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Haiti news: SOS Psychosocial Consultant shares her experiences

An aerial view of the temporary shelters at SOS CV Santo
An aerial view of the temporary shelters at SOS CV Santo

Yolanda van den Broek, a psychosocial consultant currently in Haiti for SOS Children's Villages, shares her impressions of Port-au-Prince seven months after the earthquake that razed the capital and killed hundreds of thousands of its inhabitants.

"Seven months ago the whole world was shocked when it became clear how incredibly hard Haiti had been hit by the earthquake of 12 January. In just over 30 seconds, hundreds of thousands were dead and the lives of millions changed forever. More than 1.5 million people are still living in and around Port-au-Prince in well over a thousand tent camps where living conditions are extremely harsh. The tents are deteriorating due to the heavy rains and wind. Just recently a camp was completely destroyed by a downpour of biblical proportions that left the people homeless for the second time.

The children in SOS Children's Villages' community centers are recovering; their anxiety levels are sinking, although some are still frightened when they have to stay inside a building. The development of many children regressed; they had forgotten how to read and write, needed the constant attention and reassurance of adults and some were aggressive towards the other children or completely withdrawn. So it is great to see that the children are doing much better now thanks to the fantastic effort the women here are making.

Life is hard for the ca. 20,000 children that SOS Children's Villages provides food for every day in the 117 food distribution centres, the 16 community centres, as well as directly in the tent camps. Even though SOS Children's Villages has been training teachers to create a more stimulating environment and separate the children into smaller groups to improve the quality of what education can be provided, many of them are still not going to school. There is a lack of schools and child-friendly spaces, and SOS Children's Villages has been trying to obtain tents in an effort to separate classes and create more hygienic conditions for the children. Some parents are afraid to let the children out of their sight….they are afraid of losing them again.

 “Life was difficult before the earthquake, but at least we had each other and the essential things we needed to live” is what I have heard many people say. In nearly every conversation I have had, I've noticed people talking about two different times: the time before the 12th of January - and afterwards. Their lives have changed so drastically, they say, that it feels like they have been disconnected from what was their reality before the earthquake - their trust in the continuity of the world as they know it has been betrayed. Starting over again seems impossible. There is no going back to their old lives, that much is certain. But for a lot of people there is no way of moving forward, either.

The little streets in Port-au-Prince are inaccessible, the rubble and the tents block the way. Many houses that have crumbled during the earthquake have not been touched. One of the women taking care of children told me that she gets emotional every day when she passes those houses on her way to work. “I know that there are probably still people trapped inside and all I can do for them is pray and hope that they rest in peace” she said. Like many others, she is living in a tent camp and tries to cope with everyday life. “The children that come to the community center every day are giving me energy, to hear them laughing and see them playing again means the world to me”, she says with a smile on her face.   

Coming back from the town and entering the SOS Children’s Village in Santo I can see the children playing and laughing in the lush gardens of the village. In front of the school, 767 children are singing the national anthem and raising the Haitian flag. More than 250 children are enjoying themselves in and around the kindergarten. I wish the thousands of children living in the camps could enjoy that as well - or that we had the resources to help them all. But I think that I need to focus on how much we're already doing, providing a safe and caring home for 420 children inside the village and providing some 20,000 children in the surrounding communities with what they need to survive and stay healthy. 160 children have already been reunited with their families - I do not have the words to describe what I feel when I see the happiness of those children and their parents or relatives. The social workers of SSO Children's Villages are still investigating tirelessly together with other organisations to reunite as many of the children as possible with their families, as long as they are both willing and able take care of them. Until that time, the children will be very well looked after at SOS Children's Villages. For those children who have no family member left, SOS Children's Villages might eventually become their new family.

 If the resilience and inner strength of the Haitian people alone could rebuild their country, things would look quite different here today, but since that is not enough, all they can do is wait for governments and NGOs to start with the reconstruction of a Haiti that can offer children a brighter future."

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