Hurricanes Damage Haiti’s Homes, Streets, Children

As we drove in our 4×4 Toyota land cruiser through the bumpy streets of Les Cayes, Haiti, I was taken by the extent of the damage. There were six of us crammed into our car: 3 Catholic Relief staffers and 3 staffers from AVSI an Italian non-profit that specializes in working with children who have lived through traumatic events.

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Along with the physical destruction that violent storms brought to Haiti, CRS staff are finding that a large number of children and adults have been deeply traumatized. Photo by David Snyder for CRS.

Everywhere I looked I saw the destructive aftermath of Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike.. The crops were ruined. The rice plants were small and brown, the banana plantations were caked in mud, millet stalks broken, cornfields washed away. A church built by a river had collapsed into the embankment. There was no area unaffected.

We were searching for communities where we could set up programs to help kids work through their traumas. Humanitarian aid organizations banded together soon after the rains ceased, to plan out how we were going to address the issue of trauma in children. We divided Haiti into 8 sectors in order to avoid duplicating work. Because we have an office in Southern Haiti, CRS took Les Cayes, Les Anglais, Tiburon, and Chardonnière.

We were able to pinpoint the four most affected areas with guidance from the local protection committee and the ministry of social affairs. Most of the shelters have emptied out by now. People go there in the day to get food, but they no longer sleep there because the churches and schools that were used were overcrowded, uncomfortable, and in many cases dangerous for women and children. Haitians prefer to be at home, even in cases when those homes are half destroyed. With the shelters emptied, we searched out areas where people congregate such as plazas and markets.

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As the people of Haiti begin a long recovery process, CRS staff seek out children and adults that need emotional as well as physical assistance. Photo by David Snyder for CRS.

One of our first stops was a household with maize and grains drying in its front walkway. There were eight children inside. Our AVSI partners began playing with them, simple games like soccer and marbles, to gain their trust and help them open up. They watch the children’s body language and interaction for clues of trauma. Some children didn’t want to play games, they just wanted to sit back and not participate. The experts said that is not how healthy kids behave. Their parents spoke of the their children’s nightmares and of their difficulties sleeping.

I remember this one girl, she was sitting in the corner and she started screaming when she saw us. She was tiny, maybe four years old, wearing a little t-shirt, there was panic in her big-big eyes. No matter what my colleagues did she would not stop screaming or hiding behind her mother. In Haiti when kids cry they are laughed at. There is no serious recognition of their feelings, any acknowledgement of what they’ve lived through. So we talked to the parents about how to comfort their children and work through their feelings of fear and desperation.

But in many cases the parents were traumatized too. You could literally feel the inaction, but they were too devastated to know what to do. The psychologists would ask them, “what are you doing?” and they’d reply, “waiting for food.”

Our strategy was to wander around and talk to the groups of children and adults that we saw. It was a rapid evaluation. Not only were we looking for traumatized children, we were assessing the communities to see if there were gathering areas in which we could conduct psychosocial activities.

The next step is to start planning for the future. We need to train people in the communities, such as youth and church groups, on how to integrate caring for the psychological needs of children in future hurricane preparation. Simple things can be done in order to get children talking about their fears, such as playing games, drawing, and singing.

Through AVSI we are going to stay in these affected communities anywhere from 3 to 6 months. That’s how long it takes for children to get over their trauma. It’s not a physical disease that you can cure in two weeks. It’s something emotional and intellectual, and it takes time. Currently there are no outlets for them. There are no activities, no clubs, no teams, nothing. In those three months we can start this process, creating support networks and artistic outlets, such as youth clubs and gathering areas where they can express themselves creatively. It doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. All we need is the support and the initiative of the community, so that they can help their children learn to help themselves.

I hope that these kids can get over the trauma and sleep without nightmares. I want them to not be afraid of the rain. When I was a kid in Holland I used to play in the rain. I’d step in the puddles. I loved it. That’s what the rain should be for kids, something fun, a toy, not something that can destroy your life.

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