her father waited patiently for her to take another step towards school.
Signs of hope
Backpacks are for holding textbooks, notebooks and pencils - but in the poorest country in the northern hemisphere they are also incredible signs of hope. They hold dreams. Every day that I am here, I find myself wanting to tell the world: Haiti is not poor, but rich in spirit and possibilities.
I am grateful to work for a humanitarian organisation that fundamentally believes that even the most unlikely of aspirations can be achieved. When perseverance meets with expertise and good planning, new opportunities arise and change lives.
Since the earthquake, my colleagues at Plan Haiti have delivered thousands of backpacks and supplies to Haiti’s children, they've built transitional schools, and helped young children and youths cope with the emotional effects of the earthquake so that they feel confident enough to take the next step toward school.
They've trained teachers and administrators to help emotionally distressed students feel the motivation to claim their rightful place in the world.
Different rules apply in an impoverished country like Haiti where the fight for survival rules the day. Every day I see children, babies sometimes, riding on motorcycles held only in the trusting arms of the rider on back. There are no helmets for them. No way to avoid the perils. Just signs painted everywhere on ramshackle tap-tap buses and small merchant shops, telling them to have faith and believe.
Looking to the future
Back home, I start to feel discouraged when I hear the dialogue between the naysayers and the critics about Haiti’s future. But when I am in Haiti, my heart soars when I see a little girl hugging her teddy bear backpack on her way to school.
The Haitians I have met through my work here - even those who lost loved ones and friends in the earthquake - are warm-hearted, strong and prone to song and joyous bursts of laughter. In the air tonight, on the anniversary of her last battle before independence, I am only sensing Haiti's determination to overcome.
Remembering and finding balance 6 months after
July 30, 2010: Posted by Plan Haiti's Kristie van de Wetering
It’s been 6 months since the goudou goudou hit Haiti. Before 12 January, there was no word for “earthquake” in Haitian Creole; there is now.
I had hoped to jot down my thoughts earlier but it is only now that I have a brief moment to breathe and put to paper the thoughts, ideas and memories that have been rolling around in my mind.
In the frenzy, we choose to forget – at least certain things. But there are constant reminders at every corner, and the thought is just below the surface that maybe, just maybe, it will happen again.
I met a friend for lunch. She was in town for a few days – her first days in the city since 12 January, this time with her newborn baby girl. As we sat down, people started to scream and stampede towards the door. Chairs went flying, drinks and food splattered on the floor. It was not a tremor but rather a large truck rumbling by. We ate our lunch in the car in a supermarket parking lot.
I think we have an obligation to remember, not only to honour those who were taken from us but also to make sure that, to whatever extent possible, we are more prepared for “next time”.
At the same time we have an obligation and responsibility not to let the memories paralyse us. We need to heal emotionally as well as physically, deal with the distress and move on with our lives.
Finding a balance
The earthquake forced us to take stock – to think about what we had, what we have lost, what we still have. It forced us to think about priorities and what really matters in life; that life is short and that we need to make the most of it.
Yet at the same time, it is precisely because of this earthquake that people are working long and hard days to make a dent in the face of so much need. It’s balance that we all so desperately seek – a balance all the more important since January 12.
Making a difference
It’s not easy to convey the real and everyday challenges here. They were numerous before the quake and have only expanded exponentially since. However, amid such challenges we have made progress.
Plan has been a crucial partner to the Ministry of Education in getting more than 15,000 school kids back in school by providing temporary and now semi-permanent classrooms.
We have protected more than 26,000 children against major health risks like typhoid, diphtheria, and tetanus. In partnership with the Ministry of Health we have facilitated access to quality healthcare for thousands of people, many of them pregnant women.
We are one of the leading organisations focusing on emotional and social “reconstruction” needs – creating 30 child-friendly spaces for at least 4,500 children, and training 975 education professionals and 100 youth volunteers in psychosocial support.
I could go on. The point is that Plan is making a difference here and will continue to make a difference despite of and in spite of the delays and challenges – past, present and future.
Rebuilding Haiti, one classroom at a time
May 10, 2010: Posted by Plan USA's Ann Wang
I’m perched on a ledge at L’Ecole Frere Clement, one of the schools Plan is supporting in Jacmel, in the South East region of Haiti. It’s almost noon which means one of the schools using the site is ending classes for the day, and another school will begin in the afternoon.
Kids stream past me in uniforms of blue check or yellow and green, depending on what school they are enrolled in, alternately yelling “bonjour!” or waving shyly; a few bolder ones call out “blan!” Regardless of their level of French or English, almost all of them smile broadly when passing by trying to figure out what I’m doing there.
Replacing tent classrooms
Today is an exciting day because we are starting construction of the transitional structures that will eventually replace the temporary tents and sunshades Plan has been erecting to serve as temporary classrooms. Our transitional classrooms are more durable and have been designed to hurricane and earthquake-proof standards. With the hurricane season starting in June, it is all the more urgent that they are built as quickly as possible.
Working in partnership with the Ministry of Education (which has approved Plan’s school design) we have identified sites at which we’ll be building these classrooms, and our pilot building at Frere Clement will serve as a model for contractors to follow.
Although it’s a scorching 95 degrees, there’s a nervous energy in the air, as the preparation and anticipation from the past month have finally resulted in “breaking ground” today.
Already a crew at our makeshift wood shop is cutting and assembling the roof truss, and other workers are measuring and staking out the spots where additional classrooms will be built.
Jack Ryan, the architect who produced the school design for Plan, is overseeing the project and working for the next 2 weeks with local builders in Jacmel, to ensure design specifications are followed and construction crews obtain the skills necessary to build the right way, to avoid reoccurrences of the destruction that followed the earthquake.
Building materials include mostly wood, which is much more flexible yet sturdy in the event of natural disasters, and lightweight corrugated roofing painted white to minimise heat gain, with concrete being used only for the foundations of the school.
Throughout the next few months, Plan will continue working with the Ministry, various schools, partner organizations, teachers, and parents to ensure children have safe and secure classrooms in which to learn, play, and be kids again.
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Reopening Haiti's schools
April 6, 2010: Posted by Plan's Hanna Jamal
Although my 3 weeks in Haiti has passed very quickly, much activity has taken place in that amount of time!
For starters, I was involved in preparations leading up to the re-opening of schools in Haiti by 5 April, which the Haitian government had strongly been urging. Many schools in the south-east around Jacmel were already back in session before then, using large tents provided by Plan.
For other schools, especially those around the earthquake-affected area of Croix-des-Bouquets, right outside of Port-au-Prince, resuming classes on 5 April was somewhat of an unrealistic goal, given the physical conditions of the region.
Back to school campaign
However, Plan is still preparing the groundwork to get children back in to school as soon as possible, including launching our ’Back to School’ campaign aimed at educators, parents, and students.
Our primary message is that education is now more important than ever, not only in providing learning opportunities but also to ensure children have a safe and secure place in which they can re-establish normal routines and continue recovering from the psychological distress experienced in the aftermath of the earthquake.
On my last day in Haiti, I visited one of the schools near Croix-des-Bouquets that Plan will be supporting with temporary classrooms. The school was hit hard by the earthquake; one block of classrooms was completely destroyed and the rest are too damaged to use.
In order for children to resume their classes as soon as possible, they need access to a safe place where they can feel comfortable and confident to learn. Teachers and other school personnel need safe spaces too, as well as access to the basic equipment and materials they need to work effectively.
Before the classrooms can be put in place, the site for the temporary school must first be cleared. Rubble has to be removed and separate latrines for girls and boys must be dug. I went to visit the team of parents and community members who are working as part of Plan’s cash for work programme to prepare the school site.
Men and women from the local community were working together to ready the space so that their children can go back to school. Although this school didn’t open its doors on 5 April, Plan is working with partners including the Ministry of Education, teachers, parents and community members to ensure that when it does, children will have a safe and secure space to continue their education.
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Helping Haiti's children return to school
March 31, 2010: Posted by Plan's Hanna Jamal
It’s hard to believe I’ve been in Haiti for over 2 weeks now and am coming to the end of my temporary assignment here. In supporting the education portfolio for Plan Haiti I’ve seen the amazing amount of work already done to ensure children can return to school in early April.
For the past few weeks, we’ve been working with education authorities, facilitating town hall meetings for school directors and inspectors to come together and express their concerns and needs.
Last week in Croix-des-Bouquets we anticipated about 50 participants and were surprised as over 70 directors and inspectors attended! Every available chair in the office was packed into the room, with several directors standing in the doorway and Plan staff perched on top of desks at the front of the room.
The session was conducted mostly in Creole, which proved challenging. Still, it was clear the needs and concerns are plentiful: the need for temporary schools where school buildings have been destroyed or damaged; how to get parents and children to overcome the fears and anxieties they developed and to encourage them to send their children back to school; how to encourage teachers to come back to work and to offer them the psychosocial support they need as well as training on how to handle the psychosocial needs of their students; what to do about the camps that are settled on school grounds; and how to pay teachers’ salaries in light of the increased economic struggles.
Plan’s education strategy
Saintil Brice, Plan’s national education advisor, presented Plan’s strategy for supporting the Ministry of Education to respond to these needs, including the provision of transitional structures and teaching materials; training teachers and school directors on psychosocial support and emergency preparedness, as well as on key issues such as gender, school-based violence, health and hygiene promotion, and disability.
I presented Plan’s integrated strategy to support early childhood development that includes education, child protection and health — to target pre-school children and children aged 0-3, and provide support to pre-school teachers, parents, women’s groups and caregivers.
Supporting the government
The needs of the school directors are immense and multi-faceted. Plan’s role is not to serve as a substitute for the government but rather to support the government and to work with national and international organisations to respond to these needs in a coordinated and effective way.
Although Plan alone can’t resolve all the problems facing the education system, we are committed to working together in partnerships to ensure children get the education they deserve.
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"I want to tell you my name"
March 16, 2010: Posted by Plan Haiti's Kristie van de Wetering
There are children everywhere. A group of rambunctious boys are playing soccer. A dance class is just getting underway while music class students belt out a tune on their recorders. Some children are quietly drawing, hunched over their drawings while others play tag while blowing enthusiastically into their little plastic whistles.
I am at one of Plan’s newly established child-friendly spaces, visiting with some of my colleagues. Among the flurry of activity, I feel a little tug on my bag. I look down and see a sweet little round face with innocent eyes looking up at me. I kneel down to talk with her. “Hi sweetheart, how are you?” I ask in Creole.
With shy words uttered in not more than a whisper, she says: “I want to tell you my name.” At the age of 5, she could sense that something important was going on. She wanted to be part of it. She wanted to be recognised. She wanted to be acknowledged. She wanted to be heard.
Helping children to speak out
My moment with this little one is representative of what is happening on a higher level with the Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) consultative process currently ongoing in Haiti. In the flurry of the urgency to design a plan for the reconstruction of Haiti, Plan wants to make sure the decision-makers hear the voices of children and youth when they decide what will be done to rebuild the country and how it will happen.
Even more than that, decision-makers must not only hear but listen to and validate these young Haitians’ views, opinions, and wishes for the new Haiti.
There is a lot of activity this week around the PDNA with various actors lobbying the Haitian government and donors alike to include the interests and needs of key groups of people in Haitian society – people who are often excluded from decision-making circles.
Today through Wednesday there is a technical conference in the Dominican Republic. A roundtable discussion on ‘The Child/Youth Perspective in the Reconstruction of Haiti’ will take place on 18 March in Miami, with a consultation between civil society and the government in Port-au-Prince on 19 March. Plan is participating in these events to ensure that the voices of Haitian children and youth are kept on the agenda and in the plan.
This is all leading up to the grand finale on 31 March when the final PDNA framework will be presented to donors at a conference in New York.
It took a lot of courage for that little girl to come up to me and assert herself like that. But she did it and she captivated us with her quiet song that followed. Now it is up to us to do the same - to seize and keep the attention of the decision-makers in Haiti and the international community, and to make Haiti’s children and youth a priority in the rebuilding of the nation.
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Two months on: Seeds of hope amid the rubble
March 13, 2010: Posted by Plan Haiti's Kristie van de Wetering
Plan Haiti's Kristie van de Wetering has taken over blogging for Nigel Chapman.
I am sitting with my cup of Haitian coffee, my cat curled up on my lap, thinking back to 12 January. Unlike 13 January, I woke up fairly rested this morning. I slept on a mattress last night in a house that was not shaking as opposed to my car, which shook constantly the night of 12 January.
It’s been 2 months since the quake. Sometimes it seems like a lifetime ago but the frequent dreams, jitteriness at the slightest unexpected movement or sound, and my instant ‘escape route analysis’ upon entering any building reminds me that it was not that long ago.
In love with Haiti
I fell in love with this country 9 years ago, but I feel that the earthquake has cheated me in some way – cheated me of friends, memories, small but valued accomplishments over the years, and, to some degree, hope for the future.
Over the years I have been asked on numerous occasions: “Are you not afraid of living in Haiti, especially violence-ridden Port-au-Prince? Haiti must be such a scary place to live.” My response has always been a resounding “no” - that Haiti’s reputation as a lawless land of violent people is a gross misrepresentation of this nation and its people.
But ask me that same question now and my answer will be different. Not because of anything to do with violence or insecurity, but rather because on 12 January the Haitian ground shook so violently that it claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people and decimated cities and neighbourhoods in a matter of seconds.
And then I think back on my week and I start to think differently about things. The seeds of hope start to sprout again; seeds that have always been there but that were buried under the rubble of 12 January.
I remember the little faces of children like Davka, Jos, Josique, Fabienne, Tracy and the others in the child-friendly spaces I have visited in the past few days. Children being children - laughing, playing, resting, recovering, thanks to the work Plan is doing to help them overcome all they have seen, heard, and felt these past 2 months.
I remember the kind and proud faces of Gracia, Jezila, and Darlene – women working hard alongside men in cash-for-work projects Plan is implementing in Jacmel and Croix-des-Bouquets. Not only are these projects about economic recovery and disaster risk reduction, but they are equally about participation – about empowering women and men to participate in recovery activities in their communities and contribute to overall recovery of the country.
I am instantly reminded of why we do what we do and how important it is.
I think of my new colleagues – tired beyond belief from working endless days to provide relief to their fellow brothers and sisters. Many of them have lost so much but have given so much in the last 2 months. My revived sense of encouragement and drive is fueled by the resilience of the Haitian people and their strength to rise above this. And rise they will.
By the time I finish my coffee, my spirits have lifted. I feel a renewed sense of commitment to the children of Haiti, to my colleagues and to this country. As the Haitian proverb says ‘Men anpil, chay pa lou’ (with many hands the load is not heavy). Together we will rebuild this beautiful nation. As the t-shirts being worn by numerous people in the streets of Haiti today announce, “together we will get there”.
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A safe space for children in Jacmel
Posted by Plan CEO Nigel Chapman
My last full day in Haiti is spent in Jacmel, one of the towns hardest hit by the quake. The road takes us through Port-au-Prince and the chaos of the street markets, past the flattened Presidential Palace (which, Plan Haiti staff tell me, is now a symbol of a destroyed country) and along narrow roads where even the smallest houses betray the impact of 12 January.
This landscape is almost impossible to describe, with rubble everywhere and houses at cockeyed angles. Tented villages spring up at random, some with strong canopies, others with flimsy sheets. The road is just about winning its battle against daily landslides - but what will happen when the rains come?
We visit the Jacmel staff in their small tent, squatting in the yard of our fellow non-governmental organisation, Caritas. Plan’s office is a write-off.
Then off to see more cash for work schemes and the 10 new temporary classrooms which Plan is erecting in the grounds of the secondary school. The original building looks fine to the naked eye - but is riven with structural faults and will have to be totally rebuilt, according to the engineer from England who has been hired to help us.
It is easier to work in Jacmel than Port-au-Prince, he says. No-one there has yet agreed which land can be used to build the temporary classrooms. The authorities are saying they want all the schools open in early April but no one is sure whether this is possible.
The school looks over Jacmel harbour with its newly built wharf, courtesy of the Canadian armed forces. There are no ships in sight but later this month 3 large barges, full of materials to erect sturdy interim homes and other buildings, are expected to dock.
Everyone we talk to is pinning a lot on the arrival of the 3 barges. Sourcing the material to build temporary structures capable of withstanding the level of expected wind and rain is, we are advised, impossible from within Haiti.
A child-friendly space in Jacmel Finally, before we set off for home we visit a very lively safe space for children. Built by Plan and its partners in a small field just off an improvised camp, it has a rich variety of activities underway: drawing, music classes, football, and board games. There is a lot of noise and laughter. It reminds me how resilient children can be. There are also health facilities on site, with lines of women and children waiting patiently for inoculations, and space for one-to-one counselling.
As we get ready to leave I meet a 5-year-old girl who is here with her brother. She is a lovely little girl, quite serious at first but softens as she gets more confidence speaking to strangers. She offers to sing a little song and breaks out into a little dance just for us. It is a tiny moment of charm in a landscape which is especially harsh and unforgiving after the earthquake. And a reminder of why Plan does what it does.
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Cash for work - making a difference in Haiti
March 8, 2010: Posted by Plan CEO Nigel Chapman
Cash for work programmes often don’t get the sort of profile in disasters that traditional food distribution and building shelters can command. But today my meeting with Jesusla, a 62-year-old Haitian woman, earning US$5 a day as part of a ditch clearing operation, emphasised the value of programmes like this.
Appropriately on International Women’s Day, I come across Jesusla wielding a hoe and clearing away debris as part of a mixed team working on the outskirts of Croix-des-Bouquets. In the distance is an unofficial tented village where she lives with many internally displaced people from as far afield as Port-au-Prince and beyond. The tents are a chaotic fragile tapestry of sheets and pieces of material - just about bearable in good weather but unlikely to withstand the rainy season, which is fast approaching.
Protecting vital paths
And then there is the problem of the path which connects this site to Croix-des-Bouquets and beyond. Plan’s cash for work programme with its emphasis on practical strategies to reduce local flooding can at least mitigate the effects of the next threat after the earthquake: very heavy rain. Without such programmes the path would soon be a morass of mud and dirt, traipsed into the tents and adding to the risk of illness. With it there is a good chance it will be passable.
Plan’s cash for work programmes provide valuable funds for individuals and families. Over a 2 week period a member of the team can earn US$50, a lot of money in Haiti.
Helping thousands take action
The work is being spearheaded by a remarkable man, Marshall Ashley, a 67-year-old former US academic, who has spent over 3 decades working full time in development. His enthusiasm is infectious and he knows how to scale up an operation. Marshall has worked for almost everyone in the sector and tells me proudly that he will soon have over 60 “cash for work” teams in action, clearing rubble and lots of similar tasks.
He has hopes of 100 teams soon which would mean over 2,000 Haitians would have cash in their pockets as well the dignity of doing useful work. I doubt if Marshall ever thinks about retiring from work like this. He has lived in Haiti for many years and cares deeply for the people, even more so after the terrible earthquake.
Dreams of a better Haiti
For Jesusla, this programme means like Marshall, she can dream of a better Haiti. She wants to open a soap making business with her cash.
I once heard the former President of Ireland Mary Robinson describe “work” as being “love made concrete”, that it was the strongest evidence society valued people and wanted them to be able to contribute to their own welfare. If you had met Jesusla and the other members of the ditch clearing team today, you would have no doubt she was right.
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A family survival kit, cooking oil, rice and beans
March 7, 2010: Posted by Plan CEO Nigel Chapman
Nigel Chapman is Plan's Chief Executive Officer and has taken over blogging from Haiti for Heidi Reed.
The crowd has been gathering from first light on the outskirts of the local basketball stadium, clutching the all important blue ticket which will let them enter to pick up the package of basics I have used as the title for this blog.
It is well-organised by Plan and the local municipality: 10 ticket holders at a time rush across the tarmac and collect these prized possessions, repacking them as they go to make them more portable. A frail old lady, old enough to be a granny many times over, is struggling with the weight of the rice bag until her grandchildren come to the rescue and hustle her out of the stadium.
I think what a life…queuing for hours often in the heat (though it is cooler today) for what should be a “given” - the right to simple food and a basic health kit. Outside the queue is mercifully getting smaller though not with out the odd flash of temper as the UN police politely deal with the few interlopers without a ticket.
Influx of displaced people
We are in the town of Belladere a few kilometres over the Dominican Republic (DR) border. This is the town that “Papa Doc” Duvalier built to impress their neighbours about the quality of life and architecture in Haiti. It is with the odd exception down at heel and tired looking now with roads of a much lower quality than in the DR.
This area is now coping with a big influx of displaced people from further inside Haiti. Port-au-Prince is a couple of hours away. This distribution of food, with funds from Plan, is just about the first one in the town. The mayor and local authorities are there to say thank you as the 5 lorries from San Juan in the DR are being unloaded, bag by bag, sack by sack.
It is good to see this support for the families of Belladere. Although on Haitian soil, it has been organised by the Plan DR team who are taking responsibility for work in this area. That gives the Plan Haiti team more time to focus on the devastated programme units much closer to Port-au-Prince.
During my short visit to 3 Plan programme units in the DR, I have had the chance to say thank you to the dozen or so staff from Plan DR who went into Haiti right from the start. Stories of people coming in on their holidays and volunteering to set off for Port-au-Prince are common. And it is not just the technical advisers and the specialists in development. Most of the DR team have been involved in some way or another - including the unsung heroes like the drivers who were in Port-au-Prince and Jacmel at the height of the aftershocks.
We have a lunch and a ceremony to present these wonderfully committed people with a certificate to mark their work in Haiti. The drivers get the biggest cheer. I make a speech about Plan and its future but the words appear redundant. Anyone in the room will have seen the future of Plan and know it works.
Great people make great organisations and in the DR team we are lucky to have so many of them.
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Taking a break from the world
When I first in arrived in Haiti nearly two weeks ago, I was told that one of the biggest safety concerns would be the road to Jacmel from Port-au-Prince. Once the rains came, mudslides could make it impassable and therefore dangerous to anyone caught on the other side.
Plan Haiti has an office in Jacmel, a port city in the southwest region that before the quake was known for its quaint French colonial architecture and lively arts scene. I’d watched Plan’s video footage of thousands of family tents from Plan Dominican Republic coming to shore, just days after, because the town was so badly damaged and the people were cut off from the support and supplies coming through Port-au-Prince.
A visit to Plan's tents
On Friday, I found out that Marc-Antoine Lefedor, Plan Haiti’s Information Communication Technology Manager was going to Jacmel the next day to check how things were going for his team. I asked if I could tag along. I knew it would be my last chance before leaving next week, and I wanted to see exactly what had happened to those tents.
Saturday was a clear, blue-sky day, and I gave no thought to the rain. And even though the straight road leading to the mountain was fissured and lifted up in places, I felt safe. The road was long and winding but it was well paved. We passed through the town of Leogane, the quake’s epicenter, and there were so many people shopping for fruits, vegetables, and bric-a-brac on the sides of the street, we had to honk our way through. It was market day.
Bored children: school needed
At some point, I looked back from the mountain and saw the wide green plain below stretching out to the sea. Meanwhile, on the sides of the road, were people getting on with the business of living. Many were just walking alone. There were many "fruit stands” along the way, with mandarins, limes, mangoes, and grapefruit for sale, usually from baskets set on the ground. I passed many children, whom without school, looked very bored.
After about three hours, along with all the colorful tap-taps and speeding motorbikes with a least two people riding precariously on board, we arrived. I saw how in Jacmel, unlike Port-au-Prince and Croix-des-Bouquets, there were no sprawling tent camps. The red and beige tents that Plan had delivered were slightly sun-bleached, but they were neatly organized in long rows, on the town’s streets and in the parks and plazas.
Marc-Antoine organized for me to go to a child-friendly center in Jacmel that was on a street lined with our tents. A big group of girls and boys of all ages gathered there to meet me, so I could take their photographs, and maybe talk about life after the quake. The first question they had for me was: “What is your name?” And since the name Heidi sounds a lot like Haiti when it’s pronounced in French, we all started off with a good giggle.
We never got to my questions about what it's like to live in a tent with their parents who are constantly worrying about the rains and making ends meet. Instead, after I took some photographs, I turned my camera around. Watching them see themselves on the LCD screen made us all howl with laughter. And for that moment—before the rain fell hard later that night and the road back to Port-au-Prince was almost impassable—we were in a child-friendly space, together, taking a break from the world.
Child-friendly centers double as community centers for women
February 26, 2010: Posted by Plan USA’s Heidi Reed in Haiti.
All around Haiti, on the many colorful buses in all shapes and sizes called tap-taps that I’ve seen while sputtering along in traffic, hand-painted messages on all sides celebrate Haiti’s deep spiritual faith. One love. Ave Maria. L’eternal est grand. Miracles. Patience. Benediction Divine. At night, I often hear groups of people singing. Or lively dance music. It’s this infusion of love, faith, and hope that fools me into thinking everything in Haiti is fine.
Poverty does not steal dignity or joy. Nor does it keep a beautiful bride from her wedding. But it seems to create heart wrenching obstacles to the kind of peace and happiness that comes from feeling safe and secure.
Everyone knows that Haiti had its complex societal problems before the earthquake, but now in the sprawling and sporadic tent camps setup near the vacant communities, more than ever, nighttime is robbing women, girls, and most likely young boys of their right to personal safety.
The walk to the empty field or the port-a-potty (depending on the quality of the camp) is said to be the most terrifying. Many women and girls have taken to wearing their blue jeans at all times.
The other day I spent the day with Andrinette Cadet, Plan Haiti’s health advisor, who told me that she’d been working on initiatives to protect women and girls from violence in Haiti for over twenty years.
I went with her to a meeting sponsored by the Ministry of Women’s Health. The topic of discussion was how all agencies in Haiti—government, police, and NGOs—could best work together to reduce gender-based violence in the camps.
At the meeting, I noted that there was only one other NGO in attendance; but soon learned that they had not been on the ground in Haiti before the quake. Whereas Andrinette knew the situation for women in Haiti by heart—and every Haitian health expert in the room—this well-known group, no matter how well-meaning, was still in the process of making new contacts so that they could figure out how to be of service.
In the car driving back to the office from the meeting, I asked Andrinette to elaborate on the nature of the violence in the camps, and she expressed her deep frustration that many men simply have the mentality that women and girls are only meant for sex. And these men are emboldened by the sad reality that most victims of sexual violence in Haiti do not speak up or stand up for themselves.
Since the earthquake, organizations like UNICEF, Plan, World Vision and Save the Children have worked to create hundreds of child-friendly spaces throughout the affected areas to help children sing, play and facilitate the process of recovery.
For Plan, these spaces are set to be multipurpose. At times when the children are not at play, they can become drop-in community centers for women: safe places for them to share with others their truth in Haiti as only they have experienced it.
A Day of Celebration
February 22, 2010: Posted by Plan USA’s Heidi Reed in Haiti.
On Friday, while in Haiti, I received an unexpected phone call that I was needed in Port-au-Prince in the late afternoon. Guerdy, Plan Haiti’s HR manager was getting married, and they wanted me to help take photographs. A colleague visiting from Plan Canada was with me and together we went with another Plan Haiti colleague from the Croix-des-Bouquet office.
After a long drive through traffic, when we arrived at the church, I almost didn’t believe that we could be in the right place. Adjacent to the church was the most massive pile of rubble I’d seen yet, upwards of thirty feet of it, sloping downward to the ground.
In the rubble, I saw a tangle of twisted chairs lying on top. They were only big enough for small children. That’s when I understood that the church’s school had collapsed. And in the air, was the smell of death that I’d been told would be impossible to forget.
Guerdy wasn’t there yet when we arrived. Nor were the many other Plan Haiti colleagues who were coming from the Port-au-Prince office and likely stuck in traffic. So while we waited, I took photographs of the bridesmaids dressed in their pretty white gowns looking out the church doors. Through the frame of my lens, it looked as though they could have been standing anywhere, and not to the broken world outside.
When Guerdy arrived, I took a photograph of her through the car window. I knew that she’d lost relatives in the tragedy, but now she was beaming with joy. It was her day, and nothing, not even a devastating earthquake, could take that away.
The wedding inside the enormous church hall, with its safe tin and steel-beamed ceilings, was lovely. Plan staff finally made it to the church, all wearing their blue Plan T-shirts. They filled two long pews.
This is what I love most about Plan: knowing that the great majority of our staff in the country offices are actually from the countries where we work. In this case, Plan Haiti staff members have been particularly empathetic to the children in the communities where we work, because they have been experiencing similar emotions and fears.
Even though I could not quite understand each word the preacher said in French through the echoing microphone at Guerdy’s wedding, I think I heard him say that when life can change in an instant, it is important for us to cherish the time we have with each other and to appreciate the love we are able to share.
Looking over at my Plan Haiti colleagues, I couldn’t quite fathom what they’d been through together since January 12th, but I knew it was something important to see them smiling, with their arms around each other’s shoulders, supporting Guerdy, their friend.
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Hope for the Future
February 19, 2010: Posted by Plan USA’s Heidi Reed in Haiti.
I first met Myriam Valme Joseph from the Plan Haiti office two northern hemisphere summers ago when she was working for short time in the Plan US office in Rhode Island. I had the chance to interview her to learn more about the perplexing challenges facing Haiti’s children. When we said our goodbyes in the office, as much as I would have wanted to, I never imagined that I’d have the chance to see her again.
After hearing the news of the earthquake, my first thought was for Myriam. As I sat in my living room, watching the news on TV, Twittering and following Facebook updates from my laptop, I wondered what she and her family might be experiencing.
I knew that Myriam was a strong Haitian woman, who’d earned her Masters degree in Europe and returned home to help strengthen the country that she loved. And so I wasn’t surprised when I saw her on a Plan International video coordinating food and family kit distributions from the parking lot of Plan’s Port-au-Prince badly damaged office, while she told the story of how she rushed home after the quake and witnessed her husband rescuing her family from the rubble, including her young daughter.
On my first full day in Haiti, I ran into Myriam again somewhat by chance at the Croix-des-Bouquets program office. She was behind a laptop computer working alongside her colleagues, many of whom had lost their homes, friends, and relatives—and sadly, one Plan colleague. I didn’t even know if she would remember me, but I rushed to give her a hug anyway—and passed along the regards from my colleagues back in Warwick. The Plan Haiti community center behind her was barely standing with rubble pouring out of its front door.
Yesterday, I returned to see Myriam again in that same courtyard. She had helped me organize a conversation with five youths who had agreed to share their feelings about life before and after the quake. With one of my Plan colleagues from Ecuador, Santiago Davila, an expert in child participation and protection, we sat under the shade of a large tree in a circle on folding chairs with three teen girls and two teen boys.
Instead of me filming them, I handed them my Flip video camera so that they could be the journalists in their own lives. They had never used one before, so after a quick training, they took turns asking and answering the questions in Creole that they had for each other, and a community volunteer translated their words into French and English. At one point, one of the boys shared that before the earthquake he wanted to be a pilot, but now, after the events, his dreams were broken, and that he would have to rethink the future because his dreams might not come true.
“What do you need to dream again?” I asked him and the others later on, after a long discussion about what they thought Haiti needed to be whole again. The consensus was clear: they all wanted a place to go to school. That will give us hope, they said, that the future is still there.
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Signs of continuity and renewal
February 17, 2010: Posted by Plan USA’s Heidi Reed in Haiti.
Heidi Reed is the Program Communications Writer for Plan USA in Warwick, Rhode Island and has taken over blogging from Haiti for Steven Theobold.
The bus ride over to Haiti from the Dominican Republic turned out to be a long, yet fascinating eight-hour drive. The air-conditioned bus with one toilet in the back was mostly packed with Haitians traveling home to see family they hadn’t been able to visit since the earthquake. Free ham, cheese and tomato sandwiches on baguettes were handed out. The drinks service involved passengers passing plastic cups filled with ice to each other starting from the back of the bus, which the bus attendant later filled with Pepsi.
I felt a mixture of fear and excitement for all that the unknowns I was about to experience in Haiti on behalf of Plan's global communications team. I passed the time by chatting to a Haitian-American family from Brooklyn, New York who told me about the sister who was on top of her roof with her child when the earthquake hit, and how they both rode down with the three-story building and walked away without a scratch.
The lush green and valley landscapes of the Dominican Republic changed dramatically once we crossed into Haiti. Just after the border, limestone from the nearby mines, kicked up by all the passing vehicles, had powdered the trees beside the road pure white, so it looked like a winter wonderland. There was a large lake to our right that sparkled in the afternoon sun.
Soon the roadsides became more crowded. At first glance, poverty looks tattered and chaotic. Throngs of people. Small goods for sale. Kids loitering on motorbikes. Giant bags of rice sold from the back of trucks. But then there was that knowing serene smile I exchanged with a woman who had stopped to watch us pass. And the baby goat following its mother. And the yellow butterfly flitting past. Signs of life's continuity and constant renewal.
Today, on my first full day in Haiti, I went with a Plan International staffer who specializes in child protection to a tent city in Croix-des-Bouquets where Plan is building another child-friendly center with the help and partnership of the community members that live there. At the entrance to the camp, I was greeted warmly. We spoke in French and some Creole that I am figuring out as I go. I asked if they would be willing to show me around, and they were happy to show me everything. The tents had been placed close together, but there was a wide main road and meandering side streets. Not a city or a camp really. More like a town.
Before I took any photos, I asked for permission. I could tell that they appreciated the dignity that came along with my asking. Many said no. But soon I couldn’t keep up with the special requests from those who did want their photo taken. Especially from the women. Many wanted me to take their photo right in front of their own unique tent. Some tents had little flourishes, like a small section of a sheet that said “Happy Holidays.” A homemade crocheted blanket had become an attractive side wall. A woman can make a home anywhere, I thought. And yet every woman deserves a home that protects her and her family from harm. This is Haiti's great need.
Just before it was time for me to go, a little boy passed me. In his hand was a well-made geometric kite that he'd made from some sticks and string. In a sprawling tent community that from a distance looks like a heap of rubbish he had made something beautiful that could fly.
Keeping the media spotlight
February 15, 2010: Posted by Plan’s Steven Theobold in Haiti.
A Swedish journalist asked me what it would take to get tourists to come to Haiti. It was a fine question, and one that betrayed the fact he arrived in this country filled with prejudices created by years of disturbing headlines and photos. He was surprised at what he found here and immediately saw the potential.
The truth is, Haiti and its people deserve a better image. This isn’t paradise and the impoverished country has huge challenges ahead, but it does work its way into your heart.
Inspiring, resilient people
By putting real faces on Haiti – there is no shortage of inspiring and resilient people – the media covering the earthquake can help undo years of damage that goes beyond simply bad PR.
I’ll call it cowboy journalism. Before the quake, reporters who landed an assignment in Haiti typically had one thing in mind: head to Cité Soleil, the notorious gang-ruled section of Port-au-Prince, to earn their war zone stripes.
Just ask the MINUSTAH – the United Nation’s peacekeeping force assigned to stabilise Haiti – how many times they have had to provide heavily armed escorts for wide-eyed reporters and camera crews determined to venture into the lion’s den.
Yes, Haiti can be a very dangerous place, thanks to years of dictatorship and a history of abuse at the hands of the world’s power brokers. It may seem bizarre to think about Haiti’s potential for tourism, but it actually used to attract vacationers in large numbers. It even had a Club Med, which pulled out 25 years ago.
Seeing the potential
There are not many decent hotels left – owners of the destroyed landmark Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince vow to rebuild. Perhaps entrepreneurs will see the potential, even luring back Haitians living abroad. This country needs a strong civil society to help build the government’s ability to take care of its people. They can only do so much living in Miami or Montreal.
As for my answer to the Swedish journalist, the ingredients are here, including a rich history and culture, but visitors need to be assured that the rule of law runs through the government and police. This isn’t about attracting tourists to Haiti. It is about making the country a place that people want to visit, and that will be good for all Haitians.
It’s a tall order but the country now has a new group of advocates: legions of journalists that have seen the true Haiti. Most, if not all, journalists I know share the common goal of wanting to make the world a better place. It sounds sappy but it’s true.
Keeping the media spotlight on the rebuilding efforts to keep all the players honest and focused could do just that.
The Need for Shelter
February 12, 2010: Posted by Plan’s Steven Theobold in Haiti.
If you drive down the right street at the right time in Port-au-Prince, it’s tempting to forget last month’s earthquake even happened. Flowers are blooming, houses look fine and people are going about their everyday lives.
It is an illusion - one that a recent heavy rainfall has helped wash away. Yes, the masses of beautiful blossoms spilling over high – and often crumbling – concrete walls are real, yet in a way also surreal.
The houses left standing are empty, often with small tents pitched in the yard or parking spot. The structures may be safe but few dare to go inside until an expert does an analysis and gives the go-ahead.
First big downpour
The first big post-quake downpour happened the other night, reminding everyone that the start of the rainy season is less than 1 or 2 months away.
People sleeping in makeshift tents built with bed sheets and blankets got soaked if they didn’t manage to lash together pieces of tarp or plastic sheets to act as a water barrier. It didn’t take long to dry out after the sun came up, but this reality check reminded us all that hundreds of thousands of Haitians still need tents or other temporary shelters sooner rather than later.
Back to school
In the meantime, the term ‘temporary shelter’ is being replaced by ’transitional shelter’ in all the tent talk. The latter can endure for at least a year.
One of our engineers, brought in from the US, and our head logistician, from France, are working hard to get the 500 large tents we need to build 50 transitional schools. We are aiming to get kids into these schools within a month.
The tents are coming from various sources and being shipped by an equally complex network, which includes a US research ship that agreed to bring along one of our packed shipping containers.
An old adage says logistics wins wars. The common enemy here is time. The clock seems to be accelerating for those scrambling to rebuild. The exact opposite is true for hundreds of thousands of traumatised - and bored - children desperate to return to school and back to some sense of normality. For them, time has never moved more slowly.
February 10, 2010: Posted by Plan’s Steven Theobold in Haiti.
I got a sick feeling in my gut the other day after seeing a few dozen home-made cinder blocks drying in the sun. This sight ought to be a good thing – rebuilding has started. But it is not.
These concrete bricks – or, rather, the poorly made Haitian version – killed so many people during the big earthquake. I always thought that concrete was a simple thing: combine cement and gravel or sand and add water. But then I had a chat with one of the engineers Plan brought in as part of our emergency response. When made properly, concrete is strong. But it turns out that concrete is most definitely not a simple thing.
First, the quality of the cement is vital. Open up a bag here and the chances are it has been “stepped on” by adding silt or fine sand. Even if the cement is top notch, the temptation is to use too little cement with too much sand or gravel.
Even the gravel in Haiti is a problem. Instead of crushed rock, which features large and porous surface areas for bonding with cement, Haitians typically use smooth river pebbles. And then there is the curing. Ideally, concrete needs to be wetted constantly as it dries. Even putting a plastic tarp over the bricks will help it dry more slowly, making it stronger.
There are plenty of engineers in Haiti right now helping to design the rebuild. The lessons learned from using inferior concrete will hopefully be reflected in much stricter building codes, at least for commercial construction. But for the average person or small business owner, history threatens to repeat itself.
Lumber seems to be the best option. It is especially suitable for quake zones since it can bend and sway without crumbling. But as anyone who has flown over Haiti can attest, the country suffers from massive deforestation.
Imported lumber for building is yet another item Haiti cannot afford. Cement takes a lot of energy to produce, with imported diesel fuel ultimately powering the massive kilns needed to make the magic powder. Lumber from sustainable forests must surely be a greener solution, perhaps even more economical. A pipe dream? Likely, but what rule says the unimaginable in Haiti must always be about bad things?
A more realistic solution would be to convince Haitians to abandon the multi-storey concrete boxes. Many of these now-flattened structures still hold corpses. The government of Haiti could rebuild the presidential palace in ranch-style – just a single floor with galvanised metals roofs. That would be leading by example.
A sense of pride and thanks
February 9, 2010: Posted by Plan's Steven Theobold in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Many people escaped the earthquake with little more than the shirts on their backs.
A woman I met in a tent compound in Port-au-Prince actually made those shirts. She worked for one of the many now-destroyed textile factories. She confirms with a nod each label I point to – she just did some washing so clothes are hanging to dry. It’s a rare moment of pride for a person living in an empty lot trying to survive.
She and her family, including a two-month-old baby boy, are part of a community of roughly 20 tents in an enclosed compound, tiny compared with some of the tent cities that have sprung up. Everyone knows each other so the kids can play in relative safety. It’s tough being a kid with no toys. Chasing a balloon keeps one child entertained.
A group of ingenious youngsters salvaged a small solar panel maybe 10 cm across. The panel’s long wire runs to what looks like a motorcycle battery, which is definitely past its warrantee period. Another wire reaches to a small portable CD player. There isn’t enough juice to spin the CD but the radio works.
When asked what they hope to hear from it one day, they all said the same thing. They want to know when the reconstruction will start. They want to go back to school.
These people are thankful for Plan. This isn’t a plug, simply a fact. Today, a buzz is in the air. A group of Plan staffers and volunteers are preparing to distribute food and essentials to 400 families. There has been plenty of news coverage on the difficulties and dangers of distributing food. It’s a complicated process since anything can happen when you get a large crowd together queuing up for food.
Back in Toronto, I get upset when someone is ahead of me in the grocery store express line with 17 items instead of the 16 allowed. Plan staff and our volunteers, who all know the community, laid the ground work, including handing out vouchers to the 400 families deemed most in need.
A respected community elder provided some locals to help with security and to make sure the lines are respected and things run smoothly. I have never met this man before but it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say my life was in his hands.
The day started off with a glitch when the truck carrying aid had a flat tyre and was delayed for a couple of hours. Once the truck arrived, it all went fairly smoothly. People were orderly and 400 people left with large sacks of food and essentials for their families.
I was waving off any attempts at accepting gratitude. All people have a right to food.
A woman approached me with a glowing smile. Before I could react, she grabbed my hand and squeezed. I squeezed back, and I will admit it felt great.
Dealing with pain
February 4, 2010: Posted by Plan's Steven Theobold in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
When it comes to pain, I am a confessed wimp. Why suffer when a small pill can take care of it? I never understood people who boast about refusing to take even one aspirin. I liken the array of painkillers in my first aid travel kit to a nicely stocked Scotch collection: the right choice for any occasion.
Thanks to my talent of seriously injuring myself – from getting a finger tip caught under a razor-sharp chef’s knife to cracking a rib by slipping on an ice-covered Whistler Mountain parking lot – I have an ample selection of prescription analgesics. I rarely use them – that’s why I still have plenty on hand.
Even with such a low tolerance for pain, I choose to live with chronic ear aches. Always had them, starting as a kid. My mom used to give me some nasty tasting medicine but I soon gave that up. Some pain you learn to live with.
For the people of Haiti trying to rebuild their lives, when the drug stores finally re-open there won’t be any magic pills waiting inside. It’s been 3 weeks and the hurt of losing loved ones, their homes and their city is starting to dull, if just a little bit.
My friends and colleagues here can talk about it for longer stretches before pangs of hopelessness and despair again take them to the edge of bursting into tears. This is beyond mourning. I have seen only one funeral in the past week. Public health concerns demanded mass graves.
Misery most definitely does not love company. People are desperate for distractions to give time glimpses of opportunity to heal their wounds. Television stations are back on the air, but most people still don’t have electricity to watch any surviving sets. For those who could afford one, many have damaged generators. There is no rush to fix them with expensive post-quake gasoline still out of reach.
Watching TV may be the ultimate brain numbing activity but routine does offer some promise. People are wandering the streets at all hours with no particular destination in mind. They seem to be counting on auto pilot to take over navigation in the hope of giving their minds a bit of down time.
The ultimate distraction for Haiti may well be watching football – don’t call it soccer down here. Brazil is the team of choice for most nations without teams of their own, and Haiti is no exception.
The next World Cup - it happens every 4 years - takes place in South Africa in June. When asked, a buddy becomes despondent at the thought of the badly damaged electricity grid not being repaired in time.
He then allows himself to be swallowed up by the vision of people setting up big-screen TVs in public places to show all the games. Just like in 2006 - but this time the sets would be huge.
If only we could rebuild the power system right away and start the World Cup in February. That could give Haitians reason to enjoy life again.
Helping children through nightmares
February 1, 2010: Posted by Plan’s Steven Theobold in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Monsters under the bed are easy to deal with - a night light usually sends them packing. Children in Haiti are struggling with an entirely different sort of beast, and it comes from above. There is no quick fix.
A roof over one’s head ought to be one of life’s comforts. For most children - and adults for that matter - the earthquake 3 weeks ago changed all that.
Even if a house appears completely intact, children dare not enter. And they are right.
Everywhere you look, families are camped out in tents or makeshift shelters, often next to their homes if they have the space. Adults are willing to risk a few minutes inside, always alert for a tremor – almost expecting another one the moment they have a ceiling above them. But sleeping inside is off limits.
It will take weeks or even months to sort out which structures are safe and which need to be added to the growing heaps of rubble. It will take just as long to help children work through their nightmares.
I met a group of 35 young people – 18 to 24 – who are already on the job. They worked with Plan in their youth, acting as community volunteers to help connect Plan directly to the grassroots. They are now university students or teachers or other professions left sidelined with no job or destroyed university buildings.
When the quake hit, they quickly mobilised - initially working with Plan to coordinate and implement the distribution of food, tents and other essentials. They are now being trained by staff experts, including psychologists and doctors experienced in responding to the needs of children after disasters. Some have been brought in from overseas Plan offices. The goal is to train community volunteers to provide both emotional and physical support to children.
Bed sores can kill, so visiting bed-ridden children recovering from severe injuries is vital to help prevent or treat sores.
Child safe areas
But just as importantly, these young people are already organising safe areas for children for laughing and playing. The volunteers planned out the day and led the games. A spindle of thread and a few sheets of tissue paper is all it took to get a group of more than 100 youngsters giggling. A few twists and presto: pink carnations. Pure magic.
Kids are more than willing to jump to the front of the group and start leading sing-a-longs. This scene is playing out in a snug area with lots of trees and grass. No collapsed buildings or walls within sight. Three tiny puppies are running around, also enjoying themselves.
Off to the side, relatives of the children are feeling better than they have for a long time. Seeing their children laughing reminds them of better times. They need this break from the daily toil almost as much as the kids. And so do I.
Returning to Port-au-Prince
January 30, 2010 Posted by Plan’s Steven Theobold in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
It took nearly 30 minutes after crossing into Haiti to see the first signs
of destruction. In the back of my mind I was hoping the media coverage greatly exaggerated the situation. Then I saw the first collapsed building, and then the next.
It didn’t take long to stop counting.
I had always gotten a kick out of watching Haitians building their houses by making their own cinder blocks – a simple mixture of cement, sand and water. Dozens would be lined up hardening in the sun, kind of like home-made Lego.
But I had no idea Port-au-Prince lies on a fault line, until a little past 5pm on 12 January. With little money for iron reinforcement bars to embed in the concrete, the earthquake caused the buildings to fall like card houses.
I consider myself very fortunate. It’s been 2 weeks since the quake so much of the removal of corpses has already been done. Yet, the suffering of the survivors will continue for years. They lost family members, their homes and their city.
Even the houses still standing are empty. Nobody dares walk into them.
Port-au-Prince would look like a ghost town were it not for the teeming streets. Life must go on. Cell phones recharge cards and fruits still need to be hawked.
Even the city’s artists are back displaying their wares, hanging their paintings on chain link fences.
But this isn’t the Port-au-Prince I knew. Behind those fences lie the tent cities that have expanded into all open spaces.
Sheets tied together provide little shelter, but these camps are showing signs of permanence. People have started lashing together pieces of scrap metal and corrugated iron sheets pulled from the rubble.
I couldn’t wait to see my friends from prior visits, but I knew every hug was going to be followed by the awkward question. Yes, many are mourning loss. But the news isn’t all bad. I am sure my eyes popped out of my sockets when I was told about a former colleague who was pulled out of the rubble of a grocery store days after the quake, live on CNN. (I missed that broadcast. I had to stop watching the footage).
We even managed to chuckle about it. The woman was scared to death of flying – not earthquakes - which I discovered after sitting beside her in a tiny plane flying to the north of the island. I joke around that I still have scars from her fingernails digging into me. It was a much-needed laugh.
Inspiration from Unexpected Places
January 29, 2010: Posted by Plan’s Steven Theobold en route to Haiti.
Inspiration can come from the most unexpected places. We’re about 45 minutes away from the Haitian border making a pit stop to meet up with another Plan vehicle loaded with relief supplies.
It’s my fourth trip to Haiti but I had no idea what to expect on the other side of the border.
I am on my way to relieve Plan’s press officer Stuart Coles, who was on the ground shortly after the big quake.
Part of me – a big part – is regretting saying yes to the mission. Then I met Joseph, a plucky 12-year-old Haitian boy who was interested in a group of foreigners parked outside a local hospital.
He told us to go into the hospital to see the Haitians brought there after the earthquake. Many have already returned but there is a boy, also 12, who cannot be moved yet because he is in traction.
“Everything is broken from the waist down,” Joseph explained, offering to smooth things over with the nurses to get us in to see him.
I was a little suspicious but he explained he has access because he volunteers as a Creole translator in the mornings to help the Spanish-speaking medical staff with the quake victims.
Sure enough, the nurses adore Joseph.
His family moved to the Dominican Republic 8 years ago looking for a better life. Joseph introduced us to his new friend, who he visits everyday with the main goal of making him laugh.
The jokes are corny but his buddy can’t stop laughing – Joseph is clearly helping his new pal get through this terrible ordeal.
He’s helping me out, too.
Moving to Recovery
January 27, 2010: Posted by Stuart Coles, Plan’s global Senior Press and Publicity Officer is sending updates from Haiti. Please check back often to follow his journey.
The ‘R’ word is already being used, whispered at first — recovery. It seems cold, cynical to suggest that this disaster simply fits the pattern of others, but it will and does.
The rescue phase is over. It’s official (apparently). The window for survivors to be pulled from the ruins alive has all but closed. Rescue teams have gone home. Many journalists have left town, on to the next story - my phone’s no longer in meltdown.
Enormous need on the streets
There is still enormous need on the streets — some 200,000 more tents, says the president. We still pass funerals. The more fortunate attended by immaculate mourners in gleaming white shirts, suits and shined shoes in this city of dust, crumbled stone and twisted metal.
And yet the signs are there. The city’s top bakery is open once more, odd non-essential carvings and art on the sidewalks again, and I hear someone singing.
Some developments seem almost brutal. A collapsed post office — the site of floodlight rescue attempts where I witnessed my first row of recovered bodies — now bulldozed, seemingly a car park for police vehicles.
Life must move on.
Child protection focus
Plan shifts more focus to the protection of children in the city — pinpointing those at risk and what they will need. But the enormity of the task of rebuilding is daunting, overwhelming and you can’t escape it. So many ruined buildings and unstable lives.
“Five, 10, 15 years,” an art teacher tells me in answer to the reality of Haiti’s recovery.
We both look out over the vista — a basin of sprawling, terraced communities which looks for all the world as if a giant boot has come down upon it. We both shake our heads with incomprehension and start back down the hill.
Back to Port-au-Prince
January 25, 2010
The short road back to Port-au-Prince. It is ‘cleared’ but we weave precariously past boulders the size of double-decker buses and almost cartoon-like jagged cracks in the road.
My mother would not be amused.
The route reveals destruction previously unseen to us. The town of Mariani is bleak, awash with broken water supplies and debris. We try to repeat the success of Jacmel here. The model is good, using communities to help assess and distribute aid — but the scale and city stresses are another matter.
The tide is starting to turn a little. There is some light appearing among the dark. There are less people masking their faces against the reek of death, something resembling day-to-day activity. More shops open, people picking through the rubble to go about their business.
Water tankers rumble through the streets and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are reaching the camps and communities — the dots of red aid tents increase daily among the mass of makeshift, sheet and plastic.
But it is far from easy. All NGOs report difficulties. We are no different.
Tensions run high in the city. The UN and others are attacked while handing out aid.
It is Catch 22. Desperation breeds frustration — frustration breeds security problems, holds up aid, breeds desperation.
We are getting aid out but not always in the way we would like. We have to balance speed, security and order. Time will tell.
Plan plays to its strengths. Strong community links. Haitian people are proud and keen to help.
Among the most impressive things I’ve seen are a group of youth volunteers, known to my colleagues for many years. Most are now homeless and turn up to help in the same clothes each day. They are students, teachers, graduates — intelligent, cheeky and smart and keen to get their country back on its feet. I pitch in as we load and unload more than 600 family survival kits of food and essentials and hand them out in the city.
We share some Sainsbury’s shortbread biscuits in the back of the pick-up truck. There’s not enough to go around. A micro-distribution problem.
Theirs and efforts of our own Haiti staff continually humble me. They attend family funerals and come straight back to work. Dawn to midnight and back to sleep rough at night. I bury my guilt at having an exit day from Haiti and my mixed feelings.
Our focus is shifting more to children’s protection, trying to secure some stability in the chaos as the dust settles. There are so many thousands of children and families now displaced and on the move now, at times it overwhelms me.
At night often my thoughts return to Johnny, a teenager I met down south. Orphaned, sleeping under a tree and caring for his sister. I wonder how he is, and if I will ever be able to see him again.
Hope arrives in Jacmel
January 20, 2010
Power cuts and problems have meant a delay in communications so this is an omnibus edition. The death toll is not as high as Port-au-Prince, but the pain and loss in Jacmel is no less.
Our 10-hour mountain drive brings us into what was once a beautiful shabby-chic coastal town, with sun-bleached Regency buildings and a history built on the coffee trade.
Daylight breaks and we see much of that is now gone, or hanging precariously into the streets.
The dead total here is in the 400s and in the 1,000s for the region. Some 50% of people are without safe or any homes now and each dusk creates an exodus of people gathering to sleep en masse in the streets. Rocks are placed around makeshift beds in an effort to protect them from cars.
Boats deliver hope
Hope arrives in the form of two gun-grey coastguard boats from the Dominican Republic, packed high with 4,000 tents, bottled water and 300 survival kits — including essential supplies, food and tools sent by our colleagues there.
The port becomes a noisy buzz of activity as locals arrive to help. And soon we have bulging jeeps and trucks, escorted by UN guards on their way out to the town. Something is happening at last.
The next day we visit a feeding center. The rice and beans may not get Michelin stars but it fills little hungry bellies. One of the community organizers is a bustling, roly-poly woman called Marie-Ange. I see her bed down on a pavement mattress later. She waves. I play keepy-uppy with some 6-year-old boys and amuse them with terrible French.
Support brings laughter
The pros take over. Psychosocial support for children is one of Plan’s specialisms but I was sceptical about ‘chatting’ in the face of such carnage — there seemed more pressing needs. An hour later, I think this is the best medicine I have yet witnessed.
The children split into age groups and make circles. They are led through games and activities. Slowly, scowls become smiles, become grins, become laughs and before long they are the center of increasing curiosity. More and more children approach as the noise increases and the session ends with the organizers letting the children jump and bellow their hearts out.
Seemingly simple games and activities have some clever functions. They give parents a needed breather, kids burn off energy and allow facilitators to watch. Those children who are distant, upset or aggressive are noted and referred for follow up help.
The hidden scars of children’s shock are all around us. We bed down at night with around 30 other colleagues and people in a hotel restaurant annex, where we eat, work and sleep (as do the rats). One toddler wakes every night crying for his mother.
One morning his older brother, mostly silent, walks over to the TV showing blanket CNN coverage on Haiti, the sound down. He picks up the remote and hits a random channel and walks away without a look. I suspect this has deeper roots.
My colleague goes out on a night shoot. She saw Marie-Ange waving — from her new tent.
We leave the relative calm of Jacmel the next day — back to the cauldron that is Port-au-Prince. I doubt if such progress can be so simply made there.
Help Plan reach more children and families in Haiti. Donate today.
Stretched to Capacity
January 18, 2010
Sunday – I see dawn rise and hear the sound of singing as I stand on the terrace roof.
For this devout catholic country, today is a traditional day of worship, contemplation – and many funerals.
The people of Port-au-Prince pause to remember their loved ones, but with no shortage of the living in desperate need of help, this rare moment of reflection is gone all too soon.
Thousands upon thousands of homeless Haitians still walk the streets in a desperate search for those vital services – water, shelter – that will keep them safe and alive.
Help is here but it’s still woefully inadequate in this battered city – everyone is stretched to capacity.
Swamped with casualties
Yesterday we visited one of Plan’s partner organizations, a local clinic. Staff have been swamped with hundreds of casualties, all with typical quake injuries – head, upper and lower limb fractures and wounds.
In a desperate bid to help the most at risk, the clinic refers some cases to the specialists at Médecins Sans Frontières, but they tell us they too are at full stretch.
And so it goes on. Relentless.
Our communications team, myself and video journalist Shona, head south. The quake has turned the usual two-hour drive to Jacmel into a savage, bone-jarring 12-hour mountain slog.
Plan's relief boat
Plan’s relief boat from the Dominican Republic is on its way to isolated Jacmel with trucks bearing family-sized tents and hundreds of emergency kits containing water, dried food, sugar soap, plastic sheeting, cups and plates.
A seemingly mundane grocery list, but here these goods take on a new, priceless value.
We hope to reach the coast by nightfall and see what challenges and future the people of Jacmel face.
More help is needed. Make a donation today.
Haiti battling to turn around dire conditions
January 17, 2010
Frustration rises as all battle to turn around the dire conditions. But everything seems against us. Journey times have tripled, telecommunications are still erratic, unreliable. Food is a great need with shops and banks mostly shut and barricaded, in fear of looting.
Colleagues confirm reports of armed gangs attacks and we pass an otherwise undamaged bank, its façade smashed in. Queues of people waiting patiently for rationed petrol snake around the streets - another hurdle.
Immediate and basic help
We meet local groups to see how we can best link up with them. Our shopping list of portable toilets, water, shelter and other essentials grows. Sometimes all we can do is immediate and basic – some spot diagnosis of injuries, advice, or even anything in our jeep - our supply of face masks. I grab some slabs of bottled water to hand to a medical student volunteering at a tented Red Cross clinic. His gratitude makes me uncomfortable.
One woman in Croix de Bouquet lost her husband and two of their children – killed in their collapsed house. We ask if her remaining 3-year-old daughter has taken in what has happened.
“She understands too well,” she tells us grimly.
A casual remark by someone, reveals a possible child protection worry. Nearly 40 injured children shipped over the border for treatment, without parents. We will investigate – traffickers can prey on the vulnerable in such times.
At a temporary camp on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, with Plan Haiti staff, displaced families gathered under one tarpaulin are coached on health problems to look out for in their children.
“How many of you are having nightmares?” Unni asks. Many small hands are raised.
“It’s normal” he tells them. And even manages to get a laugh from them.
We get news. Jacmel, a coastal town south of Port-au-Prince, away from the media glare, is badly hit too. Our staff are there, but the town is cut off from food and drug supplies and running very low. Our boat of supplies is on its way from the Dominican Republic. We will race there to meet it.
Help Plan reach more children and families in Haiti. Donate today.
A drive through hell
January 16, 2010
The Dominican Republic has given us a false sense of security. Haiti would not like to be described as its poor neighbor, but the contrast is stark.
Supplies and help cross the border
Our convoy carrying essential supplies and our team of experts heads towards the border. Life in the DR seems surreally normal – children heading to school, people picking crops, even a couple of lycra-clad cyclists.
But a few hours drive away, through the dust-clodden chaos of the border control and the earthquake's impact starts to become evident.
The nearer we inch towards Port-au Prince, the worst the damage. As we head to join up with our Plan Haiti colleagues, it is a drive through hell. A colleague and I try to focus on filming as we pass bodies lying where they fell on the street, coffins being carried, and buildings being levelled by bulldozers- we don’t know if there were still people inside as we pass.
Our meeting is held in the car park. Staff explain their experiences and what they have been doing – handing out vital food, shelter and hygiene kits – while also dealing with their own personal trauma and loss.
Huge psychological impact on children
We know the psychological impact upon children will be huge and hidden – but it is visible in the strained faces of adult colleagues.
Next our target is to help the people of Jacmel, a coastal town of some 150,000 people where reportedly 65 % of homes are badly damaged – away from the glare of the media.
US Army Helicopters constantly deafen out our emergency meeting – but everyone knows the military presence is vital in this landscape with no open shops, banks, worries of looting – and a desperate need for more help soon.
You can help rush relief to children and families in Haiti. Donate today.
Speed the issue for aid teams
January 15, 2010
Communication in its every sense is proving to be the essential issue in Haiti.
While tens of thousands of people await, trapped, injured, dying – help is on its way – but speed is the issue.
Our Air France flight is packed with aid teams from across the globe – doctors, technicians, firemen, communications specialists – from France, Germany, the UK and quake-prone countries like Mexico, Italy, Turkey. All ready and desperate to get to Port-au-Prince and help. They are given rounds of applause from the crew and tourists on the flight as we touch down.
But their job is anything but easy.
In Santo Domingo – we catch up with one of Plan’s disaster specialists, Dr Unni Krishnan – who left the UK day before us, the day the quake struck.
Cancelled flights, the levelling of UN and other organization buildings and infrastructure has created a massive barrier through which this vital pipeline of aid must flow.
Frustration can easily mount on all sides faced with such difficulties.
I spend the flight talking to a German surgeon who expresses near anger at the ‘disaster waiting to happen’ that is Port-au-Prince building regulations and the house of cards that came down upon its inhabitants.
He is a Handel-loving, chess fanatic – just the kind of calm presence you need in these kind of situations, but he, like all, don’t know how and when he will reach the target zone.
Reaching the vulnerable
We discuss children – I explain Plan’s need and niche in trying to reach the most vulnerable quickly and keep them protected. He nods his understanding, we both know the situation is grave.
We wait among teams of Italian sniffer dog teams, literally straining at the leash to get going. Our Plan colleagues in the Dominican Republic and others from the region – disaster response experts, communications and water and sanitation will now set off to join the growing convoy that is reportedly queuing up at the border.
Meanwhile our staff in Haiti are working flat-out, reaching the most in need. Pushing aside their own traumas and losses, pain and fear to do their professional best.
Plan has a 30 year respected history in Haiti – but it will need much more help, money and resources in this most desperate of hours.
More help is needed. Make a donation today.