Sunday, February 28, 2010

On the Road - My First Post

Photos: Top - Terrain Acra, settlement of 7500+ people. There is garbage everywhere. In the middle of the photo is a mass of garbage we drive over everyday in order to get to our clinic tents (blue tarps on the right). Bottom: Terrain Acra from the hill above it.

The traffic in Port-au-Prince is not second to what I used to be familiar with: Rome.The only difference is that rush hour here seems never ending: it is at any given time between the moment I get into the car in the morning to go to the camp and the moment I get out of the car at the end of the day.

That is why I started traveling with my laptop and get all the typing that I need to during the hours I spend in traffic.
So, you can picture me writing most of my posts stuck in Port-au-Prince traffic. :)

It's almost 7 pm, the sky turned black, the sun hasn’t been around much today and the wind is building up: it's going to be a night of intense rain.

Work in progress: It has been now exactly three weeks since I have requested machinery to clean up the Terrain Acra site. It is filled with years and years of rubbish dumped on this land that is now hosting a community of about 7,500 people - ten times bigger than the village I live in back home but concentrated in an infinitively smaller surface.

I am expecting a call tomorrow morning, and I hope I won’t be disappointed again. The vaccination campaign at Terrain Acra, run by the International Federation of the Red Cross, continued for the second day in a row, with people of all ages going around holding on to their arms in the point where the injection happened. I should have asked the kids to pose for me, in line, showing me their arms.

I am sure there will be more tomorrow.

Most exciting news of the day: A new NGO is planning on starting activities at our site, they will offer psychological support and emergency nutrition awareness for children under 1 year old and their mothers. They will employ people in this community and may at a later date reach out to mothers outside the camp boundaries.

The rain has started. So true that when it rains, it pours! It won’t be an easy day at the camp tomorrow, nor an easy night for the people who live there.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

New ARC Blogger

Thank you so much to Leora for sharing with all of us what she and the team have been doing for the last several weeks. You guys are doing great work, Leora!

But, alas, we need to give Leora a break. ARC Haiti Relief Team Member Simona Palenga will share her experiences and thoughts for the next couple weeks.

Simona Palenga, joined the team in Port-au-Prince at the end of January.
A natural born networker, she has worked in various sectors and is now managing the coordination of the activities in Terrain Acra camp. The settlement is currently home to about 8,000 people who lost their homes in the earthquake.

Welcome Simona!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Songs and Ice Cream

Pictures (top to bottom):
Animators created songs to teach kids about using the latrines. It makes the topic just a little more fun.
Tony Hoffman, a child psychologist and lecturer at UCSC, is volunteering with us. This week he taught Animators how to teach children to use the new latrines.

It’s now been four weeks since I first arrived in Haiti. Today was very exciting for me because we did our first training with the Animators in the child-friendly spaces. A professor and child psychologist from UCSC in California is here for a visit and to support the program. He helped do a training with the teachers and explain to them the standards we are trying to reach.

It was very well received and the Animators were happy to be a part of making the spaces better and more accessible for children. They also felt more valued by the organization. We gave them name tags, t-shirts, and some plastic sheeting to thank them for their commitment. Each and every one of them really appreciated the gesture and that we are trying to professionalize the team.

One activity that went over very well was when we showed them how to teach children to use a latrine. We put a slab on the floor and demonstrated how to correctly stand and aim in order not to miss the hole in the ground. Everyone found this very amusing and fun, so afterwards we asked the Animators to create songs for teaching children how to correctly go to the bathroom. By the end, each of the centers came up with their own jingle that they are going to teach to the children.

This will surely be an easy and quick way for them to learn about a very important issue in the camp, hygiene and sanitation. Today gave me a bit more energy and made me excited about the team that I am working with and all we have been able to accomplish.

Plus, I was able to get some ice cream this afternoon in celebration of our driver’s birthday. It was just what I needed to get me through the end of the week.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Facing Challenges

Now that we have created routines in the child-friendly spaces, we are starting to do more outreach in the community. It is an effort to get them more involved and start to think of the spaces as their own, not structures that were built by the American Refugee Committee. We also want to understand the community’s protection concerns and how we can address them together.

For instance, this week we were getting more reports of abuse and of children who have been abandoned by their families. Specifically, we had two unaccompanied children that were left at the camp. It was a very difficult situation. The community was initially hesitant for us to get involved because of the prior incident where foreigners were caught trying to take Haitian children out of the country.

In the end, some of our staff helped report the case to the police and find a temporary place for them to stay, but the whole situation was challenging. The government is currently very weak and the systems and protocols that existed before the earthquake are not entirely applicable now. Some service providers are no longer there, or they don’t have adequate staff or supplies. All of this makes it difficult to know what to do in situations such as child abandonment, which is a serious and sensitive issue in Haiti at the moment.

Right: This week we hired many more teachers at the child-friendly spaces. Now, there are two for every 25 children.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Rainy Season

Above: Teachers at the child-friendly spaces taught children how to make origami flowers. The kids loved it!

The rains have started to come to Port-au-Prince and it is creating new frustrations and fears amongst the population. Many of our teachers are coming to school in the morning saying they haven’t slept because the rains flooded their shelters the night before. Since the camp is muddy, parents keep their children home.

All of this makes it difficult to support children and families through the child-friendly spaces. We are working closely with other organizations to speed up the digging of latrines for children. It is becoming even more critical for them, the girls in particular, to have a clean and easily accessible place to go to the bathroom.

The Animators (teachers) in the child-friendly spaces are quickly getting the hang of the schedule and structure that is being put into place. Today they separated the children by ages and created specific classrooms for each. We also hired many more teachers to ensure there were 2 for every 25 children.

Some of the Animators have gotten very creative. They are working with the kids on interesting and engaging activities that keep them busy and their minds active until they can go back to school. For example, it was exciting to see the children making origami flowers. This was a very popular activity and we made sure all of the Animators knew how to do it so all the kids could learn.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Psychological Concerns

Psychological concerns are becoming quite apparent among the population here. Most of our staff say they can’t sleep at night. Many people are still sleeping outside because they’re scared to go in — if they even have places to stay that are still standing. Aftershocks have not only frightened people — they have started to make them think there is something worse coming down the line.

The hardest thing for me is hearing from some people that they believe the earthquake was a sign from God and they somehow brought it upon themselves. There are also a lot of rumors being spread, exacerbated by a lack of clear and accurate information. If you go around town you can see the movie “2012” being sold in the streets and watched on street corners. The movie is about the destruction of the world, and many people think that this is the destiny for Haiti in the next couple of years.

The destruction that happened here is inexplicable and is nothing anyone should have ever had to experience, so I guess I understand why the population is bracing themselves for something worse. We will be hiring a psychologist/counselor to come into our health and protection programs in the next couple of weeks. I would imagine that this, coupled with the music, dance, art, and religious spirit that is so alive and well in Haiti, will help people to recover and heal from their trauma.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

One Month Aniversary

Friday was the one month anniversary of the earthquake and the whole city was shut down. It was meant to be a day of prayer and silence, so we gave the Haitian staff and volunteers the day off. It was a sad day for me to think that a month after aid workers flooded the city, there is still so much to be done.

Most of the city still looks as it did a month ago. It makes me sick to think that anyone has to live in such a dirty environment. Many people are still living in public parks or on small pieces of land, with waste building up on the streets nearby. On the other hand, it is amazing to think that human beings can survive and even overcome in such dire situations.

While driving through downtown with Dr. Alerte, our newly arrived Haitian-American doctor, I saw the city through the eyes of a local witnessing the devastation for the first time. He was shocked as we went through the streets near the Palace. He reminisced about his old school, where he used to attend to church, and when he last visited the downtown post office — all completely flattened and destroyed.

It was humbling to hear him say, “Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness,” as we passed shops, houses, schools, banks, hotels, night clubs, and government buildings — all of which are now just rubble piled high in the streets.

We came upon a large group that was having a ceremony in front of the Palace, with lots of singing and praying. It made me feel very relieved and at peace, seeing all the women in white and people gathered around swaying to the music. It reminded me how resilient people can be and gave me hope that the Haitian people will somehow find their way.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Child-Friendly Spaces

This week we finally started and opened our child-friendly spaces. Thursday was very exciting and chaotic, with lots of accomplishments and lessons learned. Early in the morning, the entire camp was wet and muddy since it had rained the night before. Many people I spoke with were upset and worried about how the rains would affect their living situation and environment. In addition to that, there were few children that actually showed up at 9 a.m.

So we started raising more awareness, and by 10 we were ready to start with a small group of children. It didn’t take long before we were inundated with parents wanting to enroll their kids. We actually had to turn away many cute 3- and 4-year-olds that wanted to join in activities but were just too young to participate and not yet ready to be separated from their parents.

The sun came out in the late morning and it got hot inside most of the tents that the children were using. Nonetheless, they danced, sang, did a few informal educational activities, drew pictures, and then finally went out to play. Play time became quickly overwhelming, since there is very little open space and all of the kids got very excited about the balls and jump ropes.

It was challenging to keep all the little children organized, but they all had fun and the community sat around watching and enjoying the activities from afar. However, after play time the kids became very thirsty and hungry. We had difficulty feeding all the children, but they seemed content with the small crackers and water we were able to give to them until we have a more formal system in place for providing full meals.

After the day was over, when all the Animators sat down and reviewed their progress, they said the families and children were all very happy and that the day had been a great success.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Partnering Amidst Devastation

After driving around earlier in the week, I am realizing more and more the extent to which the earthquake has affected Haiti. The devastation that happened downtown is much worse than other parts of the city due to poor infrastructure and how old the buildings were. It was really shocking for me to see the number of shops and homes that have been completely lost, one after another, and not like in other parts of the city. The biggest thing that people need right now are jobs and some inputs in order to restart business and built back all that that they have lost. It is only the people that had some savings that are able to start reconstructing their lives right away. After two weeks in Haiti, it’s becoming harder to comprehend the amount of pain families are experiencing. I became very ill this week and was up all night with severe stomach trouble which is making it hard to cope with the long work days and images that surround me… I have decided to take some time out and rest today.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sanitation, Hygiene, and Medical Care

As the land for the child friendly spaces is being cleared and tents being built to shade children from the sun, we are busy recruiting and vetting possible animators that are going to be the ones working with the children day in and day out. We have come up with a short list and will be starting to train the teachers and officially register children in the coming days.

We also have doctors here that have set up an ad-hoc mobile clinic and have been able to address some primary health concerns. It has greatly assisted us to integrate into the community since they are grateful that there is an organization present and providing tangible assistance. However, the conditions related to sanitation and hygiene in the settlement continues to be atrocious as the people here have basically settled on a garbage dump that has trash all over.

The doctors here are seeing both chronic and acute illnesses, including acute respiratory infections. There are also people coming forward with wounds related to earthquake, although at this point many of the severe injuries and people needing amputations and other life-saving trauma care been attended to.

In our settlement, in particular, there are many women presenting with concerns such as vaginal infections and I can’t help but think this is related to the poor bathing situations, the lack of showers generally but then also the dirty water they are using. We are desperately trying to get hygiene and other kits to hand out to the population… but they are hard to come by since the demand is so high and there is movement towards making them locally due to the logistics involved with bringing them in from the outside.