We still have not had the opportunity or the funding to return to Port-au-Prince. As a reminder, we live in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic and Project Esperanza has been primarily serving the Haitian immigrant community here since 2006 in the areas of education, social work, and community development. Because we have not been able to return and execute the plan of setting up cafeteria self-sustaining businesses in a tent city in Port-au-Prince, I have kept in contact with some people in the area, including a humanitarian worker from the U.S. and my husband's aunt who we stay with when we go. My husband's aunt has been able to provide the most insight, perhaps because she is Haitian.
The biggest issue I am concerned about as our last efforts were disrupted by violence, is the level of such incidents in the city and the overall security of things. When we were last there, one of my husband's distant family members was robbed at gunpoint after withdrawaling money from the bank. When he came home and reported that this had just happened, my husband's aunt replied, "Oh no, are we starting up with that stuff again?" She said "we" in reference to the city of Port-au-Prince. The whole conversation that followed was interesting and I thought, "Only in Haiti..."
I often say that Haiti is like a large group of abused children. Anyone who works with abused children knows that they do things that don't exactly make sense. If you look at Haiti's history, you will find that it is full of abuse and the abuse has, not surprisingly, continued throughout the country's existence. But with the abuse being initiated mostly by foreign parties, while abuse remains amongst Haitians, there remains a large amount of solidarity amongst Haitians as they have endured so much together. People are in close contact with ridiculous things such as kidnappings on an all too regular basis. There is not enough energy or freedom to get highly upset by such incidents and getting highly upset does not give one any more control. People who work with emotionally disturbed children can probably relate to that statement. So conversations surrounding such things often appear humorously, and sometimes disturbingly, nonchalant.
I was getting my hair braided when the man reported being robbed so I couldn't turn my head to observe the conversation but simply listened to the voices. One of the women asked him if he did not fight back and he replied with, "You all don't know how much of a wimp I am." Everyone cracked up at this comment and repeated it several times.
When I spoke to my husband's aunt the other day, she said that she had not heard of any kidnappings or violent robbery incidents in quite a while and she felt as though the overall security in the city was good. Granted, this is not statistical information but it is a valuable testimony. She also said that they had gone to court over the incident I previously explained but nothing had come of it. I didn't realize that the man who was robbed was able to recognize the robber but he apparently was. She said that the recovery of the city after the 2010 earthquake was moving along but that the tent city situation was the same. To me, the thousands and thousands of people living in tents is the most pressing problem and no progress there to me means no progress at all, but at the same time, I know that a lot of effort and resources are required just to maintain aid to the tent cities, including the maintenance of porta-potties, the delivery of water which residents then purchase, and I believe the delivery of food as well. I didn't ask yet about the removal of rubble but will the next time I speak to her or another contact. I did ask about the presence of the American soldiers. She said that they are still there.
At this point, I plan on doing more research and communication with other organizations on the ground as well as with people living in the tent city we reached out to before in order to try to assess if the original plan is still a good one and if it seems plausible to carry out within the next year, should the necessary funds and collaboration from people on the ground be found. This effort is not one of our main priorities as an organization and cannot, by any means, subtract from our programs in Puerto Plata, but it is an extremely important effort for the country of Haiti, whose unfortunate state is what has caused so many to come to Puerto Plata and other cities in the Dominican Republic in the first place. So having our hand int his effort is definitely not off-focus, but separate funding and a separate team is truly needed in order to carry it out.
Thank you very much for your collaboration.
I have not personally visited Port-au-Prince lately and have only been updated from others who are there or who have come here to the Dominican Republic from there. It sounds as though little has really changed in terms of removing rubble and creating housing for the tent communities. Around the time of the first round of the presidential elections in November 2010, I wrote an article that is linked below after speaking to Haitians here in the Dominican Republic, without doing any research and forming an opinion from any other sources. My opinion is not included in this article and it just simply captures the views of the several Haitians I spoke with here.
Between the first round and second round of the elections, there was much talk as Jean Claude Duvalier returned to the country after being exiled for 25 years I believe, returned to the country. This caused quite a bit of talk and commotion. Shortly after, there was quite a bit of talk that other former president in exile Aristide had returned. There was some talk that Duvalier, at least, would try to enter into the elections but it was secure that it wouldn't be allowed as his time out of the country would put him out of the running, not to mention the first round had already been completed. I realize that it is not interesting or encouraging to hear that we have been unable to make any headway toward setting up simple, sustainable, and work providing cafeterias in the tent cities or at least the one in Plas Mozole right in downtown Port-au-Prince because we have had absolutely no funds to work with, but that is the truth. Still, it would be a wonderful service and I truly believe that we have a design that would practically work and put the responsibility in the hands of the people. But nothing can be done without funds.
We have not been able to return to Port-au-Prince since April. We have, however, been able to receive insight to the situation from our director of medical efforts who has passed through a few times since then and led medical efforts in a camp and an orphanage there. We still believe that the plan outlined in previous updates of creating a sustainable kitchen as well as successfully organizing the camp and building a palm leaf shelter to serve each group of 25 shelters is a completely practical plan that will engage many people on the ground, provide work in areas that they are skilled in, and will be highly acceptable and understandable to those in need, putting them in the position of power to work toward pulling themselves out of this situation. We would absolutely love to execute this plan but we have faced danger in the past. We are sure that with the collaboration of others, this can be successfully executed. We are unsure, however, if we will be able to act without collaboration. I regret to report that we don't have any photos yet, but we do now have a camera, thankfully, and the possibility of a trip to Port-au-Prince within the upcoming months. Thank you for your support.
I should have written this update sooner. We have had to remove our community organizer, Celony, from Port-au-Prince for the time being. Actually, he removed himself after being violently robbed. I have had such limited computer and internet time since finding this out which is why I did not report sooner.
After my last update, Celony spent some time having some success explaining our plans and goals to the people at Plas Mozole, dividing houses and tents into groups of 25, and holding meetings among the groups. However, as was reported to me by himself in person and two others on the ground by phone, one day he was attacked, beaten, and robbed. The details of the beating differ depending on the sources and not that the details matter that much, but if I had to choose someone to trust, I would choose Celony out of loyalty, although his side of the story is more extreme. The other sources mentioned that Celony was beaten at Plas Mozole and robbed. Celony says that after taking money out of the bank, a truck pulled in front of the bank and he was forced into the truck, then driven far away into the country. He was beaten and at one point put into a large water tank and apparently left there for more than a day. After being robbed, beaten, and left in the tank, they then left him on the side of the road. He managed to make it back to the city then to his family's house in Goinaives, about three hours up the road from Port-au-Prince. He rested there for a few days and then returned to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, where our organization is based and where he lived before traveling with us to Port-au-Prince. He came to our apartment at that time and shared his experience. He was missing two teeth which he has now been able to remedy with fake teeth, had marks on his face, and was in obvious discomfort or pain. He declared that he'll never return to Haiti.
This has caused us to rethink our plan. If executed, it would undoubtedly bring about positive change in one tent city and could be then used as a model and replicated in others. However, executing the plan is dangerous. After further considering the situation after this attack, however, I think one modification is necessary for the plan to work. People in as desparate and uncomfortable a situation as those in Plas Mozole don't seem to be, as a whole, able to focus on organizing the community, holding meetings, and elections, without having some sort of relief to their basic needs. Furthermore, the people of Plas Mozole seem unable to trust that we are attempting to organize the community in such a way without doing anything for their basic needs. But it is a large operation to meet their basic needs. In a park of around 600 families, even distributing a glass of drinking water to everyone is a mess. Nonetheless, I think we have developed a possible and practical solution.
In both Haiti and the Dominican Republic people have small businesses of cooking and selling food on the side of the road. There are also small cafeterias with good, home cooked meals available. Our plan is to set up something similar in the tent city in conjunction with the community organizing efforts. This would show that we, Project Esperanza, are concerned about meeting daily needs, but we also want to develop long term solutions. We would once again, need a building of some sort. We would then need a stove (either gas or charcoal), some pots, and some large iron spoons and knives. We would begin by purchasing enough rice and food products to cook a hearty meal for everyone living in the area. A few women would be hired to cook. Residents would then come with their own plate or bowl and purchase a healthy serving at 5 or 10 goud. This meal would normally cost 80-100 goud. The profit from this first day at 10 goud per serving would be enough to purchase the rice for the following day. The other ingredients would have to be funded from another source or perhaps servings should cost 15 goud. If cooks can be rotated and work voluntarily with the understanding that the community is benefiting from their volunteer services, this could almost be turned into a sustainable effort.
Of course there is risk of theft of the money. Through our trips and Celony's extended time in the area, we have determined a group of about four people we believe to be trustworthy. We could form a committee out of these people and put them in charge of this operation. I am not sure that we will be able to do this and the ability to do this depends on more than just funds. The attack Celony endured is not to be taken lightly but we also don't want to be scared or threatened away from the efforts. However, if we were attempt to do this, it would not be within the next few months and start up costs would be at least $1,500 USD to purchase the materials and food to last one day.
How could we assure our safety to execute this plan after what happened to Celony? These sorts of attacks normally can be understood as they follow a certain pattern. If this follows the pattern we have seen while working with Haitian street kids in the Dominican Republic, many members of the group were likely frustrated at our presence while not receiving anything tangible. They did not trust that we would ever bring any tangible benefits to their lives and decided to get what they could out of the situation while we were around and steal. At first, many other members of the group may be pleased that someone went on and robbed us. After sometime the majority of the group will realize that we are not returning and were perhaps indeed genuine in what we had talked about doing. The act will then receive negative feedback from rest of the group. The group as a whole may regret what happened if given long enough, people will be humble and responsive to our presence and plan. If given too long people will become disillusioned and our initial efforts will have lost their impact. The key is to find the window between two little time and too much time.
We arrived in Port-au-Prince Monday evening (3/29/10) and stayed, as we did before, at the house of some of my husband's family members. We met up with Celony, our trusty Haitian team member that we left to work on organizing/mobilizing a tent city in Port-au-Prince in late January, along with his brother Geneve who has been assisting him, early Tuesday morning. We had been in touch through cell phone conversations and I had been sending funds to cover their living expenses, but we had a lot of catching up to do in person. When we left them in January, we had built a house out of palm leaves where they were to live and use the house as a meeting place and place to hold elections as he was meeting with groups representatives from each house and holding elections among them to choose one representative for each group of 25 houses (or tents). To make a long story short, the house was overtaken by what Celony referred to as a group of pot-smoking bandits. The house was taken over after just one meeting and election took place.
They were now homeless but luckily ran into a friend from their home town Gonaives who was a university student in Port-au-Prince before the earthquake. His apartment building where he was living was destroyed as well as his university. He works as a public school teacher but has not received any pay since the earthquake. School was set to open again in Port-au-Prince yesterday as was the word on the street but no one knew if this would actually take place and no official statement or plan had been made here. When I stated that I thought that government-funded institutions like that would still pay their employees during the aftermath of the earthquake because the government funds should still be available, they laughed and said that that might happen in a developed country but in Haiti, public school teachers often have to rally and use such actions such as strikes to receive their pay checks.
This friend now began living in an apartment in the building next to his which was unharmed. Celony and Geneve had been staying with him but no one had paid the landlord yet. The large apartment building across the street was completely destroyed with an estimated 30 bodies still uncovered beneath the rubble. The group sleeps on the roof except on rainy nights and more so uses the apartment as a safe place to store their belongings. This was not the case for everyone still living in houses made of block. Some have gotten over their fear and are living normal lives inside their houses.
As you drive through the city, you see that the majority of rubble that was there during our first trip two months ago was still there. Celony and his friend had helped an American church group clean up the rubble of a broken church a few weeks ago but there doesn't appear to be any efficient leadership over such efforts in the city as a whole. There were groups of Haitians in blue t-shirts with a Creole logo that basically says "Haiti Work Group" flocked in certain parts of the city. Not to appear judgmental of the effort, but I only saw this group along roadsides in flocks with about 20 people in the group and about three or four with shovels while the rest were standing and watching. The group did not appear to be removing rubble but doing some other sort of work. This led me to conclude that the clean up effort continues to lack leadership and efficiency.
As for the tent cities, there have been some changes there but basically just small improvements and nothing that seems to be leading toward a long term solution. I do not mean that to diminish the improvements as they are successes and improve the quality of life but just to think in the long term and the continued improvement of the quality of lives. There appeared to be more tents and tarps distributed and utilized. There were also several portable toilets at each site. I can't speak for every site, but there are large water tanks at many sites that are filled by a truck each morning I believe. These are definitely improvements for the time being but the quality of life in these areas remains fairly miserable. There is little that one can do and little that one can own with a small temporary home in a very crowded and hot situation with little shade. I am always amazed, though, at the manner in which Haitians live in such situations and have learned a lot about patience and resilience through that.
Although many tents have been distributed, I would say that more than half of the people still live in houses they have constructed themselves out of wood scraps, tin, plastic, tarp, and sheets. However, it seems as though most people have expanded their houses a little causing the sites to appear more crowded with less walking space. People still talk about "them" coming to remove them from the land they are on and taking them to a site that is being prepared for them somewhere else. I have still seen no evidence of truth to this. When asked who "they" is referring to, Haitians normally reply "the American army" or "the government" or someone they perceive to have control and authority. However, no one I have spoken to seems to have faith in the Haitian president but refer to him as a thief.
Celony's community organizing efforts were set back when the house was taken over. Also, a neighbor had the census notebook in his possession and didn't want to give it to Celony. He demanded money in exchange for the notebook and Celony, having little money and not wanting to encourage such disorder, refused. He didn't start over with the census at this time but spent the few months meeting people and building relationships. I think that things are progressing fine because it was important that he took that time to build relationships. It may have been too soon to hold elections earlier on also because people in the tent cities need time to get to know each other as well before choosing a representative. He is now involved in a church in Port-au-Prince. He also has been able to travel to different tent cities, speak with people, and observe.
Food distributions apparently take place between 2 and 4 times a month. Celony says that the American army continues to come in large trucks to do this. Just as before, he says that sometimes distributions are done fairly successfully with cards distributed to houses and then lines formed to exchange a card for food. Other times, he says, food continues to be distributed in a mob fashion that creates fighting. He said that he has witnessed American soldiers distributing food in this way and then videotaping the outbreak. We both agreed that that is disgusting. While we were in Port-au-Prince this trip, we saw American soldiers drive by in Jeeps but did not see any other activity they were doing.
Because several banks collapsed, there are too few banks to serve the amount of people that have bank accounts. We spoke with and witnessed people who waited in line from 8am when the bank opened until 2:30pm when banks closed and never made it into the bank. Foreigners and others with connections often skip the line and the security allows them in so this just backs up those without such connections who are waiting in line. We also heard several accounts of people being robbed as soon as they exit the bank. Celony testified that he was on a public bus about a month back and two men with guns entered the bus and forced all of the passengers to give them their money. We encountered the Haitian police on several occasions directing traffic and cruising around. However, I am unsure of the government's efforts. Someone told me that Preval, the Haitian president, is in the American embassy. I am not sure where the American embassy is or if this was true.
We spent time visiting people at Plas Mozole or Mozole Park which is the tent city where our efforts are being focused. We spoke with several groups, restating the plan and assuring them that we were sticking to the original plan of dividing the houses into groups of 25 with a representative from each house. Then weekly meetings would be held with each group and a representative would be elected for each group. Then there should be a weekly meeting with Celony and the representatives of each group. I wrote a letter ahead of time to outline this plan. Celony began the census again, distributing this letter as he went along and communicating the plan. Many people were encouraged that we are sticking to the original efforts but some complained about wanting to receive something tangible and immediate. We spoke a lot about the need to organize and the long term benefits that organizing in a way that each household has a voice will have. Distributing items that were not enough to please everyone would likely cause disturbance and distraction from the long term goal. People responded well and seemed to understand but Celony will likely be continuing to explain the same points on a daily basis for awhile.
You can read the rest of this update on our website.
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