A melodic, earthy singing echoes between the rows of newly built little houses. It is a song that makes the place feel a little bit like home. Jeanne, who moved into one of the houses with her children in April, has sung this tune almost every day of her life. But it is one of the first times she has sung it at her new transitional shelter at Corail camp on the outskirts of Port au Prince, Haiti.
Jeanne sits on the ground at the edge of a shaded verandah with a large tub of water in front of her. She keeps singing as she scrubs a shirt with a foaming block of soap. To her left is a smaller tub of water with freshly washed clothes bobbing on the surface.
She stops singing and shaking her head says, “no, we do not miss the tent, we like our new home. It is much better.” Her four children nod their heads in agreement.
Since the earthquake, Jeanne has taken in three additional children who lost their parents to the disaster. They were the first family to move into their new World Vision transitional shelter at Corail. Before they moved in, the children busied themselves cleaning and washing down the inside of the shelter. It was an important moment after seven months living in a tent.
World Vision’s program plans to provide temporary transitional shelters for over a thousand families who relocated to Corail. The shelter work is part of a larger humanitarian program by international aid agencies to help support and provide transitional places to live for some of the 1.3 million people left homeless after the 12 January earthquake.
Transitional shelters have been crucial support for many families who do not have the means to rebuild collapsed homes or the ability to finance alternative rental accommodation.
Permanent shelter in Haiti is one of the country’s most urgent needs. Even before the earthquake many people lived in structures not sturdy enough to withstand seasonally rough weather. Additionally, Haiti had large numbers of families and children homeless or living in shanty areas. The earthquake compounded things further.
The challenges of meeting shelter needs though are enormous. Land tenure and ownership is unclear, and even when it is clear, there are chronic shortages of space to build safe structures. Rubble removal will take years to complete. Access in many places is so confined the process has to be done by hand. This long, drawn out and complex process has knock-on impacts for everyone in Haiti.
Jeanne explains: “I was renting before the earthquake in Delmas (an area within the capital). I paid rent every six months in advance. But my home collapsed during the earthquake and I had nowhere else to go. This home now is everything I have.”
In Haiti landlords are not obligated to compensate tenant losses. After the earthquake thousands of families like Jeanne’s, who paid advanced rent, were left without anywhere to live and without financial means to rent elsewhere.
“My children had just come home from school when the earthquake happened. The floor was shaking,” she recalls.
Diana, Jeanne’s eldest daughter, leans over the verandah railing and says, “I thought I was going to die. Everyone was screaming and yelling. We didn’t know if we should stay inside or run outside. Even though it was a big earthquake my friends have hope. My brother says we have to put our faith in Jesus.” She says she wants to be a nurse when she grows up.
Diana’s younger sister Solène hums a song to herself while Diana talks. She composed the song after January 12.
“The song is about what we think after the earthquake,” explains Solène. “When our mother doesn’t have money to pay for our food or our school fees, we have to have faith that everything will be all right.”
Jeanne doesn’t have consistent work. She had a business before selling staples such as rice, milk, spaghetti and soap. “I lost everything in the earthquake,” she says.
Many people want to get back on their feet but they have a tough time, especially in remote areas and places like Corail, because there are so many people looking for work and very few jobs.
Jeanne was able to find short-term employment through World Vision’s cash for work program. For 12 days she earned some money at Corail, working on the canal around the camp to help reduce the impact of notoriously heavy rains.
Cash-for-work programs run by World Vision can be a big help for families – providing instant cash injections to help pay for food, medicines and schooling. But the number of people wanting to work far outweighs the work even NGOs can offer through such programs.
“I’m still using money I earned from World Vision’s program to feed my children. I’ve also been able to start a small business selling some foods to the people here at Corail and I will use the money from selling these things to buy more food to sell,” Jeanne says.
The margins on small businesses like Jeanne’s are very small and growth is painstaking and incremental. Even with initiatives like this, people are generally more dependent on others for their survival.
“If I had a lot of money I would expand the business,” Jeanne says. My business was working well at Delmas before the earthquake and I miss living there. If I had a lot more money I would go back to Delmas, but for now this is where I must stay.”
Aid agencies can never provide a panacea in a context like Corail. But transitional shelter and the cash-for-work programs will help many families like Jeanne’s begin to try and get back on their feet after the earthquake.
“I would like to see Corail have electricity, more work opportunities, hospitals and more schools – then I would be happy to stay here. We had all these things at Delmas.”
For now, Jeanne will continue plugging away at her small business, trying to recover some of the money she lost in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. “We have nowhere else to go so will stay here,” she says.
When Jeanne’s not working, she sings. She says singing is “a part of life”. Young Solène would agree. She wants to be a singer when she’s bigger. “I want to sing Gospel music. My mother loves it too.” As families all across Corail work to rebuild their lives, it’s these little signs of resilience that offer great hope.