Camp residents in Haiti adapt to a new normal

February 8, 2010
Photo by Allison Shelley

In Port-au-Prince’s Delmas 2 there is a daily struggle between memories of life before the earthquake and life after. For the many who were used to being self-reliant, it’s a difficult adjustment. Without jobs to go to, or even steady access to food, everyday is a stark reminder of what was. There is hope though, and part of that comes from making sure these communities are heard.

In her black skirt and prim white top, Magdala Teracine, 31, looks as though she is dressed for a day at the office.  A few weeks ago, in a different reality, that’s exactly where this school secretary would have been.

This morning however, she sits in a home built out of metal and wood scraps, sheets, plastic bags and discarded plastic shipping panels.

We are in a place called “Boliman Brandt”, an industrial complex in Port-au-Prince that has become home to thousands of families displaced by the earthquake.

Boliman Brandt simply wasn’t a place anyone would have claimed as home three weeks ago — for Magdala and most of her neighbors in the camp it would have been the Port-au-Prince district of Delmas 2.

But this is the new normal.  Twelve people – Magdala, her parents, three sisters, two brothers, two nephews and two daughters, nine year-old Jennifer and three year-old Darala — live in this space that measures about three meters by two meters.

Before coming here, they lived together in a house that is badly damaged with cracks and in danger of collapse.  They have accepted the fact that they will not be going back anytime soon, but little else is certain.

With Jennifer and Darala huddled close, Magdala describes her situation:  “I have no husband so I was working at a church school to support my family.  We were fine. I was living within my budget every month.  We had enough so that every day we cooked our meals at home and everyone ate.  But now, I have no work, income, no budget, no way to feed my daughters — I am dependent on others.”

It’s clear that dependency does not come easy for her.  Nor does it for most of the people we spoke to at Boliman Brandt.  This may be a culture of necessarily lowered expectations, but it is not a culture of dependency.  For Magdala and most of the people we spoke with here, there is a common refrain: Yes, we need help, but we know can recover from this if we can go back to work.

In virtually the same breath, reality comes crashing back in again for Magdala as she utters another common refrain: The rains are coming.

“It is difficult to think about my children.  I am their mother and their father, and I am not able to support them — I don’t know when I will be again.  But the most difficult part about living here is knowing that the rains are coming and we don’t have a roof over our heads.  There are already a lot of mosquitoes here.  Since we’ve been here, the children have been bitten many, many times, and they are all covered in marks,” Magdala says, clearly fearful of the threat of malaria as she points out the bites on Darala’s legs and arms.

It’s clear that dependency does not come easy for her.  Nor does it for most of the people we spoke to at Boliman Brandt.

Food will always be a major concern — distributions to date have been uneven, and this morning for example, the girls and their cousins ate a cold porridge of mashed up biscuits and water.  Water is sufficient for the moment, as the Haitian Red Cross has installed tanks and Concern has installed large water bladders in the area.  Shelter has quickly moved to the top of the list, as the rainy season will begin — inevitably — in March.

Concern and fellow aid organizations are scrambling to meet this need, and we are well positioned to respond, having worked in this community hand in hand with local partner KDSM for the last 16 years.  Our teams are in Boliman Brandt and surrounding camps every day, meeting with community leaders and camp committees, coordinating current and upcoming distributions of water, water purification tablets, and jerry cans, latrine construction, plastic sheeting, and in the coming week, tents.  Next week, we will also launch a cash for work program that will employ 6,000 Haitians in rubbish removal.

It is difficult to think about my children.  I am their mother and their father, and I am not able to support them — I don’t know when I will be again.

Magdala seems to be already aware of the commitment:

“You are talking to me and I am grateful, but the same way we are suffering, all of our brothers and sisters are suffering –all Haitians.  Not every organization does what you [Concern and KDSM] are doing, coming to sit with us and see with your own eyes the state that we are living in.  It gives us hope, and it makes us happy – all of us here, to know that there is help and that you are continuing to do the work you have been doing.”

As we part, she leaves us with her first words of English, surprisingly well pronounced, “Thank you very much.”