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.

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