Thursday, 18 February 2010

Farewell to Haiti

Georg Willeit was deployed in Haiti for four weeks. He arrived a week after the earthquake in the SOS Children's Village in Santo near Port-au-Prince and supported and contributed to the emergency aid in the extremely difficult and distressing early stages. Now he is taking his leave, with "unimaginably sad images in [his] head, but also some very positive ones."

It's over. I'm sitting in the airport in Port-au-Prince waiting for my flight to Santo Domingo. The UN has made these flights available in order to make it easier for international aid workers to get to Haiti. Yes, I'm saying goodbye to Haiti, my time here has passed incredibly quickly, and the farewell isn't easy, although I'm glad to be going back to my 'normal' life again, and back to my family. I'll never forget my time here, I have some unimaginably sad images in my head, but also some very positive ones. The Haitians' vitality, the power of international solidarity, and the individual fates of the children and the families we have helped.

The time has passed quickly, but when you look back on it, much has happened. In everyday life, day by day, it all seems to go too slowly. But as a whole, in retrospect, it's really quite considerable. Not only for us in the SOS Children's Village and through our work, but also step by step in the city, even if they have only just managed to complete the first hundred metres of a marathon.

On my arrival [on 19 January], the SOS Children's Village in Santo was still in a state of shock. The aftermath of the earthquake, which had happened just one week ago, had paralysed the entire Village; no one talked, no one laughed, they were glad to have the bare essentials, and even having them wasn't a certainty in the beginning because of the distribution problems. The Village had no way of communicating with the outside, no running water and no electricity. Yet what has happened in the past four weeks… the supply situation in the Village works, there's water and there's electricity. Children play and laugh, the courage to face life has returned.

The school was converted into a storage depot for storing the countless relief supplies. Seven classes are packed full with valuable and much-needed goods. A warehouse is already being built in order to free up the school for lessons, which are to resume soon. Instead of 150, around 320 children are now living in the SOS Children's Village, and that number is growing daily. All the children can still be accommodated in the Village's family houses thanks to the great commitment of the SOS Mothers, who, in this emergency situation, have now taken on responsibility for up to 20 children. The first tents have already been put up on the football field, ready to accommodate yet more children, the toilets and washing facilities have been built, the kitchen is under construction and plans for temporary housing are being put in place.

The work in the poorest districts of the city has quadrupled - instead of 16 community centres, 66 are already in operation. This currently enables us to provide over 9,000 children with food every day. And many more centres like these are to come.

SOS Children's Villages is an important partner in international cooperation, especially in connection with the issue of child protection and the situation for unaccompanied children in this country. And therefore SOS Children's Villages is already involved, through active participation in the relevant UN working groups, in the planning of the rebuilding of Haiti.

In everyday life it's hard to get a look at, as they say, the 'big picture'. There's the pressure of the big emergency, there's the daily grind, the actual doing itself. And there's still so very much to do. That's why I'm relying on the long-term support of our donors and sponsors, because the people here need help! They need it even when things seem to be going too slowly to people on the outside, or when there are a few setbacks.

SOS Children's Village in Santo admitted 126 children at once

On 17 February, 126 children from refugee camps arrived at the SOS Children's Village in Santo for temporary shelter. Two-year-old Josette, whose teenage mother cannot care for her on her own, is one of them.

When I asked Josette* who her mother was, she pointed at the girl next to her. I repeated my question, thinking she didn’t understand my far from perfect French. But again, she pointed at the teenage girl next to her and told me that was her mother. So I asked 17-year-old Gisèle* if she was in fact the mother of the two-year-old Josette. She choked and confirmed my question. Every day Gisèle had brought her daughter to one of the 77 community centres SOS Children's Villages is currently supporting. Josette was looked after, while her teenage mom went looking for her parents’ bodies. For one month, they lived at friends' houses and finally in the street. The social worker in the community centre had told her about the SOS Children’s Village in Santo and when she couldn’t cope with living on the streets anymore, she brought her daughter to the village. She loves her daughter, says Gisèle, and that is why she brought her here. “I can’t take care of her alone, my family is dead and until I find a job I can’t feed us both”.

Josette is one of the 126 children that came to the SOS Children's Village on 17 February. She will temporarily stay in the village and might return to live with her mother when Gisèle can take care of her. Gisèle does not want to live in the village. She wants to find work and will visit her daughter every week. Nevertheless, SOS Children's Villages will support her with food and water.

The co-workers here at the SOS Children's Village are doing an outstanding job coping with this logistical nightmare. 126 children at once are not easy to deal with. We have reached the limit of children that can stay in the houses and have started building tents donated by the German Red Cross in which some of the children will temporarily stay. New children are coming every day and no matter how many arrive, the atmosphere in the village is great. The SOS mothers are giving every single child a warm welcome into their families and everywhere in the village one can hear laughter. Currently, 439 children are living here and there is capacity for a 100 more. In the surrounding area, we are supporting more than 9,000 children and by the end of February, 10,000 children will benefit from the tremendous commitment of the SOS co-workers.

*Names changed for privacy reasons

Text by Louis Klamroth

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

"God has something in store for me"

David grew up at the SOS Children's Village in Santo. He is the only one of this biological family who survived the earthquake. Still not able to understand what happened, he finds emotional refuge at the SOS Children's Village and supports the emergency relief efforts.

We are on our way to a community centre to give out water and food. David is 24 years old. He is sitting next to me and as the drive to the centre takes 40 minutes, he starts to tell me his story. David has been living in the SOS Children’s Village in Santo for almost all his live. When he turned twenty, David decided to go to university and study English. He moved in with his biological brother, his uncle and his aunt. In the morning of the 12th of January, he left early to go to university. He said good-bye to his family and then left.

His classes finish at 4:30 pm and he normally needs 15 to 20 minutes to his house. This day was different. The streets were crowded and the bus got stuck in traffic. At 5 pm David was in the bus and felt the earth moving. "God has something in store for me, he didn’t want me to die." David is the only one of his family who is still alive. When the earth stopped moving, David jumped out of the bus and ran all the way to his house. What he found was nothing but stones. He began to dig with his bare hands, but soon realised that it made no sense. "Four years ago I reunited with my family, just so the damn earth can take them away from me again!" David is now crying and shakes his head. He still can’t believe what happened.

He stayed a week at his house, slept in the street and then came back to the SOS Children’s Village. He knows that he can always come back to the village when he is in troubles as the director is like a father to him. In the SOS Children's Village he lives with the other young adults in tents. He and the other "villagers", as they call themselves, have organised themselves and help distributing food to the communities. "As villagers, we are blessed, SOS Children's Villages has giving me so much, and now maybe I can at least give something back." His biggest wish is to give his family a proper funeral and to create his own family and build a house that cannot be destroyed by any earthquake.

Text by Louis Klamroth

Monday, 15 February 2010

Volunteering to help SOS Children's Villages in Haiti

A working day for Anna, as she provides emergency relief for children

Anna has been working as a volunteer in the SOS Children's Village in Santo for the last three weeks. French by birth and resident for seven years in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, she has volunteered to help with emergency relief in the SOS Children's Village in Haiti. She thought she might be of use as an interpreter, as she speaks English and Spanish as well as French. This was indeed the case, but more importantly, she is also a trained psychologist. "I didn't really know what was ahead of me, I just wanted to help. It was great that my background in psychology fitted in perfectly." Here she describes a typical working day in the course of the three weeks:

"We start early here in the SOS Children's Village in Santo, so I usually get up about 5.30 a.m. when the sun is rising and it is still lovely and cool. There is always plenty to do in this situation, because at the end of the day, every minute counts. Everyone is faced with huge challenges in these conditions. My working day begins about 7 a.m. after breakfast. Today the first task with the Haitian cooks was how to make our menus more varied. For the past two weeks it's been rice, milk, beans, and cornflakes, and somehow we have to work out how to get more vitamins – we all need energy after all.

Then at 8 o'clock our five Haitian psychologists arrive, whose services have been engaged for a few months in the first instance. It's my job to plan out the next three months with them, the first phase of our emergency relief. We want to provide psychological support in the following areas: 1. children in the SOS Children's Village, 2. mothers and aunts in the SOS Children's Village, 3. other educational staff and co-workers in the SOS Children's Village.

The primary target group is, however, the children – the ones who have just arrived as well as those who were already here before the earthquake. The new arrivals especially need all the support we can give them. With them, it is a matter of boosting their overall psychological state, but also doing the necessary registration paperwork which could potentially bring the families back together again at a later stage, hopefully.

At 9 a.m. we go to meet the children. Fortunately we found local psychologists who speak Creole, which is absolutely essential. The children are all very different: some hardly speak at all, and are very withdrawn, while there is no holding back others who are desperate to talk to us. We try to work with the children through painting and talking. We get them to draw themselves and their family. We then assess the results later and document everything. This forms the future basis for our work with each individual child.

Lunch is served for the international aid team in the school between 12.30 and 13.30. Right after that, I travel into the city with Grasiella. We visit orphanages and a few emergency shelters. We have made appointments in advance with those in charge, letting them know we want to help unaccompanied children and take them into our temporary care programme. It's always depressing, even if going into these emergency camps almost becomes "routine". You don't get used to it – it is, and always will be, depressing. But fortunately we can help, and people are grateful for someone coming and asking how they are, and looking after the children. And not a day goes past when we aren't entrusted with a child. These are children who have no-one to really care for them at present; they have ended up in the camps almost by accident, somehow or other. With us they find a safe, secure place until they can perhaps get back to their families again.

Back in the SOS Children's Village, the children are accommodated in SOS family houses for the time being. The SOS mothers are totally dedicated in the support they give. Instead of caring for around six to nine children, as they have done previously, it is now up to between 15 and 20.

The whole team meets up around 5 p.m., as there are always lots of organizational matters to sort out and discuss in this difficult situation, from security in the Village to the food and other relief supplies we need. Who is collecting which items from the airport, where they are to be stored, etc.

It gets dark about 6 o'clock, and then we sit down to our supper ... cornflakes and semolina pudding.

After that, our last task of the day is to write up reports. Once they are done, I look forward to being able to call my husband in the Dominican Republic on Skype, if a computer is available and the connection works ... we'll see."