By Conor O’Loughlin, Communications Officer, Trócaire (Caritas Ireland), in Port-au-Prince
Haiti is not an easy place to be a child. It has the highest rates of infant, under-five and maternal mortality in the Western Hemisphere. Diarrhea, respiratory infections, malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS are the leading causes of death. Thousands of the country’s schools were ruined in the earthquake of January 12, and even before the earthquake only half of children attended primary school. Less than one in fifty finish secondary school.
As many as 2,000 children are trafficked to the Dominican Republic every year. Sometimes their parents cannot afford to look after them. Sometimes they are trafficked by force. Many end up working in the sex trade for western tourists and others end up in domestic service for little or no wages.
Often, those who stay fare little better.
Diego Jean is a little man of twelve. He looks at you through two large black eyes, always a little timid or scared, sometimes elusive, he has the look of a child who has seen too much, too young. Two years ago, when he was just ten, he left his family. There was too much shouting, too many lashes, too many tears.
“They beat me,” he says. His mother, desperately poor, was violent. His father was largely absent but when he appeared his hand was just as quick.
He has five brothers. He tells us how they constantly “disagreed” and “lied”. One day, Diego had had enough. He took his little bundle and left with his friend Wendel to join the hordes of street children in Port-au-Prince.
There he lived a few months eking out an existence amongst the fetid landfills and chaos of the traffic. Stories of street children like Diego can be found by the thousands in Port-au-Prince. This is a city in which, according to the UN, 1,000 children work as messengers, spies and even soldiers for armed gangs.
Luckily the staff of the Lakoun Centre for Street Children got to Diego before the gangs did.
The Centre, supported by Caritas, is run by Maud Ernest Lawrence, a gentle and friendly woman who knows all the kids’ names and their stories. In so far as anyone knows all the stories here.
“Since the earthquake helping the poor when we have so little is a daily struggle,” she says. People are calling on us constantly but we can not afford to do enough.”
One hundred children sleep here every night and Maud feels overwhelmed and helpless to face a situation of such magnitude.
It isn’t hard to remember in this centre that the poorest are hardest hit and most helpless to recover in any disaster.
Since January, more and more kids are found at the door of the centre, jostling to seek shelter, medicine, or simply something to drink or eat.
“But this is impossible, we can not feed or shelter the whole world,” she says.
“Look at our children!” Maud says. “When the earthquake happened they were all out, playing like children should. Fortunately, none were hit, at least those that were in the centre,” she says, before her eyes darken, remembering the little ones who were in the streets when the earthquake came and never returned.
At least six of the children were killed and others are still missing. Maud hopes they went to the rural areas, possibly even with relatives who found them and took them on. She hopes at least that wherever they are they are safe.
When the earthquake struck, Diego was in the street. This probably saved him. “When I felt the earth shake under my feet, I tried to run away. I fell but I got up again. A wall fell beside me and almost crushed me but I managed to escape.”
Now, he especially remembers the haunting smell of death hanging over the city in the days that followed.
Since then, he admits he is too scared to leave the centre. Despite the horror they put him through, he is worried about his parents. His mother used to visit him at the centre to plead for him to return, but she hasn’t come since the earthquake.
“I did not get to them,” he whispered, his eyes fixed to the floor. “I do not know if they are still alive.” And he’s afraid to know. To him, more than ever, the support of this centre is essential. Food, shelter, literacy classes, there are all these things that his family, or the streets, could never provide for him.
It takes time to walk around the centre, picking your step amongst the shattered bricks with fractured painted faces of cartoon characters staring up from the dust. The facilities are basic. There are two long ‘dorms’ – but more like cells to our western eyes – where everyone morning the mattresses are stacked neatly after the slumber of 100 homeless children. There is a tiny kitchen, which struggles to feed the growing bodies. The basic clinic struggles to provide for the kids and the community at large.
Today, the kids who remain are a priority more than ever. But they are chronically poor and the odds are against them finishing even the most basic primary education. The earthquake hasn’t helped their chances of survival either; thousands of schools were destroyed, food prices continue to rise and with 30,000 businesses ruined or disrupted on January 12, unemployment – already at 70% – 80% before the earthquake – continues to rise.
Haiti will take a long time, perhaps generations, to recover from the devastation of January 12. The poorest amongst them will take the longest. Children like Diego have been dealt an unfair hand in life, one nobody could say they deserved. Poverty in Haiti is amongst the worst in the world and it has taken a natural catastrophe like this earthquake to make the world wake up to it. But for how many is it too late?