Wednesday, 22 December 2010

A loving home

At the moment we don’t have water since the water pump broke again. Every day I establish new records in using minimum amounts of water to shower. When I wash I try to collect used water by means of a little bucket which I use to flush my toilet. Those are the things I think about before my workday begins. Next, we need to find a driver to bring us to a supermarket that accepts cards. It is complicated and risky to withdraw cash, so I only have 35 Gourdes (less than a US Dollar) with me. We want get some shopping done while the situation is still calm. This week, most of our international colleagues will be leaving for christmas. Election results of the second vote count are being announced and protests and riots are likely to resume once more.

Small businesses pop up everywhere among the ruins. Photo: Sophie Preisch
 Right now things are calm on the streets of Haiti’s capital. Everything seems peaceful. On every corner people are selling goods: fruits, phone credits, sugar cane, snacks, chicken, plants, vintage clothes and shoes, scrap metal, wheels and even medicine. On a dusty road with enough potholes to force us down to 12km/h, we pass a house where wedding dresses are sold. Two dresses hang in protective plastic covers beside the door, inside someone is sewing another one. Everything is makeshift. Soft kompa-sounds, palm trees and bright hibiscus blossoms contrast starkly with dust, stones and the chaotic traffic. Christian slogans are written on taptaps (colourful pic-ups used as public transport), walls and signs. Industrious small businesses indicate that not everything was destroyed in the earthquake while huge tent cities and sweating people repairing ruins by hand, one stone at a time, show how much was.
Transportation, or rather the lack thereof, is a constant issue marked by chaos, roadblocks and fuel shortages. Photo: Sophie Preisch

We pass a police car with its emergency lights on to the right and then a taptap to the left. On the next corner four boys run up to our car and start cleaning the windscreen. The supermarket in Delmas, quite a big area of Port-au-Prince, is about an hour away. Our driver tells us that he lives near by, but that it still takes him about two hours every morning to get to work and then about three hours every evening to get back. The public transport system is complicated and often it is entirely blocked by demonstrations or turmoils.

When we get to the supermarket, we buy some crayons and craft supplies for the children with donations from friends and family. It is a small christmas gift we want to give every one of them at the end of this eventful year.

While the children in the SOS Children's Village are safe, many families have to protect their scarce posessions from looters. Photo: Sophie Preisch
 Once we're done with our shopping we drive back to the SOS Children’s Village Santo. The 19 family houses were constructed in 1985 for a total of 190 children. This year 327 children are spending christmas here, and 73 more in the temporary shelters. For our SOS Mothers it is an incredible effort to care for more than 20 instead of 10 children. One mother says, "when you only have 10 children everything is easy. Food is always enough and when you clean the house it actually is clean afterwards. But with almost 30 you clean and it gets dirty again in the same instant. This was a hard year for us, but it was for everyone in our country".

At this point we want to express our deep appreciation for those women - SOS mothers and SOS aunties - for giving a loving home to our children, regardless of continuing difficult circumstances and an unpredictable situation in the country.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Christmas cookies under palm trees

"I'm wishing for peace", says Delva. "And a good president", adds Clorene, while Antoinette carefully braids her hair. "I just hope the city will be safe again. That you can leave the house without having to worry", answers Julianne. The SOS Aunties do not desire any material things for christmas. What they want is that life in Haiti improves. For all of them it is the first christmas they spend inside the SOS Children’s Village. They care for children in the temporary shelters that were set up on the grounds of the SOS Children’s Village Santo after the earthquake. "We will decorate our houses and the whole area, then we will cook and eat together", says Clorene. "I hope we can get some gifts for the children. They like toys and educational games. It is their first christmas in SOS Children’s Villages, all of the kids in the shelters came here after the earthquake".

SOS aunties from the temporary shelters discuss Christmas plans and Haitian politics - Photo: Sophie Preisch

The international team of SOS co-workers is also preparing for christmas. For many this means packing their suitcases and heading home to their families and friends. For others it just means to find a way to participate in Haitian christmas: exchanging stories and traditions, learning and teaching. And: baking cookies. First, we managed to get to the supermarket, which was difficult enough after last week’s turmoils on the streets. We bought ingredients very much like what we would put into cookies at home. Then we started preparing the cookies. At nine o'clock there was a blackout - usually we have electricity until ten o'clock in the evening. For the next three hours we were cooking in the lights of candles and mobile phones. It was raining cats and dogs while we mixed salted nuts with butter, eggs, flour, sugar and cinnamon. The result is delicious, you top it with peanut butter and chocolate. And on Christmas eve we will hopefully find out what traditional Haitian sweets are.

SOS mother Louianne with nine of her 20(!) children. This Christmas also marks her first year as an SOS mother - Photo: Sophie Preisch

Eating is an important part of christmas celebrations all over the world, and the SOS Children’s Village Santo is no exception. "Each group of houses will celebrate together. Everyone will prepare and then share their food. The children will dance and sing... and we will celebrate all day long, both on the 24th and 25th of December", says Louianne, SOS Mother in Santo. This christmas is also her fist anniversary as an SOS Mother. Looking back at this year she says: "In December of last year the former mother of this SOS house retired. I lived here with eight children. The peace of christmas lasted exactly until 11 January", she says with a sad laugh. Louianne still keeps her humour in spite everything that happened after the earthquake. "At one point we had 29 children living in this house. But that was not all: some SOS youth community houses were destroyed as well, so four of the teenagers also came back to live here. And then it was three SOS Aunties and me", she says laughing. Now Louianne lives with 20 children in the house. Her wishes for the upcoming year: "That my children stay healthy and that we can go on living here."

Friday, 10 December 2010

The rule, the exceptions and the normality of unrest

Normally, the flag is raised at seven in the morning, followed by the singing of the national anthem. But today is different. Children run to and fro across the schoolyard of the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School, the classrooms are empty and there is not a teacher in sight. There is also no sign of the students who don't live inside the SOS Children's Village in Santo, Port-au-Prince. "It's because of the elections", says 14 year-old James, "there's no school today".

As the riots spread all over the capital, children return home from the closed schools. Photo: Hilary Atkins

The students from the SOS Children's Village next door are officially sent home shortly after this; lessons are canceled for security reasons and offices will remain closed as well, since the way here is much too risky today. In this respect at least, the presidential elections have produced the result everyone expected: it caused riots and violent clashes. The key to survival here is to react to new situations every day and make decisions quickly. "Nobody should go out on the street today", says the guardian at the gate in the morning. "People are burning tires in the street and setting everything on fire. The protest aren't taking place anywhere near just yet, but we expect things to get worse throughout the day".

And sure enough, as the day goes on, the scenes of civil unrest are spreading. There are demonstrations against corruption and fraud, the television cameras show pictures of angry young men running through the streets of Port-au-Prince, the stench of burning tires wafts across the village grounds every now and again. The schools and other public facilities remain closed the whole day. Those who don't absolutely have to go out stay home. Both public and private transportation has become impossible due to the ubiquitous road blocks. Air travel has been canceled as well, only the helicopters are doing their rounds above the city. Haitian co-workers in the village say that while there have always been numerous demonstrations in Haiti, they can't recall the level of violence ever having been this high. The people of Haiti feel betrayed and nobody knows how the situation will develop. Meanwhile, the children react to the situation much the same as children all over the world would: they're happy they get a day off school.

In the long run, class sizes will have to be reduced to better focus on the individual child. Photo: Hilary Atkins

On a normal schoolday, 921 students are taught at the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School, double as many as before the earthquake. Some lessons are being held in the old school building which suffered no damage in the tremor, some take place in tents iset up in the school yard. The emergency relief programme is to be transformed into long-term solutions. This also implies a reduction of class size to allow better education for each individual child as well as additional training for the faculty. New solutions are to encourage long-term stability rather than immediate help.

Everyone hopes that the protests will ultimately lead to stability. As one protester puts it, the protests are like seeds and will continue until they have ripened into fruit. Taking that into account, it is safe to assume that this will not be the last day the schools stay closed. And while many adults gradually despair at the situation in Haiti, the children rejoice that they have the whole day to play as much as they like.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

A man of few words

My co-worker and I are sitting on the terrace in the pale blue glow of our computer screens when all of a sudden a little figure emerges from the dark and runs towards us. Marc gives us each a hug and then stands behind us to watch us working. The 9-year old boy does not need many words to say a lot. Usually his reply to any question is a single word followed by a bright smile. He exudes calm and, as my colleague said, "he appears wise". Marc's presence made me wonder what his story was.

Marc is a man of few words, but he always has a cordial smile to give. Photo: Sophie Preisch

I got to know Marc by the name of "Chiquito" (spanish: small). He is the youngest of a group of children that rehearses a choreography on Saturdays. At one show a few weeks ago he was apparently the only child dancing in a group of SOS youth, all significantly older than him. Marc likes dancing - everyone can see that. To the question whether he would like to be a professional dancer he replies with a simple "yes". Asked for his career aspiration, though, he says "doctor".

Nine years ago Marc was brought to the SOS Children’s Village in Santo as a baby, barely a month old. He grew up in one of the 19 family houses with his SOS mother Wilna amongst his SOS brothers and sisters. Wilna is retired by now but she still visits the family and keeps in touch with her former SOS children - just as any part of the family would. Today, Marc shares his house with eight other boys, seven girls, two SOS aunties and his SOS mother Lannecie. Before the earthquake he lived here with seven siblings. Then, the house filled with 28 children and now, after some children could be reunited with their biological families, Marc is one of 16 kids in the SOS family house. He likes being here, and he especially likes playing soccer with the other children. Marc shoots all of this at me in characteristic one-word answers to my questions. He is striker, he adds.

Four of the children who came to live in his house after the earthquake on 12 January 2010, are now living in the temporary shelters that have been set up on the premises of the SOS Children’s Village in Santo. Each of the prefabricated houses is a home to five children and one SOS auntie, four houses make a unit and share housework tasks like cooking and cleaning. Mum Lannecie tells us that those children still come to visit her and the other children.

As she describes her SOS child Marc, she smiles: "Well, he’s very intelligent. He likes studying, he’s good at school. He writes poems. Marc is a good boy, he will be successful".

The first paragraph of this blog was written in a corner of the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School, where I temporarily use a desk as my working place. I was interrupted by a visitor: Marc came to me, bringing me his smile again. I did a short word-by-word interview with him: "Don’t you have classes?". Marc: "Yes", smile. "Where is your classroom?" Marc points at one of the tents in front of the school building: "there", smile. "And what will you do in the afternoon?" - Marc: "Work", smile. "What kind of work?" - Marc: "Homework", smile. "I am also working." - Marc "Yes". He keeps smiling at me for a few moments before he says goodbye and runs back to his class.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Dancing to an unstable beat

It began at the airport, where a Haitian band was making music before we even got on the bus to the airport gate. Canadian police men and women, who apparently were sent to assist during the presidential elections, started nodding with the beat. As I walk through the SOS Children’s Village Santo two weeks later, I see a group of boys standing around an empty plastic barrel dancing to the rhythm they are drumming on it. Two girls on the way home from school sing together as they balance their schoolbags on their heads. A few steps further on I walk past a house where children are practicing a choreography for their christmas show. Music coming from a radio from an SOS family house accompanies a group of children as they play. Music is omnipresent in Haiti and everything has it’s own rhythm.

Dany’s barbershop is exactly what it sounds like, except it is also a bar. Haitian compas tunes flood from crackling speakers at deafening volume. Several men drink their beers while the barbershop owner sways her hips in a slow shuffle. Next to the hairdresser's chair a couple is dancing cheek to cheek. Outside, two men get up and, keeping a one-meter distance, mirror each others movements. All this happens in the face of instability, as uncertainness in Haiti increases around the presidential elections. Just a few days later hundreds and thousands of Haitians fill the streets, clamoring for a system without corruption and economical injustice.

Dancing is an important thing on the caribbean plate. Children learn to feel the rhythm, dance and sing at the same time as they learn to walk and talk.

A sense of rhythm, dance and song come as naturally as walking and talking to children in Haiti. - Photo: Sophie Preisch
 Sunday morning, Ylasse is tired. Asked whether he would participate in the elections after work he reacts almost appalled: "No. That’s too dangerous. Haitians kill other Haitians". He’s in the last hours of his 24-hour shift as a guard. Every week he does three of those shifts. At the end of the month he earns about 6.000 Gourdes, which is about 150 USD. Prices in the supermarket are as high as in central Europe, for some products even higher. That is just one thing that corners Haitians more and more. And in this corner Ylasse is just one of many who decided to not participate in the elections, one of many who seem to be just waiting until a decision is made and life can go on.

For some days around the elections public life seems to be sleeping. Only a few means of public transportation remain operational, protesters on the streets keep others from leaving the house and most public institutions stay closed. On Tuesday 30 November the SOS School opens again, the SOS Social centre as well. Still, there are many co-workers who have to leave at noon since public transport is still unreliable. During the nights it sometimes gets noisy in Santo: it seems like small demonstrations take place just at the other side of the fence. But the noise is not just shouting, it is people drumming and singing. Meanwhile, Ylasse walks around the SOS Children’s Village, listening to bachata music on his mobile phone.

"There was quite a lot of movement", states Cap Haitien’s SOS Children’s Village Director Arrol Francoise on the Monday following the presidential elections. Fortunately, no one in the programmes of SOS Children’s Villages has been hurt. And fortunately, as well, Haitians know how to dance to the beat of the eternal back-and-forth between tranquility and frenzy.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The world on a soccer ball

"Chile" shouts a boy, indicating to Felipe that he should pass the ball over to him. The sun is already setting as this group of children of the SOS Children‘s Village in Santo runs after the ball trying to score as many goals as possible. "I did not know a single word in Haitian Creole when I came here", says the Chilean social worker Felipe, "but as long as we are playing soccer, language does not matter. I just came here, told five children to go to one side, five children to go to the other side, so we had two teams and started to play. You really don't need more than this to understand each other.“

The basic principles of soccer know no language barriers - Photo: Sophie Preisch

Felipe came here with the Chilean organisation "América Solidaria", which cooperates with SOS Children‘s Villages and provides professional staff. He has been picked out of many candidates to do this voluntary work with the organisation. Felipe was told that he would work in the Dominican Republic and was already well prepared, when he received a call one week prior to his departure. "They told me I‘d be going to Haiti instead. It was quite a change for me, but then I just said to myself: 'that‘s probably where they need me the most.'"

Working with children is important to Felipe. Here, he usually works with youths from the SOS Children's Village, so he decided to spend his spare time with the children. He has the idea of training boys and girls in soccer and probably organising a SOS Children‘s Village championship one day. "When I entered the children‘s village trying to get to know the families and the kids I did not think: I need to do that in order to be accepted here. I just did what I wanted to do. I wanted to get to know people."
Felipe sees soccer as a way of getting to know people without speaking their language - Photo: Sophie Preisch

These days you hear a lot of talking about aggression against white people, against the strangers here in the country. Indeed, says Felipe, there would be some dissatisfactions amongst Haitians with regards to international staff. "I do understand that. Everything is chaotic here, some organisations bring voluntaries for one week or two. Everyone starts working on a project, and leaves it after a few days. To me, that seems more like some kind of social tourism than actually helping this country to get stronger", Felipe says. To him, it is important to actually understand people and their culture to be able to work together.

Language, of course, is one big part in the act of getting to know someone. Felipe takes classes in Creole. "I‘m here for a year, so of course I want to be able to talk to people. But the matter of not knowing the language should not be a reason to avoid contact with people either.“ After all - all you need is a soccer ball.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Bonjou Ayiti!

All of a sudden I‘m torn out of my dreams by all those chickens clucking and fighting over their breakfast grain. It must be almost six o‘clock in the morning... and step by step I realise that a new day in the SOS Children‘s Village in Santo is about to begin.

"There is only one armed force in the children‘s village of Cap Haitien: the mosquitos", says my Haitian co-worker Samy, asked whether he knows how much the village was affected by the tense social situation in Haiti. After riots in this northern city, official buildings stayed closed for some days, children of the SOS Children‘s Village in Cap Haitien did not attend school last week. News about riots and conflicts in this country spread around the world, while I am spending my first few days here. So far nothing has threatened us in the village, but there are some security measures to be taken.

While the tension rises in Port-au-Prince, the children inside the SOS Children's Village Santo feel safe. Photo: Sophie Preisch

The presidential elections on Sunday 28 November ended in confusion and allegations of fraud. Houses, walls and ruins in the capital Port-au-Prince are still covered with posters of the 19 candidates. UN-peacekeepers have been accused of bringing cholera to this country; and during the past weeks and days the aggression against internationals here in Haiti has apparently been increasing.

But the situation is difficult for Haitians as well: "We don‘t know for how long people will be on the streets", says Francoise, an SOS Mother. "We need to buy food and prepare to stay indoors in case of riots. But if we go out it might already be too late, there might already be too many demonstrations, riots and barricades to bring everything home safely." Still, Francoise says, she has always felt safe here in the SOS Children‘s Village of Santo.

Everyday life does not seem too tense so far: as I walk towards my office - a metal table at the corridor of the SOS school - curious children want to know my name, want to touch me and start to wonder where the freckles on my nose come from. They kiss me, hug me, make fun of my poor language knowledge and ask me to take a picture of them. For every „bonjou“ I offer, I get warm smiles in return.

As I am sitting here, writing this blog, I am scratching the wounds that mosquitos left on my skin. This armed force, mentioned earlier by Samy, is fighting in Port-au-Prince as well. A rooster calls the chicken to an early morning meeting; a group of children from the SOS Social Centre passes by in single file, repeating what the caregiver sings to them. During this time of political tensions life in the SOS Children‘s Village of Santo just goes on... - and bit by bit I realise with satisfaction that I am part of this life now!

Friday, 26 November 2010

Goodbye Haiti – hello Sophie

How quickly time passes; yet four weeks seems such a long time ago. Four weeks in Haiti in which I have been bombarded with sounds and images that have had opposing effects.

The crushed and broken buildings in Port au Prince saddened me, as did the makeshift homes, usually tents, in any vacant space from a rooftop to an alleyway.

Amidst the breathtakingly beautiful landscapes, thousands apon thousands of rickety shelters have been put up in any available free space. Photo: Hilary Atkins

The rotting garbage and chaotic traffic, (a sure sign of poor leadership) depressed me as much as the ugliness created in an already disfigured city by thousands of election posters advertising the very people who should be cleaning up.
And I was burdened by the inevitable guilt that goes with being a foreigner in a car, when most of the population have nothing except the ability to survive.

Yet I was surprised by the beauty of the rolling green landscape, which is always around you - the result I suppose of ancient seismic movements like the one experienced in January – which no politician can destroy.

And I was inspired by the resilient, smiling people, rising at 3 or 4 in the morning to be at work by 7, clean and smartly dressed. I also admired their courage in the face of extra adversity such as the cholera outbreak and the hurricane.

I was fascinated by the streets of Port au Prince, where, as in any overcrowded and under-resourced city, all business takes place. Small vignettes stick in my mind: the man carrying a heavy TV set on his head; the lady examining a second-hand bed sheet; the little girl begging, bemused when a passing lady dropped a US dollar in her hand; and the tap-tap (brightly coloured taxi) that said, Merci Jesus, despite all the hardship.

Sometimes, the Haitian's resilience in the face of poverty, civil unrest, famines, natural disasters, and most recently disease, defies comprehension. Photo: Hilary Atkins

Most of all I was absorbed, entertained and engaged by the children in the school and the village, who surrounded us as we worked. The noise from the classrooms was incessant, a mixture of chatter, singing and learning by rote, impossible to escape, but a constant reminder of why we are here – to help each child, as one co-worker put it, “become a better person for tomorrow”.

The bursting classrooms make for plenty of noise... Photo: Hilary Atkins

And now I hand over to Sophie who will be a more permanent feature of the children’s village because she is staying much longer. With 13 months of living in children’s villages in Latin America, she already feels at home. Welcome, Sophie, to the SOS Children’s Village Santo.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

One step at a time…

My colleague Max comes from Luxembourg and is in Haiti to source institutional funding (i.e. funding from governments and development agencies) for SOS Children’s Villages programmes. He told me today that in Luxembourg there is a traditional dance where the people take two steps forward and one step back. This is apparently to remind them that progress is not always easy – you may go forward quickly, it seems, but sometimes you go back. The lesson is not to be put off when progress seems slow – you will make it in the end.

Max’s job in Haiti therefore, is to ensure that the progress SOS Children’s Villages makes is not so quick that it starts to fail, but instead has a solid and secure grounding which will allow them to develop and grow.

Ensuring quality education for the youngest is key to the development of the country. Photo: Hilary Atkins 

One of the most important programmes for Haiti today is education. It is said that up to 4000 schools were affected in the earthquake and possibly 6000 teachers were killed. Can you imagine how many children that touches? One day they are at school, the next they have nowhere to go.

SOS Children’s Village’s has committed to building 10 schools in Haiti which will initially be run by the organisation before being handed over to the government. So Max is working regularly with the Ministry of Education to secure a lasting agreement.

Max says that there are many governments who want to help Haiti rebuild and strengthen its education system and the initial commitment has come from the German government, which will fund the first new school, to be built in the extensive grounds of the SOS Children’s Village at Santo. Because it is due to open in a year’s time this school will be constructed from containers, purpose-built for the job. It will supplement the present school, which currently houses double the number of students that it used to hold, many learning in tents. The German Red Cross has also stepped in and is donating semi-permanent buildings to take in this extra capacity.
4000 schools were destroyed in the earthquake, 6000 teachers killed. Schools that remain standing are overflowing with new students.

But schools are usually better places when children have somewhere to sit. So Max’s first real step forward has been to secure a grant for school furniture which he recently received from the German Embassy in Haiti. In addition, he and other programme staff are hoping to develop a teacher’s training programme for both new and existing teachers who have tended to educate along very traditional lines, and with little formal training. Now Max has to find established and respected partners who will work alongside SOS co-workers in this laudable project.

So it’s going to be a challenging couple of years for Max as he negotiates his way through the many development agencies working in Haiti. He will not only have to show them that SOS Children’s Villages is worth supporting but also convince them that by building a solid foundation, SOS Children's Villages will be contributing to Haiti’s future rather than just the present. Two steps forward, one step back? Maybe for Max, it’s one step at a time…

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Exchanging views on life

I have come to the conclusion that there is no such a thing as a quiet classroom in Haiti, or at least in Santo. At the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School, which is located on the children’s village compound, classes start at 7.00 am and continue until 5.00 because the children go to school in two shifts i.e one shift in the morning and the other in the afternoon. This is not normal for this school (although many Haitian schools had this system), but is a result of January’s earthquake, which it is said, destroyed up to 4,000 schools.

Since the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School now teaches almost double as many children now as it did before the earthquake, some lessons are held in tents. - Photo: Hilary Atkins
So the SOS school, which used to have around 450 pupils now has over 900, (many of the extra ones were taken into the village after the quake). And to compound matters, because the SOS Haiti national office is no longer usable, at least three of the classrooms have been turned into offices. Thus three classes are taught in tents. And everyday the sounds from the school carry across the compound as children recite their alphabet, answer questions in rote, sing or simply chatter – as children do.

Before I left for Haiti I asked if some children at the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School in Nairobi could do some drawings about life in Kenya. The Nairobi children obliged and I carried their drawings across a continent and an ocean, careful to keep them flat. Yesterday Mr Myrtil, the school principal, and I showed them to a class of 12 and 13 year olds.

It turns out that being a child in Kenya was not that different from being a child in Haiti - until the earthquake changed everything. - Photo: Hilary Atkins
I needn’t have worried about noise. The class was quiet, perhaps because these children are some of the oldest in the school, or because the head teacher was with me, or maybe because the quality of the drawings was so good, As Mr Myrtil showed each picture, he explained its significance and talked with the children about similarities to Haiti. Then the drawings were passed around so the children could look closer.
The subjects were varied: some related to child rights – the right to education, to shelter, to play, etc. Others showed Kenya’s beautiful coast with its varied marine life. There was a drawing of a traditional thatched house, two of Kenya’s police working to catch criminals and an excellent depiction of urban housing complete with high walls and barbed wire, which is not so different to Port au Prince. Two more showed cattle in Kenya and I explained that cattle and wealth usually go together – not so in Haiti.

The children willingly asked questions: mostly about the people, languages and geography of Kenya and I did my best to answer. I have another date with the same class next week to receive their drawings about life in Haiti for the children of Nairobi.

I tell myself that children are children everywhere and they usually do the same things: learn, play, sing, help out at home etc. But not so many have lived through an earthquake that killed over 200,000 people, including friends and family, or seen everything they owned destroyed, or live in tents. So whatever the Haitian children decide to draw, I will not be surprised.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Water in any language is sweet

"Hola!" shouts a little boy. "Bonjour", says Winni when I get an early coffee. "Good morning" Bettina greets me. But this is not La Paz, Casablanca or Cape Town, all homes to SOS Children’s Villages. This is the SOS Children’s Village Santo in Haiti, where a variety of nationalities living and working here makes up a veritable Tower of Babel.

The island on which Haiti is located is the second largest in the Caribbean and is shared between two nations, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Because of the colonial history of the island Spanish is spoken in the Dominican Republic and French and Creole spoken in Haiti. I had not expected that I would need Spanish when I came to Haiti so it was a surprise when I realised that several of the SOS co-workers spoke only Spanish, because they come from either the Dominican Republic or Latin America.

The SOS Children's Village is preparing to take on new tasks and more children - Photo: H. Atkins

After January’s earthquake there was an influx of volunteers and SOS co-workers. Although many have now returned home there is a small core of foreign co-workers who are either helping with the SOS emergency relief programme or setting up new procedures and systems for an extended village, which also encompasses temporary shelters and 300 extra children.

SOS co-workers and volunteers from all over the world work at the village in Santo. Pictured: Uli from Germany - Photo: H. Atkins

There’s Uli, who speaks fluent Spanish, with good English and French as well as her native German; Max from Luxembourg, who speaks French, German, English and what he calls Luxembourgish, and whose Spanish improves by the day; Bettina, an Austrian volunteer who seems to be at home in any language and is learning Creole; and Dionisio from Cape Verde who is fluent in Portuguese, Spanish, French and English. Then there are the other co-workers and volunteers from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile and the Dominican Republic. Lucia from Santo Domingo was educated in the US and therefore speaks English brilliantly – she flew over Haiti two days after the earthquake and is still shocked by the memories of what she saw.

Bettina from Austria and Juan from the Dominican Republic give out emergency rations to families during the recent tropical storm - Photo: H. Atkins

As for me who normally lives in Nairobi, it has been a challenge resurrecting my French. Sometimes I am amazed that I remember in one nano-second a word I haven’t used for years and other times my mind goes completely blank, or says the first foreign word it can think of, which is usually in Swahili. Such was the case this afternoon when my French was sorely tested by a conversation with the village engineer. He was showing me a solar filtration system donated to the village and installed in July.

‘Sema tena’, I asked him when I hadn’t understood, being the Swahili for ‘Say it again’. Needless to say the poor engineer was as baffled by my Swahili as I was by his French. But that’s beside the point. The system, which filters ground water into drinking water and is powered by the suns rays, of which there are many in Haiti, is brilliant. It just takes a little pressure on the tap for drinking water to emerge, and on release the water flow stops.

The solar filtration system that produces safe drinking water - Photo: C. Martinelli

It’s amazing that amidst the apparent chaos of post-earthquake Haiti, including a cholera epidemic, there are such simple and effective solutions to be found for safe drinking water. To put it in the language of my co-workers, it’s fantastic, fantastique, fantastico, phantastisch –take your pick – but for the children of the village, energetic and full of life, it’s simply water.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Learning plumbing and cosmetology in Cap Haitien

There are two SOS Children’s Villages in Haiti, one in Santo, just outside Port au Prince, where I am based, and the other in the north at Cap Hatien. According to Wikipedia, Cap Haitien is an historic colonial city with an architectural style similar to New Orleans. It apparently also has the best beaches in Haiti and - before the earthquake - was a stopover for ships cruising the Caribbean. Wikipedia doesn’t mention the SOS Children’s Village, which is actually located just outside the town, nor the school, the social centre or the vocational training centre that are all run by SOS Children’s Villages. But the fact that they are there indicates that Cap Haitien has other needs.
The children of the SOS Children's Village Cap Haitien greet the new arrivals - Photo: H. Atkins

I visited the Cap Haitien children’s village at the weekend just after Hurrricane Tomas, which actually became a tropical storm, had hit Cap Haitien. Like Port au Prince, the area suffered a heavy deluge but thankfully nothing worse, and I found it a haven of calm after the hurly-burly of the capital. The village director, Francois Arror, is a gentle giant of a man, obviously much loved by the children. While we strolled through the village pathways the younger children greeted us as they played, and the older ones invited us into their houses. Further on, a football game was in progress between the energetic village youth, and a small boy sat watching, entranced by the activity.
Refrigeration technology is a popular course at the vocational training centre - Photo: H. Atkins

The village compound encompasses an SOS Hermann Gmeiner School, a social centre (the equivalent of a kindergarten), and a vocational training centre (Centre de Formation). I have seen SOS vocational training centres before, in Africa, where the main subjects taught are usually carpentry, electrical engineering, automotive engineering and tailoring. I was surprised to find that the Cap Haitien Centre de Formation also teaches plumbing, refrigeration engineering, cosmetology (beautician training) and bricklaying, the latter in partnership with Habitat for Humanity.

The plumbing course has a very "hands-on" approach - Photo: H. Atkins

I watched keen students learning the intricacies of connecting water to showers and toilets, others engrossed in the technical parts of a fridge, and a class full of students applying extended false finger nails to willing guinea pigs. My only disappointment was that there were no girls on any of the courses except cosmetology and tailoring. Having said that, the cosmetology course was obviously very popular, with every space taken.

Traditional gender roles still prevail in Haiti - Photo: H. Atkins

My short trip to Cap Haitien was a welcome break from the constant noise in Santo, where an overworked village houses many extra children who lost their parents during the earthquake. It reminded me that SOS Children’s Villages are not only places of refuge, but are permanent homes to thousands of children throughout the world, and that given time, normality will once again return to Santo.

Monday, 8 November 2010

After the storm

Just after I posted my blog yesterday it started raining, and continued to do so for the next 16 hours. It was light rain at first but as the evening set in, it got heavier and the wind became stronger. Children living in the temporary shelters were put to bed, with their SOS aunties, on mattresses in empty classrooms. The rest of the children’s village and the co-workers who stay in the compound retreated to their houses to sit out the storm.

Empty classrooms provided a solid shelter for children living in the temporary shelters - Photo: H. Atkins

There is something comforting about listening to rain when you are protected from it. But we were the lucky ones. The million-plus people living in Haiti’s displacement camps could only hope for the best, which was that the hurricane would not get too close. In the end it turned out that, despite being of hurricane strength, Tomas was far enough away to be downgraded in our part of Haiti to a tropical storm. Yes, we did get a lot of rain, and yes, the wind did blow all night, but I have heard of only one fatality so far. Unfortunately I am unable to leave the village today so cannot verify conditions.

Fortunately, the temporary shelters were not damaged by the storm - Photo: H. Atkins

Meanwhile, as morning came to the SOS Children’s Village, we got up to inspect the damage. We were pleased to find that the temporary shelters were all intact and no parts had blown away. The compound itself, though wet, was not flooded, and children were able to go out to play. But the wind continues to blow as Tomas moves further north and no one is venturing out of the village. Instead every family has received emergency rations to tide them over in case the storm lasts the weekend.

Emegrency rations will tide families over the weekend, if the storm lasts that long - Photo: H. Atkins

And as we thank God that nothing worse happened we think of our co-workers and the children of our sister village at Cap Haitien. The National Hurricane Center in Florida predicts that Tomas will pass directly over northwestern Haiti tonight, which means that the SOS Children’s Village Cap Haitien could be in for a rough time. They are very much in our thoughts and prayers.

Trying to keep dry makes for creative solutions - Photo: H. Atkins

Friday, 5 November 2010

Waiting for the hurricane

4 November; 14:00

Ever since I arrived in Haiti on 24 October I have woken early to clear, deep blue skies. The heat of the day has been intense and the humidity crushing. But today was different. The wind blew hard most of last night and when I woke at 06:00 it seemed dark and cooler, although light comes around 05:30.
Dark skies over Haiti - Photo: C. Martinelli
The lack of light was caused by ominous heavy clouds, which were low enough to cover the tops of the distant hills, and thick enough to envelop the intermittent jets taking off from the international airport. The reason for the wind is more technical and has something to do with Hurricane Tomas, which has been battering the Caribbean, either as a hurricane or tropical storm.
An Internet source shows Tomas’s current location 500 miles south west of Port au Prince, with wind speeds of 50 mph (just over 80 km/h), and projects it heading towards Cuba. Despite this the wind is getting stronger and the sky darker.

Boarding up the windows of classrooms to be used as dormitories in preparation for Hurricane Tomas - Photo: H.Atkins
Taking no chances, the government closed all schools until at least next Monday, so that children are not at risk. This has given SOS Children's Villages the chance to put five of their classrooms to another use. At the moment children and SOS aunties, 83 of them in all, are living in temporary shelters next to the children’s village. As these shelters are new, no one really knows whether they will withstand the force of a hurricane. So the school classrooms are being converted into temporary bedrooms where the shelter occupants will be safe. All the desks and chairs have been moved out and mattresses now occupy the floor. Windows have also been temporarily boarded up to counter the risk of flying glass.

Making space in the classrooms to create safe spaces for children and staff - Photo: H. Atkins
Elsewhere in the children’s village anything loose is being tied down or put away. The co-workers held an emergency meeting this morning at which they discussed all eventualities and each person has a role to play. The atmosphere is strange – busy, expectant, and calm all at once. Only the children continue to enjoy their unexpected holiday with the usual laughter, screams, tears and play that you find in every SOS Children’s Village. The adults watch and wait.

Preparing to cover and tie all loose items at the CV Santo in preparation for Hurricane Tomas - Photo: H.Atkins

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Haitians celebrate the Day of the Dead as Hurricane Tomas approaches

November 1 and 2 are public holidays in Haiti, to celebrate what is known as The Day of the Dead. In Europe many Catholic countries do a similar thing on 1 November, All Saints Day, when they go to mass to honour the saints and then to graveyards to pay respect to their dead family members. All Saints is also known as All Hallows, and so the eve is commonly referred to as Halloween. For Haitians the Day of the Dead has great significance and for two nights the celebrations have continued until deep into the darkness.

Haitians celebrated the Day of the Dead amid rumours of the approaching Hurricane Tomas - Photo: C. Martinelli
 But there’s another story that’s also concerning much of the population of this island – the approach of hurricane Tomas. We first heard about it last Friday and rumours had it that it had been downgraded to a tropical storm. Whatever, tropical storm or hurricane, it is something that Haiti does not need right now.

Unhygienic living conditions will be made worse by heavy rains - Photo: Hilary Atkins

With 1.3 million people living in tents and a cholera epidemic that spreads through contaminated water, a hurricane is the last thing the Haitians want. The SOS Children’s Villages, both in Santo and Cap Haitian are solidly built and should protect both the children and their mothers; for those living in temporary accommodation, however, it could be a different story.

Makeshift shelters will offer little to no protection from the hurricane - Photo: Georg Willeit
 The last we heard of hurricane Tomas it was about 295 miles (almost 500 kilometres) south-southwest of Haiti, with 45 mph sustained winds. If it does hit Haiti it will be around Thursday or Friday, but projections show that it could miss the island altogether. Either way, relief agencies running displacement camps are making contingency plans and bracing themselves for the worst.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Getting priorities right

The camp opposite the palace - Photo: H. Atkins
 “Girls as young as nine are selling their bodies in that camp”, said the young guy as he tried to sell us some Haitian paintings. His name was Patrick and we were standing outside the remains of the presidential palace in Port au Prince. The camp he referred to was right opposite the palace, in what had once been a park - the equivalent of a refugee camp outside Buckingham Palace.

The office building is to be demolished - Photo: H. Atkins
 A group of us, including the SOS Children’s Villages President, Helmut Kutin, had driven into Port au Prince to see the earthquake devastation for ourselves. In particular we wanted to visit the former SOS Children's Villages Haiti national office, which had been located in a beautiful old colonial-style house. The house, with its wrought-iron balconies and heavy wooden shutters is about 150 years old, and despite the severity of the quake, is still standing, alone in a little green oasis. The modern concrete extension at the back, however, collapsed completely.

Earlier this year the whole property, which in normal times might have been preserved for its historical value, was condemned by the authorities, to be demolished. Sad yes, but in the scheme of things in present-day Haiti, when over a million people live in camps and little girls sell their bodies, it was not something to lose sleep over.

Repairs will take years to complete - Photo: H. Atkins
Our journey took us past the ruined presidential palace where we met Patrick and his paintings. The cupolas on the palace roof had collapsed like a cardboard wedding cake, and like most of Port au Prince, repairs have not yet started, although the gardens appear well tended. Meanwhile the president apparently lives in a little house on the side.

Election posters are everywhere - Photo: H. Atkins
 In four weeks' time presidential elections will take place and 19 candidates aspire to the top job. Standing outside the ruins of the palace, opposite the displaced persons’ camp, I couldn’t help thinking that this was not a job for the faint-hearted. Let’s hope they pick the right person and that work can soon begin on Haiti’s reconstruction.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Yesterday I met Marevie

Marevie is happy with her new family - Photo: Hilary Atkins 
 Yesterday I met Marevie. She is the little girl found by Louis Klamroth in February. She was about a year old, skeletal and hardly breathing and Louis saved her life. He not only took her to hospital but also, because she had no living parents, took responsibility for her until she was well enough to be taken into the SOS Children’s Village in Santo.

Marevie became a child of the village in May this year, once she was out of the danger zone. Nevertheless her hospital treatment was not over and Marevie has been in and out of a specialist hospital during the last five months. She is still thin and doesn’t yet look really healthy, but she has other things going for her.

For a start, Marevie is now surrounded by a very large family of 19 children, cared for by one SOS mother and two ‘aunties’ and even has a younger baby sister (the families are extra large due to earthquake fatalities). She is obviously very much loved by her older sisters and brothers who are carefully monitoring her progress. She can now walk and has said her first words.

When she was found by an SOS volunteer, she was little more than skin and bones - Photo: Georg Willeit
Even though Marevie was only a baby when the earthquake struck she has been severely traumatised, not just by the physical disturbance but by the fact that she nearly starved to death. According to Louis the starvation was deliberate, caused by her stepmother, her father’s second wife, who fed her own children at the expense of Marevie. She would almost certainly have died if Louis hadn’t spotted her emaciated body amongst so many other children at a community feeding centre.

I think it will be a while before Marevie recovers from her ordeal. One hopes she will forget it as she gets older, but who knows what emotional damage is done by such inhuman treatment? Only time will tell.

Friday, 29 October 2010

'Fortunate' is a relative term

Hilary Atkins, born in the United Kingdom, spent nine years working for SOS Children's Villages in East Africa as a regional editor. Currently working for SOS Children's Villages as a freelancer in Haiti, Hilary blogs about her daily work and experiences in the devastated country.

“You do know there has been an outbreak of cholera?”, the flight attendant whispered to me as I disembarked at Port au Prince after a very long haul from Nairobi. I nodded and replied that I would be careful, and headed towards the crowded baggage hall, where, despite only one working carousel with luggage piling up, people somehow managed to find their suitcases and slowly processed through immigration.

My journey to the SOS Children’s Village Santo took me through Port-au-Prince, a city devastated by January’s earthquake. You could see it in the deep potholes we carefully avoided, and in the half constructed buildings that lined the road; but above all, you could tell by the blue tented camps we passed, homes to those who lost everything, and by the white UN emblazoned vehicles that plough to and from the airport. It reminded me of some parts of east Africa – Mogadishu without the weapons, or Gulu in northern Uganda, where, since the departure of the LRA, NGOs proliferate. But both those catastrophes, though horrific, were man-made. In Haiti the people had no warning as their poorly constructed buildings collapsed on top of them.

The SOS Children’s Village, just outside Port au Prince, did not collapse. Built to high standards it became a refuge for the surrounding population. From 190 children, it took in another 400 almost overnight - children who were found wandering alone, separated from their parents by the disaster. Later, 33 ‘orphans’ were added, rescued from apparently well-meaning, but misguided people, who thought they could take care of these children better than their own mothers. We all know the story. Suffice it to say that SOS Children's Villages has reunited all of them with their families.

Today the village still has over 600 children, most of them living in temporary shelters built specially for them. These little white houses, which accommodate five children and an ‘SOS auntie’ look inviting, compared to much of what I saw on my journey through Port au Prince. I was surprised, considering they are not big, how tidy and clean they are. Of course the bathroom and kitchen blocks are separate which is not so easy in the rainy season. But when I consider the alternative, children living in camps, or on the streets, I see that these kids are more fortunate, if any child who has lost its parents in an earthquake can be called that. In disaster areas like Haiti ‘fortunate’ is an interesting word.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The youth is taking over….

Since our psychosocial advisor Yolanda van den Broek has come to the end of her stay in Haiti taking care of children whose families were either killed in the earthquake of January 12 or can no longer provide adequate care for their children, adolescents from the SOS Children's Village have gladly and proudly taken on the task...

"After the invasion of more than 50 children at the same time a few weeks ago in the ‘psychosocial’ tent, it became clear to me that I was going to be in trouble once the school holiday really started. Some children have very low self-esteem and you can see them flourish with every compliment they get. It is not just the young children who enjoy the activities in psychosocial tent, many teenagers come regularly, too. Apparently they like the quiet concentration created by many children concentrating on their drawings. Four girls aged 15 to 17 came very regularly and I had put them in charge of activities every now and again when I was called away.

They came up with a great idea: “Can we do activities with the children from the shelters every day?” One of them had decided that it would be a great idea to use the same tent. Indeed a very good idea because I would soon be leaving as well. The psychologist promised to keep an eye on the girls.

Ever since the raining season started, our ‘psychosocial’ tent has some difficulties, the rain seeps through the roof and at times it looks like a little pool inside. We asked the construction guys to move the tent to a better place. The new spot has beautiful trees that provide the necessary shade because it gets hot inside during the day. The girls cleaned everything inside and made a little doormat of white stones they had gathered. The first assignment for the children was to make the decoration for the tent; butterflies and flowers are now giving the tent a less clinical and more homely feel.

The girls had asked to work with the children from the temporary shelters. Some of those children had lived with them for a couple of months in their family houses after the earthquake, so it feels like their are little brothers and sisters. The girls had noticed that life has been difficult for the “shelter kids”: some had seen their parents die or getting badly injured, their houses destroyed. Although the children are glad to be in the shelters and they play a lot outside, they need activities to occupy them. Some of the children had never been to school before they arrived at SOS Children's Villages.

The girls want to help them to learn other things as well. The activity starts each day at 10 in the morning but the girls make sure that before that time they have tidied up the tent and taken the boxes with materials out of the psychologist's office. They walk around proudly, checking the attendance of the children on a list. And they are very strict…only the 20 children from the designated bloc of shelters can come inside. One of the girls explains what the programme is for the next 3 hours. Sitting outside on a bench while one of the girls tells them a story from a story book is just great to see, those little faces, so concentrated and exited about what happens next in the story.

When the girls paint the faces of the children, they finish the session by decorating themselves as well.

While one is reading a story, the other one is preparing the next activity, often drawing or coloring but games as well…domino is very popular. Fridays are reserved for sporting activities. Although there are many shelters placed on the former football field there is still enough space for a decent match.

The family assistants have their plan ready for the activities during the summer holiday for all the children in the village. A dance and music instructor will start this week and every morning a different group will sweat even harder than they already do because of the normal heat. "