Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Letters from the Homeless

Photo by John Carroll

Haitians Cry in Letters: ŒPlease ‹ Do Something!¹
The New York Times, By DEBORAH SONTAG, September 19, 2010

CORAIL-CESSELESSE, Haiti ‹ It was after midnight in a remote annex of this
isolated tent camp on a windswept gravel plain. Marjorie Saint Hilaire¹s
three boys were fast asleep, but her mind was racing.

The camp leader had proposed writing letters to the nongovernment
authorities, and she had so much to say. She lighted a candle and summoned a
gracious sentiment with which to begin.

³To all the members of concerned organizations, I thank you first for
feeling our pain,² she wrote slowly in pencil on what became an
eraser-smudged page. ³I note that you have taken on almost all our problems
and some of our greatest needs.²

Ms. Saint Hilaire, 33, then succinctly explained that she had lost her
husband and her livelihood to the Jan. 12 earthquake and now found herself
hungry, stressed and stranded in a camp annex without a school, a health
clinic, a marketplace or any activity at all.

³Please ‹ do something!² she wrote from Tent J2, Block 7, Sector 3, her new
address. ³We don¹t want to die of hunger and also we want to send our
children to school. I give glory to God that I am still alive ‹ but I would
like to stay that way!²

In the last couple of weeks, thousands of displaced Haitians have similarly
vented their concerns, depositing impassioned pleas for help in new
suggestion boxes at a hundred camps throughout the disaster zone. Taken
together, the letters form a collective cri de coeur from a population that
has felt increasingly impotent and ignored.

With 1.3 million displaced people in 1,300 camps, homelessness is the new
normal here. Two recent protest marches have sought to make the homeless a
central issue in the coming presidential campaign. But the tent camp
residents, miserable, weary and in many cases fighting eviction, do not seem
to have the energy to become a vocal force.

When the International Organization for Migration added suggestion boxes to
its information kiosks in scores of camps, it did not expect to tap directly
into a well of pent-up emotions. ³I anticipated maybe a few cranky letters,²
said Leonard Doyle, who handles communications for the organization in Haiti
iti/index.html?inline=nyt-geo> . ³But to my absolute, blow-me-down surprise,
we got 700 letters in three days from our first boxes ‹ real individualized
expressions of suffering that give a human face to this ongoing tragedy.²

In some cases, the letters contain a breathless litany of miseries, a chain
of woes strung together by commas: ³I feel discouraged, I don¹t sleep
comfortably, I gave birth six months ago, the baby died, I have six other
children, they don¹t have a father, I don¹t have work, my tarp is torn, the
rain panics me, my house was crushed, I don¹t have money to feed my family,
I would really love it if you would help me,² wrote Marie Jean Jean.

In others, despair is expressed formally, with remarkable restraint: ³Living
under a tent is not favorable neither to me nor to my children² or ³We would
appreciate your assistance in obtaining a future as one does not appear to
be on our horizon.²

Several writers sent terse wish lists on self-designed forms: ³Name: Paul
Wilbert. Camp: Boulos. Need: House. Demand: $1,250. Project: Build house.
Thank you.²

And some tweaked the truth. Ketteline Lebon, who lives in a camp in the slum
area called Cité Soleil, cannot read or write. She dictated a letter to her
cousin, who decided to alter Ms. Lebon¹s story to say that her husband had
died in the earthquake whereas he had really died in a car accident. ³What
does it matter?² Ms. Lebon said, shrugging. ³I¹m still a widow in a tent
with four kids I cannot afford to send to school.²

At this camp¹s annex, Corail 3, Sandra Felicien, a regal woman whose
black-and-white sundress looks as crisp as if it hangs in a closet, has
become the epistolary queen. An earthquake widow whose husband was crushed
to death in the school where he taught adult education courses, Ms. Felicien
said she wrote letters almost daily because doing so made her feel as if she
were taking action. ³We are so powerless,² she said. ³It is like we are
bobbing along on the waves of the ocean, waiting to be saved.²

Like the hundreds of families around her in Corail 3, Ms. Felicien and her
small son lived first in Camp Fleuriot, a mosquito-infested, flood-prone
marsh where many were feverish with malaria or racked by diarrhea. In July,
they were bused here to the outskirts of this planned settlement, which is
supposed to become a new town someday.

Transitional shelters are being built in this remote spot, and a hundred or
so are completed and stand empty. For the moment, though, the one-room
houses, like the tents beside them, exist in a sun-scorched vacuum beneath
deforested hills. They are surrounded only by latrines, showers and the
information kiosk, with its blackboard, bulletin board and suggestion box.

One afternoon last week, Ms. Felicien settled onto the tarp-covered rocks in
front of her tent ‹ ³my porch² ‹ and used a covered bucket for a writing
desk. She was feeling robust, she said, because a neighbor had just treated
her to what amounted to brunch ‹ a pack of cookies that she had shared with
her son.

She started to recopy the rough draft of a letter that she had written that
morning. She was writing in Creole, although her French is impeccable,
because ³only a Haitian could really understand,² she said.

While she wrote, with a reporter by her side and a photographer taking her
picture, a boisterous crowd from the camp gathered, concerned that she was
getting special attention from foreigners. Their complaints grew so
deafening that she rose to address them, explaining that, in fact, the
particular letter she was writing was not personal but on behalf of all her

Raising her voice to be heard, she read aloud the letter: ³Sept. 14. Today
we feel fed up with the bad treatment in Block 7. Have you forgotten about
us out here in the desert?² The crowd quieted. She continued reading: ³You
don¹t understand us. You don¹t know that an empty bag can¹t stand. A hungry
dog can¹t play.² Other tent camps have health clinics or schools or at least
something to do, she read. ³Why don¹t we have such things? Aren¹t we people,

Heads nodded. The tension dissipated. The crowd dispersed. Ms. Felicien
walked her letter to the kiosk to post it. ³I don¹t know why I keep
writing,² she said. ³To this point they have not responded. It¹s like
screaming into the wind.²

Mr. Doyle said that all the letters are read, some aloud on Radio Guinen,
which broadcasts daily from tent camps as part of an International
Organization for Migration communication program. But the $400,000 program
was intended to give voice to the voiceless and not food to the hungry or
money to the destitute. So unless the writers express a need for protection,
as from rape or abuse by camp leaders, their individual requests are not
likely to be answered.

Told this, Ms. Felicien said, ³Ay yi yi² and shook her head. And then she
posted her letter all the same.

No comments: