If ever there was a sign of a busy SOS Children’s Village, it is wet clothes hanging on the washing lines outside the family houses. The SOS Children’s Village Santo has plenty of that, all day, every day. Opened in 1985, it was the first SOS Children’s Village in Haiti and with 22 family houses, each with 10 or 11 children, the Village has always been a busy place. Today, 25 years later, a year in which the Village should have been celebrating its silver jubilee, the children’s Village is bursting at the seams, with a total of 424 children living there (some in temporary shelters) as a result of the earthquake that hit Haiti on 12 January 2010.
Mama Francoise has been an SOS mother at the SOS Children’s Village Santo for 17 years and is one of the longest serving mothers in the Village. When the earthquake struck Mama Francoise was in her house taking a shower. She heard the sound of objects falling, including a heavy television set, and of crockery breaking in her dining room, and she heard screaming, coming from everywhere. She had no idea what was happening but she was “very afraid” and knew that something catastrophic was taking place. At the time Mama Francoise was caring for 11 children and all she could say was, “Where are the children? Where are the children?” Fortunately all her SOS children were in the Village and none of them were hurt. She also worried about her own child, living outside the Village with her family, and it was only much later that she found out that her child had survived. However, Mama Francoise lost three members of her own family that day.
Children accepted immediately
Since that fateful day life has changed for Mama Francoise and for the whole village. “The children began arriving”, she said, “about a week after the earthquake”. Those were the children who had lost their parents and their homes and who had nowhere to live. “All the mothers accepted them immediately”, she added, and she herself took in many extra children. At one stage there were 29 children living in her house, sleeping wherever they could, cared for by herself and extra family care assistants (known as aunties) who SOS Children’s Villages employed. The youngest child that Mama Francoise took in was about a year old, except, she remembers, when the 33 children were brought to the Village. She was referring to the 33 children taken by apparently well meaning, but misguided foreigners, who thought they could give the children a better home than their own mothers could. The children were rescued from their ‘kidnappers’ and taken to the Santo Children’s Village while the authorities tried to find their families.
Mama Francoise takes in a baby
The case of the 33 children was worldwide news and for a while the SOS Children’s Village Santo, which became their temporary home, was famous. Mama Francoise herself took in four of these children, one just a small baby who she nicknamed ‘Babien’. Since then all the children have been reunited with their mothers and Mama Francoise, who became close to Babien, talks regularly with Babien’s mother.
Life much harder
Ten months after the earthquake life is much harder for Mama Francoise. Like most of the other SOS mothers, she still has 19 children living in her house, including a baby. She also has the help of two aunties, who, she stresses, work just as hard as she does. The aunties also live in the house and all the extra people sleep on mattresses on the floor. Meals times are not easy in any of the family houses but they manage. The main meal is at lunchtime and because the children attend school either in the morning othe afternoon they eat their lunch at different times. When it comes to homework all the children sit around the table, or on the sofa, or on their beds, and get on with it.
Main task is to reunify children with families
Of course this situation with 19 children living in one house cannot last forever. The Village has recently constructed 63 temporary shelters, and each can accommodate five children. The main task now is to try to reunify some of the children with their families. Those who can’t go back to their homes because their homes no longer exist, or because their family is missing, will be moved into the shelters under the care of an auntie (75 are already there). Eventually a third SOS Children’s Village will be constructed in Haiti, scheduled for completion in 2013 and the extra children will be given a new permanent home there. Until then, it seems, there is going to be a lot of washing hanging on the lines at the SOS Children’s Village Santo.