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Campaign Stories
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No motivation other than her surroundings are needed for this child to study at Automeca camp in Port-au-Prince. (Christian Fuchs - JRS/USA)
(Port au Prince) May 2010 — Long before the crippling earthquake of January 12, 2010, Jesuit Refugee Service had a grassroots presence in Haiti, providing humanitarian assistance to displaced Haitians both in the town of Ouanaminthe on the northeastern border with the Dominican Republic, and in the Dominican Republic itself. JRS responded to the needs of Haitians during a decade of political upheaval, successive natural disasters, and a food crisis, which devastated the Haitian economy. We knew Haiti in both her pain and her laughter – as a country where many children under the age of twelve in the countryside have no clothes to wear; a country where people spontaneously gather in community during frequent black-outs to sing songs, play dominos, and keep the night at bay. Haiti is also a country with a rich artistic and political tradition, inhabited by a deeply faithful people who have continued to hope for a better life despite devastation and adversity.

JRS–Haiti has accompanied the people of Ouanaminthe, a town of 100,000 inhabitants, through a series of challenges by offering schooling for the children, helping to organize sustainable farming cooperatives, organizing well-digging projects and engaging in human rights monitoring. Through these efforts, JRS has strived to create an environment in Haiti that would offer impoverished Haitians an alternative to migration by enabling them to sustain a dignified and secure life within their country.

In addition to its work within Haiti, JRS has served the needs of Haitian refugees, forced migrants, and stateless people in the neighboring Dominican Republic for more than 15 years, expanding upon the migration and refugee work carried out by the Jesuits of the Dominican Republic and Haiti for the last 70 years.

Now, the earthquake has brought a drastic change in the focus of JRS’s work. While continuing its existing programs, JRS–Haiti is focusing on new relief efforts in Port-au-Prince, working in seven camps that serve the needs of more than 23,000 displaced persons.

JRS and the Jesuits of Haiti

Supermarkets, banks, trade houses, radio and television stations, hospitals ... all have collapsed. General Hospital, the largest health institution in the capital, collapsed with many patients already inside and while many wounded were being brought in. ~ Fr. Perard Monestime, S.J., director of the JRS-Ouanaminthe. January 13, 2010.

"Our national symbols are all gone, destroyed by the earthquake. We have lost a piece of our history and are at risk of losing our sense of nationhood." ~ Fr. Wismith Lazard, S.J. – Director of JRS–Haiti

All three million inhabitants of Port-au-Prince were directly affected by the magnitude 7.2 earthquake. With 25% of government officials dead within minutes, public services and communications disrupted, and soon inundated by the exodus of some 600,000 stunned survivors from the capital into the countryside, the rest of the country suffered as well. Even four months after the disaster a staggering 1.3 million survivors remain displaced, most still without adequate shelter, employment, or the other necessities of life.

Donations for Haiti have been used both to meet immediate emergency needs in the camps and to begin to meet longer-term needs as well, for example by starting schools in displaced persons camps and in planning for the construction of 17 new schools in the countryside.

Altogether JRS and its Jesuit partners offered a wide range of emergency assistance to the people of Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, including emergency food relief to more than 50,000 people throughout Port-au-Prince; medical treatment to more than 4,500 people injured by the earthquake; and camp management services and psychosocial support to more than 23,000 people living in seven camps throughout Port-au-Prince.

In partnership with the Jesuit Fe y Alegria school system and volunteer engineers from the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture in the U.S. JRS also evaluated the structural integrity of 400 schools throughout the stricken area in the month after the earthquake.

"Only through providing universal education to all children in Haiti, and through a massive literacy campaign for adults, can we ensure that Haiti will have the tools it needs to build back stronger," Fr. Wismith Lazard, S.J.

JRS Work in the Camps

The scale of the disaster is such that despite efforts by a plethora of organizations, many vital needs still go unmet. JRS is urgently advocating to bring these needs to the attention of the Haitian government and other institutions with the power to address them. Meanwhile, JRS is working with the people of the camps to do all we can to mitigate human suffering through accompaniment, psychosocial intervention and linking camp leadership committees with UN and U.S. organized aid delivery bodies to address the rising needs.

JRS is the official camp manager in three camps: Henfrasa, Palais de l’art, and Parc Colofer. In these camps we employ a participative management approach to ensure that all voices are heard and that the most vulnerable camp residents receive the care they require. As in other camps where JRS works, JRS insists that women be included on the committee of residents who represent the camp’s inhabitants.

"Is this any place for human beings to live? … often we have little or nothing to eat during the day." Haitian mother living with her young daughter in Automeca camp.

In camps that JRS does not manage, such as Automeca – a camp of 11,000 residents living in tents only inches apart from one another – JRS provides vital services such as psychosocial support and assistance to the camp committees which are a sort of camp council.

JRS offers management training sessions and regular meetings aimed at building the capacity for the displaced Haitians to develop their own emergency assistance, recovery and reconstruction initiatives. On a visit to our staff in Automeca in May, Fr. Ken noted that the camp is in a crisis situation.

"I have visited camps of refugees and IDPs throughout the world in my role as JRS/USA’s national director. I was shocked at the conditions in which people are being forced to live in Automeca camp. The camp is a national and international disgrace. Of the many people we spoke to, nearly all complained of lack of food." ~ Fr. Kenneth J. Gavin, S.J.

The president of the Automeca camp, elected by the community to represent their interests, reports that only three food distributions had been made by the World Food Program in the past three months and none since February. JRS continues to advocate for increased food delivery throughout Automeca and other camps with World Food Progamme leaders in both Washington, D.C. and Rome.

Automeca camp residents live in shacks made of tarps and rags so close to one another that you can almost mistake the multiple dwellings as one tent held aloft by acres of tent poles; there is little or no privacy. There are no schools or electricity, sanitation is poor; the water is barely potable and often brings on diarrhea in children and adults. Drainage at Automeca consists of shallow ditches running between rows of tents, a hazard even when dry; when it rains they flood and a cascade of garbage and muck rushes through the camp toward the lower sections.

The atmosphere in Automeca ripens throughout the day as the heat rises, and the dank humidity embeds itself onto clothing and tarps, adding an unhealthy sheen to everything it touches, collecting dust and attracting insects. The few trees are preferred as meeting areas to tents, as the shade of a mango tree offers the promise of a cooling breeze that the tents shut out. 

It should be noted that 80% of all officially sanctioned camps, which amount to a little under 600 camps in all, have no camp managers. While some in the international community have claimed that 99.6% of all earthquake victims have been reached, we have noted that many have only received one, two, or three aid deliveries. The international coordination seems to have failed many of the residents in the camps until now, and we fear that with malaria, typhoid, and tetanus on the rise, the death toll in the coming months will climb precipitously.

“We are afraid of the rains. We have so many problems here. We need different tents, more solid tents to withstand the rain. These tents get wet inside during the rains.”  ~ displaced man living at Parc Colofer, a soccer field turned into a camp for 1,200 displaced people. 

The other three camps where JRS labors are the “unofficial” camps of the Manresa district of Port-au-Prince (Bas Georges, Au Georges, and La Grotte). Because the Haitian government and the international coordinating bodies do not sanction these camps, JRS is the only NGO present in the camps. The Haitian government has asked the camp residents in these “unofficial” camps to leave these areas because the space is unsustainable, however no alternative has been offered for camp residents, and the population has protested that they have nowhere else to go.  JRS has elected to continue to accompany these vulnerable IDPs and to serve their needs as much as possible until such time as camp residents are given another place where they can live.  

The people in all "unofficial camps" throughout the city receive little to no care from large aid organizations and the international coordinating bodies.  JRS calls on the Haitian Government and the International community to address the needs of those in official and “unofficial” camps alike, and to continue to distribute aid to those in unofficial camps until such time as these camp residents are offered a safe and tenable place where they might settle during the emergency phase. 

JRS notes that all camps where we work continue to suffer from the same overarching basic needs, infrastructure and security concerns. The lack of electricity and lighting at night has meant women and children are vulnerable to sexual assault and abuse. Other concerns range from lack of access to potable water, to the spreading of infections such as typhoid, tetanus, and malaria, to poor drainage in many camps, to too little food and water distribution and assaults on women, the elderly, children and the disabled during aid delivery. Helping the people in the camps survive the rainy season has become an additional challenge for our humanitarian team.

"Haitian civil society is still weak.  But we have a lot to offer, we understand our country and the situation on the ground.  We can be a support to strengthened Haitian government, and help to hold our leaders accountable to the people of Haiti. The Haitian people must be tapped as the real resource for reforming our nation." ~ Fr. Kawas Francois, S.J., president of the Jesuit Interprovincial Committee for the Reconstruction of Haiti.

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