Ruqaya Izzidien is in Haiti two months after the earthquake, joining Islamic Relief’s team on the ground.
Day Five - 19 March 2010
When we arrived at Parc Saint Claire this morning, the person we had come to meet was busy giving water to his tiny dogs. I have been desperate to interview Watson Navarin who is largely responsible for the community mobilisation within Parc Saint Claire, and he did not disappoint.
In 2007 a group of young men, hoping to leave behind their troubled pasts and use their skills positively, established the community support group AJHOBICO (Association de Jeunes Haitiens Oeuvrant pour le Bien entre Intellectual de la Communauté). Three years later, AJHOBICO would prove to be pivotal in Islamic Relief’s work in Haiti by forming a bridge between us and the wider community.
“After the earthquake, everyone was sleeping in the street; people were scared,” said 30-year-old Watson. “I knew immediately what my role would be...I wanted to look after my people.”
Following the earthquake, Watson and the other 11 members of AJHOBICO began clearing up rubbish in the area of Parc Saint Claire. “When Islamic Relief arrived, they asked what we were doing and I said ‘I’m doing the same thing you are doing- I’m rebuilding my country, because I’m not going to let it go this way’.”
Meeting with AJHOBICO was truly inspiring; Watson told one story after another of how each member of the camp relied on the others. When the rains hit and flooded some tents, Watson awoke in the middle of the night to dig water channels, sealing his community’s trust in the committee.
At 5am daily, AJHOBICO member Samedy Wisben goes around each tent, waking every member of the camp to ensure that everyone is well and reminding them to put out their rubbish. Watson explained, “We have a group of kids who like to work and every morning they pick up the rubbish from outside the tents and take it outside the camp.”
I listened intently, almost forgetting to take notes, captivated by the vision of such a vibrant community. Part of me felt ashamed to reflect that back in the UK, although we have been spared major natural disasters, we are often too distracted to contribute to our communities.
Coping with the earthquake’s devastation has helped to cultivate a new unity in Parc Saint Claire. “We are a family,” said Watson, “and right now, everything is in our hands.”
When I asked about Islamic Relief’s role, Watson admitted, “When I first saw Islamic Relief, I thought, ‘Wow! That’s the first time I’ve seen Muslims in Haiti.’” Not distracted by religious differences, Watson added that “Islamic Relief is our only hope; they have put us in a position where we have to be men. We are tough.”
Despite the strong community spirit, life in Parc Saint Claire is not easy. Sleeping on breeze blocks and rubble, and sharing your life with 650 other people would be challenging enough for a few days, let alone for two months – and possibly many more.
My last day in Haiti has been both the most fantastic and the most distressing; having finally acclimatised to the chaos of the country and just as I begin to understand the challenges of life here, I find myself hours away from my flight out.
Over the week I have met some truly inspiring people, all of whom have shared lessons that will stay with me forever. Witnessing the resilience and hospitality of the Haitian people has been a humbling experience and I think a part of me will always remain in the tents of Parc Saint Claire.
Day Four - 18 March 2010
We’re sitting in our 4x4 facing a hill that looks like it has fallen from the sky. I have witnessed some of the earthquake devastation, but nothing compares to this. High above Port-au-Prince, we can view entire mountainsides from this vantage point. I can see plants that I never knew existed outside of botanical gardens, and simple cubed houses like boxes piled stories high, reaching up to the clouds.
We drive down to one hill and find that up close, these houses look as though they have been pulverised from above; buildings that stood at around twenty metres now lie in piles of rubble. It would be easy to become de-sensitised to all the destruction, but I force myself to look at each home with fresh eyes. Amongst the chaos of broken bricks I spot a child’s swing, reminding me afresh that every inch of rubble tells a story.
I find myself thinking back to some of the first earthquake survivors I met. Pierre Foelkel, 20, lives in a tent at Parc Saint Claire, Islamic Relief’s camp. When we arrived, she hurriedly tidied up her tent and gave us chairs to sit on. I noticed some pots and pans at the edge of her tent and realised that she cooks, eats and sleeps in this same space that is now her home.
“I was very afraid during the earthquake because I didn’t know what was happening,” Pierre said. “I was outside and tried to run into my house, but I tripped before I could reach it and I fell over. When I looked up, all I could see were houses crumbling around me.”
“During the earthquake, my son, Carlenskeni, was very scared. Bricks fell on his head and cut it open. A man rescued him but he got caught in the rubble too and injured both his legs. Carlenskeni didn’t get stitches but an American treated him with some ointment and now he gets scared and cries whenever he sees foreigners.”
Carlenskeni is just three years old. I feel a sense of injustice on his behalf, but also gratitude that I am able to be a part of the organisation that is helping him and his family.
An American hip-hop song on the radio bursts my bubble and I am struck by the paradox between the world in which I grew up and the one I find myself in today. It is difficult to understand how both realities can exist on the same planet when they literally seem like worlds apart. I am not sure my life in the UK will ever feel entirely real again.
Tomorrow I will be returning to Parc Saint Claire to interview community leaders and explore Islamic Relief’s plans for the future of the camp. It will probably be my final blog entry as my field visit to Haiti comes to an end.
Day Three - 17 March 2010
My admiration of Haiti grows every day. It’s not just the beauty of the lush hill where I’m staying (which looks like an advert for tropical juice), but the more I get to know the people of Parc Saint Claire camp, the more I appreciate their quest for self-sufficiency.
Schools across Port-au-Prince have been shut since the earthquake but the Parc Saint Claire community has set up its own school by the camp in which children spend the morning, busy with activities. Olivier, a community resident, said, “We do this so that they have something to do; we don’t want them hanging out and doing things that might harm our community.”
Francoise Luc, 38, is an inspiring character. Two months ago she was a teacher of maths and social sciences. In the afternoon she would teach students to crochet hats, belts and skirts. Since the earthquake, Francoise has been running a business from her tent, selling crocheted items. Many people ask her to teach them the skill, but she cannot get hold of crochet hooks. “I would like to be able to open a centre to teach our children to crochet. That way they would also be able to sell them to make money.”
Francoise fetches her crotchet collection and displays them around her tent for me. “These are really popular,” she says, picking up a red, yellow and black hat. As if on cue, a boy walks past wearing one of her hats. She tells him to turn around, and he spins to reveal a crocheted mobile phone case. He poses with his new gear and the laughter that follows gives me a glimpse of the community spirit of the people in this camp.
In the afternoon we visit Yaseen mosque which is just a few miles from the infamously violent Cité Soleil. The minority of Muslims in Haiti are often overlooked, and I confess that before this visit I didn’t know that Haiti had any Muslims at all.
Islamic Relief is currently exploring many different avenues for potential projects but speaking to an artist called Alexandre reinforced my own inclination towards supporting livelihoods. “Personally, I do not want a food handout,” he said. “All I want is to be able to support myself and my family - I want to work.”
His sentiments really struck a chord with me. Haiti is full of people who, despite living in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, had built up enterprises and found ways to make a living. With the structure and stability of their lives destroyed in an instant, you would have to be made of stone not to wish you could undo the tragedy.
Day Two - 16th March 2010
My first visit to Parc Saint Claire, the camp housing 2,000 homeless people, was eye-opening. Unexpectedly, I recognised people from photographs I’d seen, and it was strange to finally meet the people I have been writing about since I joined Islamic Relief one month ago.
The children at Parc Saint Claire are curious and friendly. They flash bright smiles at you then run away and hide. When a little boy grabbed hold of my hand as he walked past in the other direction, my heart was suddenly warm - and it had nothing to do with the blistering sun.
So many of the girls in the camp are around my age, but they carry the heavy responsibility of raising children in a poverty-stricken country, and the additional challenge of helping them cope with the trauma of the earthquake.
One of these mothers is Beatrice, who looks far younger than her 22 years. Beatrice gave birth to her first child on the morning of the earthquake. A few hours after leaving the hospital, she felt the first tremors of the quake.
"I didn’t know what was happening when the earthquake hit. I was sitting down and my whole house began to shake," Beatrice said. "My husband grabbed our baby, Emmanuel, and put him under the bed to try and keep him safe. I was very worried about him. Even though my house was only damaged in the quake, I can’t return because it is unstable. I want to go home."
Beatrice and her husband brought Emmanuel to the football pitch in Parc Saint Claire and sheltered under a sheet until Islamic Relief arrived and set up 200 tents.
"Life improved when Islamic Relief opened this camp but I am still not used to being outside or living in a tent," explained Beatrice. "Now I want my husband to be able to get a job and my baby to grow up in a stable environment without struggling for food, clothes or education.
I hope people will come to help us and I hope nothing like this ever happens to them. We survived this earthquake but I hope you never have to. May God protect you and may you stay safe."
The families I spoke to did not simply ask for food or medicine, but emphasised the need for jobs so that they can rebuild their schools, hospitals and homes. I took hope from their determination to rebuild and become self-sufficient once more. In my next post I hope to share some more of the stories of survival and provide an insight into the work that Islamic Relief is carrying out here.
Day One - 15th March 2010
From 1,000 metres in the air it is hard to imagine the destruction below. It is easy to get distracted by the sapphire Haitian coastline and the spiky, copper-tinted mountains that fold away into the horizon. But as the mountains transform into grassy hills and as we near the capital, I spot the first signs of devastation. Patches of sandy earth contrast against the green landscape where entire hillsides slipped away.
Coming in to land, the ground is littered with blocks of blue; plastic sheets that shelter the lucky few who have found protection from the impending rains. The road to our base takes us through one of the worst-hit areas; building after building looks as though it has been carelessly tossed onto the pavement. I try to direct my gaze towards an area that is not occupied by a makeshift campsite, or broken buildings but I struggle to find a house that has not been reshaped, bent in half like a piece of wire or facing the pavement at a 45 degree angle.
There are mounds of rubble which you would never guess once stood as houses if not for the metal frames poking out like skewers from amidst the broken bricks. Just when you think you have found a structure that withstood the earthquake, you view it from another angle and realise that it crumbled from the inside, or that it has no floors, or that it is only the front wall that is still standing. One building resembles a tower of pancakes; every single supporting wall has disappeared, leaving just four floors layered one on top of the other.
Although I have yet to speak to an earthquake survivor, the physical devastation alone is overwhelming. One of my Haitian colleagues tried, but failed, to contextualise the effects of the tremor, "This is something you cannot explain- the country was working and in one single minute everything turned upside down."
Tomorrow I hope to meet people living in Parc Saint Claire, one of the first campsites set up in the aftermath of the quake, run by Islamic Relief.