Working to address Haitians' basic needs

Haiti, May 18, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A boy standing between the tents at the Carradeux camp in Port-au-Prince. Mercy Corps is providing sanitation and cash-for-work for the more than 1,500 families living at this camp. Photo: Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps

The camps. Today, when you hear about Haiti, the camps are probably among the first images that come to mind. For many of us, they have become the central symbol of loss and suffering in this country.

Unfortunately for hundreds of thousands in Port-au-Prince, the camps are also home.

Mercy Corps is working in 32 camps in Port-au-Prince. We are providing them with water and latrines. We are helping them stay healthy in such crowded conditions, teaching them good practices like washing their hands and treating their water. We are setting up cash-for-work programs for residents, paying them for 20-days’ work, which gives them an income and empowers them to make their own purchases of food and household supplies to address their families’ needs. The projects they work on are generally improvements to the camps, like digging drainage ditches and building retaining walls to help prevent flooding during the rainy season.

As we travel around the city, I am making a map of the camps in my head. I am learning their names. There is La Fleur, a small camp on a grassy, abandoned lot, tucked away in a residential neighborhood. There is Cité Bob that, from a distance, has tents that look like they are impossibly adhering to the side of a cliff. There is Carradeux, sprawling over a large piece of agricultural land on the outskirts of the city.

The Carradeux camp has 1,537 families living in it. Before I see it for myself, that is just a number on a report. Now I stand before it, and the tents just go on. I cannot see where they end. I reconsider that number, and realize that for your average American suburban high school, it would be like having a camp filled with tents for every student and their family. Imagine the complexity of that impromptu community.

During the day, the sun beats down, and the tents are unbearably hot inside. During the evenings, they are fragile against the heavy rains. And then the morning comes and it begins all over again.

Standing in the unrelenting sun, I gain a profound respect for our team of water and sanitation engineers, who look at a camp like this and are not daunted. They get right down to work, figuring out how to solve the problem of getting all these people water to drink and wash with, as well as giving them adequate facilities where they can privately bathe and go to the bathroom. Everyday, they fight for these families’ fundamental human right to clean water and sanitation.

From the consideration and carefulness of our team’s work, I learn that aside from food, water, and shelter, there is another basic right that they are fighting to provide here every day, and that is dignity.