Three years after the quake, Haitian refugees fight Christmas misery
While people around the world celebrate the arrival of Christmas, residents of a refugee camp in Haiti say hunger and want will mark the holiday, like every other day of the year.
“There are no wreaths, no Christmas trees,” said Titelma Cherival, 54, still living in a makeshift refugee camp almost three years after an earthquake leveled much of this impoverished nation.
“The best Christmas we could hope for is to get out here and have nice life in a normal home,” Cherival said somberly. “But I see little hope of that.”
The faded tent where Cherival shelters with her three children is torn and covered with a tarp to keep out the rain. The camp, located in the Canape Vert neighborhood outside Port-au-Prince, houses nearly 2,000 people.
Residents are compelled to get by as best they can without electricity or running water and — adding insult to injury — in the shadow of a complex of luxury hotels.
The poverty is no greater at Christmas time, but the pain and humiliation of doing without comes into sharp contrast during a season dedicated to gift-giving and merriment in this predominantly Catholic country.
“There will be no gifts for the children and probably not even a Christmas meal,” said Jocelyne, who sells bric-a-brac to make ends meet.
“Look at my three children, they do not even know what Christmas is.”
The massive earthquake struck in January 2010, reducing much of the Haitian capital to a pile of rubble and killing more than 200,000 people.
Of the more than one million people left homeless, more than a third — just over 360,000 — are still living in tents, according to International Organization for Migration data.
Endless days of grinding poverty and idleness add to the despair, camp inhabitants said.
“Nobody works here. There is abject poverty. People have been brought down to the lowest place in their lives,” said Fritzner Dossous, 32.
“We are are dead. All we are waiting for now is to be buried.”
Making matters even more dire for residents of the camp, the owner of the land where it is located wants to reclaim the property and evict the camp inhabitants, who have no place else to go.
“We are on private land. The owner wants to reclaim the space,” said Dossous, who helps organize security for the camp, which from time to time has been attacked by unknown assailants.
Thieves long ago made away with solar street lights installed in the camp, along with many of the inhabitants’ meager possessions.
Camp dwellers also feel abandoned by political leaders who, in flowery campaign pledges, promised to lift them out their destitution.
“We are on the path that leads to the presidential palace. But once they take that road, they don’t make the return trip,” said one man who recalled that President Michel Martelly visited the camp during his election campaign.
“We haven’t seen him since… We deplore this attitude, although we love him all the same,” the man added, as he proudly showed off a pink bracelet stamped with Martelly’s name that he says the Haitian leader gave him.
In the camp, many children, half naked and weak from poor nutrition, scamper among the tents, their feet encased in mud.
Instead of toys, they play with empty bottles and other random objects strewn across the camp.
“These kids don’t go to school. Some of them were born here and don’t know any other way of life. They don’t know any other way to observe Christmas,” said Neila Honarat, 20.
Honorat, a student, noted that many teenage classmates have become mothers, when they ought to have been getting an education instead.
“There is a dramatic situation in this camp. The girls become pregnant, no one knows who the fathers are. Some girls sleep around in order to get food,” she said.
Christella is one such girl. At the age of 15, she is already eight months pregnant. Her baby is due next month, around the same time as the third anniversary of the quake that has defined life in Haiti and probably will for the foreseeable future.
“I do not know what will happen during the birth,” she said. “My mother is taking care of me because my boyfriend left, he abandoned me,” Christella said of the unborn child’s father.
It is a sad Christmas story, but one without gifts or provisions born by Wise Men.
“I have no clothes for him,” said Christella, slightly embarrassed.
“Nothing to care for him with. Nothing at all.”
[Image via Agence France-Presse]