Thursday, 1 April 2010

"Most cases are not this easy"

Line Wolf Nielsen, currently in Haiti for SOS Children's Villages, experiences the reality of family reunification.

A week after Haiti's devastating earthquake, Phillippe Onecio admitted her youngest child to the SOS Children's Village in Santo. With six children to care for and an absent husband, she thought it best to give up her youngest child.

As the Media Coordinator in the Santo children's village, I often get questions from visiting journalists about this culture of 'giving up your child'. It's a question that requires a non-judgmental answer and to better understand I ask myself what I would do, if I found myself living in a shattered country, with a destroyed home and no hope for a better future. To the journalists I say that a destitute family background is the story for many a child currently in the care of SOS Children's Villages in Haiti and I inform them that if it is at all possible, SOS will see to it that the child can return to live with its family.

But what if the parent truly believes the child is better of with SOS Children's Villages?

A few days ago I spent the day with SOS social worker Rosita Declama and got a first hand impression of all the work that goes before a so-called family reunification.

"Do you want your child to be with you?" Rosita asks Phillippe Onecio as they sit outside the cracked wall of what used to be the family house. "My home feels empty and I would like to have her come live with me again." Despite having given her up at an earlier stage, Phillippe now believes that her 3-year old daughter belongs at home. The mother sells soap in the market, but there are days with few or no customers. Rosita notes that 'the economic situation of the family is un-stable'. But she also writes that she recommends a family reunification 'without any reservations'. The mother wants her daughter home.

"Most cases are not this easy," Rosita tells me - A statement illustrated later in the afternoon, when we talk to a single father of two, a boy of 8 and a girl of 6 years, both currently living in the SOS village. "I love my children but I am not capable of caring well for them at the moment. I have no work and look at where I live," he says and points to the sheets above his head, his only cover. Two grandparents died during the quake and the father is the only relative the children have left.I know that in Haiti poverty, lack of shelter and single parenthood is rampant - and was so also before the quake. Still, to me it does not exactly look like an ideal situation to return the children to.

As we walk back home Rosita explains: "SOS is focusing on children fully orphaned or completely abandoned. If the children still have family or relatives willing to care for them, we can see if we can help. But we are not going to admit children for long-term care in the SOS village if they have a parent left who is capable." I am well aware of this, but I am hit by the urgent need to not only deal with the symptoms but also to look into root causes of child abandonment.

The next day she meets the two children in their SOS home and chats with them. They don't want to leave, the older boy says. "Its not going to be easy, but they will have to return home to their father soon," Rosita sighs. I feel like questioning her on why she thinks it is the right decision, but I cut myself short. I know the answer already. I can hear an echo of myself from when I talk to journalists: "Children really should be with their family and the big task for Haitian authorities and organizations such as SOS Children's Villages is to find ways to support such vulnerable families," I would say. I know the values behind such statements and I can communicate them effectively because I also truly believe it is right. But as with many values and policies, it's good to have a reality check once in a while.

I must not forget to tell that Phillippe did come the day after to take her little girl home. She had even put on a beautiful hat for the occasion. "It is not easy to say goodbye and my daughter looks sad about having to leave - which I can understand," Phillippe tells me as I try to get the girl to smile for the camera.

Once the paper work is done, Rosita walks the two of them to the gates. I note that the girl has not lost trust in her mother and reaches for her hand as they walk out. Then we all wave and I know that this was one case closed as it was supposed to be closed.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Haiti has changed me

Louis Klamroth, in Haiti for SOS Children's Villages, says goodbye to Haiti and looks back on two of the most beautiful, terrible months of his life.

My last "official act" was to request an escort from the UN for one of our food distributions. Last week a mob seized one of our trucks and stole all the rations in it. For a long time, there was no need for escorts, but it looks like we will be distributing our food donations only when there is military personnel protecting us, even though I just can't get used to the thought of it.

Everything is ready. My successor has started her work and for me, the time has come to say goodbye to Haiti. The last two months have been the most beautiful, terrible, and intense thing I have ever experienced in my life. I admit I am exhausted and also ready to leave now. My time here in Haiti has demanded every last bit of energy of me and I look forward to being on my way to Santo Domingo tomorrow.

Many things I have seen here will stay with me for a long time. Haiti has changed me. I have had so many moments of joy here that this blog would exceed its limit were I to recount them all here. Today I took Marevie into my arms once more. To think I may never see her again makes me feel physically ill. The doctors have promised to take very good care of her and to send me an update on how she is doing via email. Leonie, the SOS-nurse, has also promised to be in touch regularly. The children in the SOS Children's Village of Santo have worked their way into my heart, and even though we only ever communicated by using our hands andf feet, I have had the privilege of being taught a lot by them.

Even if it'll be a while before I can process some of my experiences here, I leave with a feeling of accomplishment. We have made an incredible amount of progress (although it does feel a bit like we've barely scratched the surface of the problem); and the team of SOS co-workers is well under way to securing a safe, enduring and prosperous future for many of Haiti's children. I am proud to have been a part of this team and thank all those who remain on it, not just the people working for SOS Children's Villages here in Haiti, but also those all over the world; for making it possible for us to return to the children that most valuable posession so many of them had almost lost: their childhood.