"The Last Thing to Lose are Your Dignity and Hope": Haitian Refugee Camps Model Future Society (Part II)
If one positive thing has come from the earthquake of January 12, it is the greater inclusion of Haiti in the human family. True, the catastrophe has brought out of the woodwork many scoundrels – individuals, corporations, agencies, and governments – looking to gain wealth and power off of poverty and disaster. But it has also cracked open many hearts and brought solidarity from people everywhere who view themselves as citizens of the world.
One group of women and men who already viewed themselves that way is the Movement of Dominican-Haitian Women (MUDHA by its Spanish acronym). These Dominicans of Haitian ancestry, together with allies who have joined the group, have long been engaged for rights of Haitians in the Dominican Republic by battling mistreatment of cane cutters and others. Today they are hard at work outside the town of Léogâne, close to the earthquake’s epicenter. There they support three orphanages, some peasant groups, and three women-run internally displaced people’s camps (including the Petite Rivière Shelter Camp described in our August 25 article, “Part of the Dream for National Reconstruction: Haitian Refugee Camps Model Future Society”.)
MUDHA is helping create a dignified, education-filled, participatory, and even joyous experience for earthquake survivors. MUDHA provides staff, shelter, medical care, food, and other resources. In the camps, they conduct trainings in first aid, health care, natural disaster, environment, manufacturing of jewelry and household products for sale, and small business. They facilitate sessions where the displaced people plan priorities for their camp, and others where they articulate their dreams and goals for their and their country’s future.
Their work in the community integrates singing, dancing, and a spirit of celebration. It is based on respect, emphasis on women’s participation and power, and lots of affirmation of the community and its members.
One reason MUDHA’s work is so effective is that the team supports local leadership, instead of leading. It also fortifies the strength and power of women.
It is our hope that the women and men of MUDHA may soon be able to leave their tents and go back home, like the displaced people they are supporting. Would that the Haitian and U.S. governments, U.N., and other international agencies be moved by the same spirit of care and compassion – not to mention respect for the right to housing guaranteed by the Haitian constitution and the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights – as MUDHA, and begin meeting the needs of the vast homeless population for permanent housing.
Marisol Baez, a 23-year member of MUDHA who has been in Haiti since the week of the earthquake, tells of the work.
We at MUDHA [the Movement of Dominican-Haitian Women] came from the Dominican Republic to work in Haiti on January 16th, four days after the earthquake. We spent a week carrying victims to the hospitals, helping rescue people under the rubble, whatever we could do. Then we went back to the Dominican Republic and put out a call on the radio that anyone willing could join the ranks to help Haiti. In about a week, we came back with 115 people and 20 vehicles. We came with doctors, orthopedists, gynecologists, all kinds of doctors so we could help Haiti, because Haiti is our country, too. We came from the womb of Haitian families. It’s true that we were born in Dominican Republic, but we’re part of Haiti.
The reason we chose to stay and work in Léogâne is that when our director Sonia Pierre was walking around the town, two people came up to her and told her that there was an orphanage here and the children were in bad shape. Also, we saw that all the international organizations were concentrated in Port-au-Prince; Léogâne had nothing.
The orphanage was in rubble. It collapsed in the earthquake and the children were in peril. They were hungry, they needed clothes, they were abandoned. So we stayed with them. We’re working with the children to do everything that needs doing. We also have doctors who provide care to the community, and each week we bring them in to take care of the kids.
We’re working with three orphanages now, including an all-girls’ orphanage. We also work with some peasant councils helping them with seeds and equipment to clear off the rubble. We’re also supporting the women in three camps.
These camps are mixed-gender, but they’re all run by women. We think that women are the pillar of the home and society. All the load is on their shoulders: the load of the children, the load of marketing. They’re hard-working. People have to take off their hats off to them. Men are always there to help, but the women are the ones with the most responsibility. I think God reserves something for the Haitian people, but especially for women. I think God will deliver Haitian women someday because of what they do.
There aren’t any camps in Haiti that are all women, but there are other camps that are run by women. I think that’s the reason the three camps you see here are different. We don’t need male-dominated [camp management] councils. They have one or two women on them and things don’t get where they are supposed to go, like food rations. Women are better at managing.
We’re working with women in the camps on health, micro-enterprise, education, and a lot of other things. We do classes on protecting the environment. We do preventative health care trainings with the women and children because health care isn’t only when you’re sick and go to the hospital. We’re giving training on women’s personal hygiene. We’re also bringing in doctors to treat the women, and they’re especially finding a lot of cases of vaginal infections because of the [contaminated] water. We’re also training on first aid and on natural disasters so that if something else happens in Haiti, people can know how to help others like the elders and the children.
We’re doing courses with the women so that they can start their own small business, start bringing income into the household so they aren’t dependent on men. The women are eager to learn. They want to find the means to start businesses so they can sell. They can trade, they can do everything.
We always tell the people: because you’re poor, the last things to lose in your life are your dignity and hope. We tell them to be brave, because they can’t let foreigners come and do everything for them. If they don’t have tents yet, we tell them to do their best to find a tarp or something so they can have a shelter. We tell them they’re not obliged to beg or to sell their bodies as women. They can do some marketing so they can survive.
Dignity is a beautiful thing. When you have dignity, you can talk loud and you can walk tall and no one can touch you. You don’t need to let people mess with you because you’re a woman. You have to be strong. You need to respect yourself first so others can respect you, because if you don’t respect yourself, no one will. We always do workshops on this topic with them. I’m so happy with the women in the camp because they take their dignity very seriously.
For Mother’s Day, we got 150 tents for all the families that only had makeshift housing before. So things are getting better. Not all at once, because the tents are not houses where people should be living. When it’s too hot, the people almost pass out in the tents. But in any case, things are getting better.
We’re using alternative strategies on security because things are getting out of hands on the question of violence against women [in other camps]. There are so many rapes in those places, including a 12-year-old girl who was raped by four men until she passed out and was hospitalized. When all the dust settles, we won’t be able to imagine how many girls and women there will be with diseases and other problems. Men are putting guns to women’s heads and knives to their bodies. If someone can do that, it’s because they are either crazy or sick. The Haitian authorities need to start addressing this issue.
Where we work, there are men’s councils who do vigilance to protect the women because these camps are made up mostly of families. Not just anyone can come in. They always ask you who you are and what you need. They keep a careful eye out. Now we’re giving women whistles, so that if they’re being attacked they can start blowing and everyone will know that there’s violence going on so they’ll come to the rescue and identify the person doing it.
I do this work as a woman because I was born and grew up in a neighborhood in the Dominican Republic where Haitians were sugarcane cutters. I’m part Haitian because my grandfather and my grandmother were Haitians. I feel like Haiti and the Dominican Republic are like an animal with two wings; it’s one animal separated in two parts.
When I was growing up, I saw my grandmother frying dough to sell so she could send her children to school. My grandmother was a respected woman, a hard-working woman. So was my mother. Since I was little, I was always helping people, especially the old Haitian cane cutters who were stuck away and forgotten in little rooms.
I joined MUDHA when I was 19 because they were working with Haitian cane cutters. Now I’m 42. If you’re part of MUDHA in the Dominican Republic, you have to be careful because they can easily kill you. MUDHA is always defending Haitians against bad treatment so they view us as devils.
I feel like I can help Haiti, so that’s why I’m here. I have courage and I can help.
As for the future of this country… We have to keep on struggling. Awhile ago I said that the last things someone should lose are hope and dignity. The Haitian people are a strong people; they’re courageous. This is what I wish for the Haitian people: to start being united, to start tearing down the walls in front of us. One thing I believe is that Haiti will be a new, beautiful country because Haitian women are strong and they’ll put all their strength into working for Haiti. If we put our hands together, we can overcome any obstacle.
Many thanks to James Eliscar for translating this interview.
Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.