Monday, February 23, 2015

Home Visits - 2015

"Haiti is a difficult place" understates author Jonathan Katz (The Big Truck That Went By Palgrave MacMillan 2013) "No one, not even the rich, is fully insulated." However in a calamity, and in Haiti heavy rain can be a calamity,  the chances of surviving come down to 'one's means...inevitably bound up with family status, nationality and race." (p55)

This reality, always  magnified during home visits, was thrown into relief for staff when those visits fell on the same day as our hunting for a new land to build on or a safe  structure for our Cap-Haitien home base.

Our Director of Programming, Auguste and I managed a dozen home visits just before annual pre-Lenten Karnaval activities took over the city, disrupting traffic and schools this week. All activities were cut short by the tragedy in Port-au-Prince when at least 16 were killed and nearly 100 injured when a power line fell on a parade float. Life and death - always so close here.

Heavy rains which fell in November and January returned in early February putting some visits temporarily on hold. The very fact that we couldn't get into some tikays (little homes) highlights the need for student housing in some areas of Cap-Haitien. Sen Rafayel always needs student housing due to the river criss-crossing the village. As we make time several days a week to either inspect land for building/or a post-quake structure for our Cap-Haitien headquarters, we went from viewing a 2 story monster house, listed at $500,000.USD (I laughed all the way out of the yard, reminding the agent for the owner that this is Cap-Haitien not Miami) to shacks which lack the basic necessities and well as personal space and security.  Still our young people survive. Their hope is to one day move beyond  surviving to thriving.

Asking price $500,000. USD but will negotiate. Unfinished-no courtyard. LOL
Best laugh of the day.
Shortly after looking at 2 houses and 2 lots for sale, we met Celine and Melane at our drop in  center and followed them home. They assured that it was not far (li pa lwen), we did not need the truck. A mile hike through garbage piles and over swollen, fetid canals brought us to the space they currently call home. My aching sciatic! Like a dozen of our young people this year, the girls had left Sen Rafayel and moved down the mountain with visions of a better life in the big city. Unfortunately the cousins who offered to put them up expected them to do all housework including laundry for floor space to sleep( basically being a servant - a restaveks) . No meals included. So they moved in with a friend from their church who offered floor space no strings attached.

Following Auguste through one of many serpentine paths
which make finding living quarters a second time mission impossible.

Celine points to the concrete floor where they sleep.
They have no mattress, carpet or blankets. One room 7 people.

Melane stands beside the 'kitchen' where rice and
beans can be cooked if they find any.
Unless students can get to our centers to eat , they eat 'le w jwen li' (when you find it). It is usually once or twice a week (at most.) We distribute Aquatabs (thank you again, donors) for water purification which helps prevent water borne illnesses.  Rising costs in the marketplace have put a halt to food sack distribution. Keeping 2 centers operational 7 days a week is also becoming exorbitant but we are maintaining that service. Although the menu is limited, is has the essentials - protein, fiber, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.

Next day we loaded the truck with students and headed out. Although Claunise said her tikay was within walking distance - well fool me once....Again we followed someone through the twists and turns of a different ' interieur.'
Following Claunise - she was right,
we didn't need the truck.
Everything had been moved to the doorway to dry
out. Inside was too dark for the camera and too much water for us.
Like Melane and Celine, Claunise had come down from Sen Rafayel in the hopes that the big city would provide more advantages - jobs, better living conditions, better schools. Like the others, the situation here is no better than the mountain village. Neither place had running water or toilets or proper kitchens. There is no place to hang laundry and no security.

Milionise leads the way to the room she shares
with cousin Nerlande.

4 people sleep here. Pillow cases are
stuffed with rags.

Nerlande's uniform hangs above the
wet walls, away from cockroaches etc...

Again there is no toilet, no kitchen, no water except for the rain which came in and refuses to dry out of the walls. Mold and mildew are everywhere. Our visits never take very long - travel to and the walk in and out usually require the most time.

While it's advisable to wear closed shoes when out walking, sometimes that just isn't enough. The room we had rented for Inea in July was dry at the time, and because of the proximity to the Semi-Lycee where we have 14 registered, it seemed like a good choice for student housing - enough room to add a couple of beds and help those who live at a distance, like Carline. When we arrived it was quickly evident that we would not be visiting that day without rubber boots. Although Inea tried to make a path through the rainwater with stones, the tikay is at the back of the property and just not viable.

Auguste and Carline wait for Inea to open the portay.
The sign says that there are more rooms to rent.

Inea in bare feet tries to create a path of stepping stones through the  algae
covered rainwater.
Her room is at the very back of the property-
still holding water 3 weeks later. She gave up.
When we moved Inea in July the ground was baked dry and there was no indication it would become a swamp. Although we will lose a partial year's rent, we have asked her and all our students at the Semi-Lycee to hunt for dry places available for rent. Back in the truck to take Carline home. The  tikay she shares with her brother and a friend from Sen Rafayel is 5 miles out in the country, but it was dry. Still the problem - a 5 mile walk to get to school by 7 am then a 5 mile walk home after classes let out at 3pm. You can see the reason our students cannot get to the drop in center every day. Imagine walking 5 miles with a heavy back pack, hungry from not eating for a couple of days. Being a creature of comfort, the choice of  a 3 to 4  mile walk to our place or just go home and collapse is a no brainer - home and collapse.

Following Carline - 5 miles from school - past the goats to the single
room she shares with a brother and friend from Sen Rafayel.
One room 6x10 - no window, no furniture. Auguste
documents everything including what we can do to ease the situation.
It doesn't take long to visit one room - especially when there is no furniture - no place to sit, no place to store clothing, no kitchen, bathroom, running water. No privacy, no security.

Jonathan Katz wrote that Haiti "in good times and in bad, is not a place to which you adapt. It rewires you. To cope and not be torched by its energy, you have to change the way you think and feel and see the things around you." (pg. 273 ibid) It does rewire you - and if one wants to survive and do the job, you have to let it happen. These home visits get us out of the relative comfort of our drop in centers and remind us of the reality. If someone drops in only once or twice a week because of distance and hunger, all we see are clean uniforms and students hungry for not only a meal but a quiet place to do homework or read the newspaper. The last of our dozen visits was to new admission Wanchine. After checking her papers and interviewing, we had admitted her Jan. 27. Like everyone on our list, she took the contract we offered her very seriously and signed as though her life depended on it. Although her letter said that she was the youngest of 5 children and that she had been brought to the city from Hinche by an uncle who wanted help for his wife, we did not know that those siblings were with her.

Following Wanchine into the tikay she shares with
older brother, 2 sisters and 9 yr old cousin.
Imagine our surprise to find a house full of young people. When I asked who was in charge, older brother Yfrenel , 23, said he guessed it was him. Like Carline, they live 5 miles away from the school, in the country but in the other direction. As we asked questions and introduced ourselves, the story unfolded. The uncle had brought all 4 siblings to the city to look after his wife and son, with the promise of paying for schooling. When the aunt died, the uncle left and went andeyo  (to the countryside) leaving his 9 yr old son with the 4 young cousins. He paid for his son's school year (primary school grade 4) but had not paid for the others for 2 years. All 3 older siblings are in Sec 3, the second last year of high school. They had been attending the same Semi-Lycee as Wanchine, but had no supplies or last year's report card as payment had not been received.

Withnise teaching cousin Gregory Social Studies.

Wanchine take Allimax we had given her for
a grip (cold/flu) making the rounds after heavy rain/flooding.
Although the tikay was now dry, the piece of material on the wall behind Wanchine is a huge hole, waiting for a window or concrete blocks. Two rusted bed frames with what used to be mattresses are filled with rags and bits of paper and twigs. No food. The outdoor latrine has no roof and the exposed walls are covered with mold and mildew. But it is there. The story unfolded haltingly as we were looking at the latrine and shower (behind Auguste) . Each said they had written a letter, so we asked for them. Auguste did a quick read of each on the spot.

Namene holds her letter of application in her hand and watches
as Auguste reads  her brother's  letter.

Sister Withnise waits with her letter.
We drove home in silence, Auguste lost in thought, me reading the letters. We were already at 152 students, this would be funds we did not have. No way could we pay back fees for 2 years. The next morning our coordinator Lusnot went to the school to talk with the director- he had to arrive at 6:30 as classes begin at 7 am.  We have a healthy relationship with the administrations where we send our kids, developed over time. The director listened as Lusnot retold their story. He knew the family well. He had not barred them from the school because they are intelligent and hard-working, respectful and always on time. He was willing to forgive last year's fees, release their end of year report cards, and forgive first term fees if we will support them to finish Philo. What an amazing offer - he has staff to pay but has such faith in this family that he would go the extra mile. That is entirely due to our staff and the relationships they cultivate. With your help we'll pick them up for a year and a half.  They're not MY kids - they're OUR kids - children of the world who are grateful for any support large or small.
So here I sit in my little apartment in Canada - a frigid -29 outside  (tonight -40) not knowing what is happening because our last and best computer died this week in Cap-Haitien and the phone connection was dropped when I called. Ayiti Cherie. Dear Haiti. Always expect the unexpected and you will still be surprised.
Be well - I'll let you know what's happening as soon as I know.
 All quotes from The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster By Jonathan M. Katz, Palgrave MacMillan, 2013

Recommended reading if you are interested in the  experience of the 2010 earthquake as seen through the eyes of a journalist who was living in Port-au-Prince  and if you are interested in where the many  reconstruction donations ended up.

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