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Watching Jet Li in Haiti

Haiti, February 7, 2010

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The small town of Mirebalais has been overrun by 16,000 people who fled Port-au-Prince, one hour to the south, after the January 12 earthquake. This out-migration has more than doubled the size of Mirebalais, further straining the resources of an already dirt-poor town.

Today we met some of Mirebalais’ new residents.

The Mercy Corps team visited a small camp of more than 80 people living in what had been a colorful outdoor nightclub. The owner, Rodolphe, opened the club to almost 20 members of his family who traveled from Port-au-Prince after the quake, and then others streamed in.

We talked to Rodophe and another camp leader about a shipment of 60,000 high-energy biscuits we had delivered to the Mirebalais authorities this past week. He confirmed that they had received the right amount of biscuits, and produced a box of them for us to see.

He also showed us a notebook with carefully printed names and information on each of the camp’s residents. He said that the camp had recently been shrinking as people wandered off or returned to Port-au-Prince, but the purported number of residents still wasn’t consistent with the number of people we saw or the amount of stuff in the camp. Our team needs to return and verify the numbers before we provide additional assistance.

The camp visit provided a rare moment of un-interpreted interaction between Haitians and me. (I speak neither French nor Creole.) A group of about 20 teenagers was gathered tightly around a small DVD player with a screen that measured about six inches across. They were transfixed by what appeared to be a martial arts file. “Jackie Chan?” I asked.

Twenty faces turned around and looked at me as if I were crazy. “Jet Li,” several of them responded dismissively. I had to laugh. Rodolphe asked if we had brought any DVDs with us; the tiny DVD player apparently had a limited repertoire.

It’s estimated that more than 500,000 people have left Port-au-Prince, many headed for the areas of the Central Plateau like Mirebalais — places they were born, raised and eventually fled to chase often-elusive opportunities in the big city. Mercy Corps is eager to help these outer areas flourish and support this new population. Our work will help spread the country’s industry and wealth, and decrease the capital’s bloated population.

Like in Port-au-Prince, earthquake survivors in the countryside want jobs and economic opportunities more than anything. This will be our number one priority in the coming months.